Judge holds Trump in contempt, fines him $9,000 and raises threat of jail in hush money trial

By Michael R. Sisak, Jennifer Peltz, Jake Offenhartz And Colleen Long, The Associated Press

Donald Trump was held in contempt of court Tuesday and fined $9,000 for repeatedly violating a gag order that barred him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to his New York hush money case. And if he does it again, the judge warned, he could be jailed.

Prosecutors had alleged 10 violations, but New York Judge Juan M. Merchan found there were nine. The ruling was a stinging rebuke for the presumptive Republican nominee, who had insisted he was exercising his free speech rights. Trump stared down at the table in front of him as the judge read the ruling, frowning slightly.

Merchan wrote that he is “keenly aware of, and protective of,” Trump’s First Amendment rights, “particularly given his candidacy for the office of President of the United States.”

“It is critically important that defendant’s legitimate free speech rights not be curtailed, that he be able to fully campaign for the office which he seeks and that he be able to respond and defend himself against political attacks,” Merchan wrote.

Still, he warned, that the court would not tolerate “willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment.”

The ruling came at the start of the second week of testimony in the historic case. Manhattan prosecutors say Trump and his associates took part in an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by burying negative stories. He has pleaded not guilty.

Trump was ordered to pay the fine by the close of business Friday, Merchan ruled, and he must remove seven offending posts from his Truth Social account and two from his campaign website by 2:15 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Merchan said. The judge is also weighing other alleged gag order violations by Trump and will hear arguments Thursday.

Of the 10 posts, the one Merchan ruled was not a violation came on April 10, a post referring to witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels as “sleaze bags.” Merchan said Trump’s contention that he was responding to previous posts by Cohen “is sufficient to give” him pause on whether the post was a violation.

Among those he found to be violations, Merchan ruled that a Trump post quoting Fox News host Jesse Watters’ claim that liberal activists were lying to infiltrate the jury “constitutes a clear violation” of the gag order. Merchan noted that the words contained within the quotation marks in Trump’s April 17 post misstated what Watters actually said.

“Thus, in this court’s view, this post constitutes the words of defendant himself,” Merchan wrote.

Merchan cautioned that the gag order “not be used as a sword instead of a shield by potential witnesses” and that if people who are protected by the order, like Cohen, continue to attack Trump “it becomes apparent” they don’t need the gag order’s protection. Cohen has said he will refrain from commenting about Trump until after he testifies at the trial.

Meanwhile, testimony resumed Tuesday with Gary Farro, a banker who helped Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, open accounts, including one that Cohen used to buy the silence of porn performer Stormy Daniels. She alleged a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies.

Jurors so far have heard from two other witnesses. Trump’s former longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff, recounted that she recalled once seeing Daniels at Trump’s office suite in Trump Tower and figured she was a potential contestant for one of Trump’s “Apprentice”-brand shows.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker laid out how he agreed to serve as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” by helping to squelch unflattering rumors and claims about Trump and women.

Through detailed testimony on email exchanges, business transactions and bank accounts, prosecutors are forming the foundation of their argument that Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments. The prosecution is leading up to crucial testimony from Cohen himself, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes. Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.

It’s unclear when Cohen will take the stand; the trial is expected to go on another month or more. And with every moment Trump is in court as the first of his four criminal trials plays out, he’s growing increasingly frustrated while the November election moves ever closer.

For his part, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee has been campaigning in his off-hours, but is required to be in court when it is in session, four days a week. Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Trump criticized prosecutors again.

“This is a case that should have never been brought,” he said.

Prosecutors used Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend, to detail a “catch-and-kill” arrangement in which he collected seamy stories about the candidate so the National Enquirer or Trump’s associates could buy and bury the claims. Pecker described how he paid $180,000 to scoop up and sit on stories from a doorman and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He didn’t involve himself in the Daniels payout, he said. He testified for parts of four days.

Trump says all the stories were false. His attorneys used cross-examination to suggest Trump was really engaged in an effort to protect his name and his family — not to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

Farro first took the stand Friday. While a senior managing director at First Republic Bank, he was assigned to work with Trump’s lawyer for about three years, in part because of his “ability to handle individuals who may be a little challenging,” Farro said, adding that he didn’t find Cohen difficult.

Farro detailed to jurors the process of helping Cohen create accounts for two limited-liability companies — corporate-speak for a business account that protects the person behind the account from liability, debt and other issues. Farro testified that Cohen indicated the companies, Resolution Consultants LLC and Essential Consultants LLC, would be involved in real estate consulting.

Prosecutors showed jurors emails in which Cohen describes the opening of the Resolution Consultants account as an “important matter.”

Cohen acknowledged when he pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 that it had been formed to send money to American Media Inc., the Enquirer publisher. It was meant as a payback for their purchase of McDougal’s story. But the deal never went through.

Farro said that since the account was never funded, it was never technically opened. Instead, Cohen pivoted to starting up the Essential Consultants account, which he later used to pay Daniels $130,000.

When asked whether Cohen seemed anxious to get the bank accounts set up, Farro testified: “Every time Michael Cohen spoke to me, he gave a sense of urgency.”

Farro told the 12-person panel that the bank’s policy prohibited doing business with entities tied to “adult entertainment,” including pornography and strip clubs. Trump’s lawyers have not yet had a chance to cross-examine Farro.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today