Judge warns Trump of jail time over gag order breaches

Former US president fined another $1,000 for public comments on people involved in New York court trial

Donald Trump gestures as he walks back to the courtroom after a break in his trial in Manhattan, New York City, on May 6.  AFP
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The New York judge overseeing Donald Trump’s hush-money trial said he may have no choice but to jail the former president if he continues to breach a gag order intended to protect the safety of jurors and witnesses.

Justice Juan Merchan on Monday found Mr Trump in contempt of court for a second time and fined him $1,000 for claiming he cannot get a fair trial in heavily Democratic Manhattan, Bloomberg reported.

Mr Merchan fined Mr Trump $9,000 last week for violations of the gag order, particularly by attacking Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen, key witnesses in the case.

“It appears that the $1,000 fines are not serving as a deterrent,” Mr Merchan said in court.

“Mr Trump, I want you to understand the last thing I want to do is put you in jail.”

He is on trial for allegedly falsifying dozens of business records to conceal hundreds of thousands of dollars used to pay adult film star Daniels and others to shut down stories threatening his presidential run in the 2016 election.

Prosecutors say Mr Trump used such payments to influence the election by hiding his conduct with women. He has denied the affairs.

It is one of four criminal cases he faces as he campaigns to return to the White House.

The gag order is intended to restrict public statements by Mr Trump about witnesses and jurors, to protect them.

Mr Merchan said he understands the significance of jailing a former president and current candidate, particularly as it would raise serious logistical issues.

“I worry about the people, the court officers, your Secret Service detail,” he said.

“The magnitude of such a decision is not lost on me but at the end of the day I have a job to do and part of that job is to protect the dignity of the system.”

It would mark a historic move if Mr Trump were jailed.

He has repeatedly attacked the gag order and claims it is unfairly restricting his rights to free speech.

Last week, Mr Trump claimed that the order prevents him from testifying in his own defence.

The next day, Mr Merchan told him directly in court that the order does not prevent him from taking the witness box.

Mr Trump may face challenges from his legal team asserting that it is best he does not testify.

Trump's 'hush money' trial begins in New York

Trump's 'hush money' trial begins in New York

His use of social media, news interviews and campaign speeches has created a challenge for judges overseeing his many legal cases as they consider the effect of his public comments against his rights to free speech.

The former president's remarks became an issue after people he attacked on social media were swamped with online threats by his supporters.

While Mr Merchan has threatened Mr Trump with jail before, he “seems to actually mean it this time", Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defence lawyer, told Bloomberg.

“The judge has treated him with kid gloves so far. He must take control of his courtroom,” Mr Rossi said.

“No other defendant in history has been treated so gingerly.”

Updated: May 06, 2024, 8:37 PM