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02/05/24 | 9:12 pm

Trump hush-money trial judge signals he may fine him again over gag order

The judge overseeing Donald Trump‘s criminal hush money trial on Thursday signaled he might impose more fines on the former U.S. president for violating a gag order that prohibits him from talking about witnesses and jurors.

Justice Juan Merchan challenged a defense assertion that Trump did not violate the gag order when he said the Manhattan jury in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president was picked from a heavily Democratic area.

“I’m making an argument that he didn’t,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge.

“Well I’m not agreeing with that argument,” Merchan responded without saying whether or when he would impose a fine.

Prosecutors are asking Merchan to fine Trump $4,000 for violating the gag order four times last week. In one instance, the Republican Trump said in a TV interview that “that jury was picked so fast – 95% Democrats. The area’s mostly all Democrat.”

“By speaking about the jury at all, he places this proceeding in jeopardy,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said.

Conroy said Trump also violated the gag order by calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a liar and former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker a “nice guy.” Pecker testified last week and Cohen is expected to be a crucial witness in the case.

Blanche said there was “no threat” in what Trump said about Pecker and said Cohen, in his social media comments, has been “inviting, and almost daring” Trump to respond to his comments about the trial.

Any penalty would follow a $9,000 fine Merchan imposed on Tuesday. Merchan said at that session that he might jail Trump if he continues to defy the gag order. Conroy said prosecutors were not yet asking for Trump to be jailed.

The gag order aims to prevent one of the world’s most prominent people from intimidating witnesses, jurors and other participants in the trial. It does not prevent Trump from criticizing prosecutors or the judge himself.

On Thursday, Merchan appeared skeptical of Blanche’s argument that the gag order prevents Trump from responding to political attacks while he seeks to win back the White House in a Nov. 5 election.

“Everybody else can say whatever they want about this case,” Blanche said.

“They’re not defendants in this case,” Merchan responded.

Trump claims prosecutors are working with Democratic President Joe Biden to undercut his bid to win back the White House and says Merchan faces a conflict of interest because his daughter has done work for Democratic politicians.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more conflicted judge – crooked and conflicted,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan on Wednesday.

Trump is accused of falsifying business records to hide a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and says he did not have sex with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

The hearing about the gag order took place at the start of the day in the absence of the 12 jurors and six alternates.

The jurors were later brought in to hear testimony from lawyer Keith Davidson, who helped arrange the payment to Daniels, who was shopping her story of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump to media outlets at a time when Trump was already facing damaging accusations of sexual misbehavior.

Davidson confirmed that Daniels signed a non-disclosure agreement with Trump, but said he would not describe the payment as hush money. “It was consideration in a civil settlement agreement,” he said.

The jury saw a text message Davidson sent to the editor of the National Enquirer tabloid that appeared to show misgivings as Trump was headed for a surprise victory on election night.

“What have we done?” the message said.

Trump faces three other criminal prosecutions, though it is not clear whether any of them will go to trial before the Nov 5 presidential election. Two accuse him of trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden, while another accuses him of mishandling classified documents after leaving office. He has pleaded not guilty in all three cases.

His legal troubles have come at a cost. Fundraising groups have diverted tens of millions of dollars from his presidential campaign to his legal fees, and he has had to post $266 million in bonds in order to appeal two civil judgments that found he engaged in business fraud and defamed writer E. Jean Carroll, who claimed he raped her in the 1990s.

(Reuters)

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