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US: Trump threatened with jail again for violating gag order in hush money trial, fined $1,000

This was the second time Trump was fined for violating the gag order in the case, having been fined $9,000 last month for nine violations. The latest violation came during an interview where the former US President claimed that 95 per cent of the jury in the case were Democrats.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee New York Published on: May 07, 2024 10:43 IST
Donald trump, hush money trial, New York
Image Source : REUTERS Former US President Donald Trump at New York at the hush money trial in New York.

New York: As the chaotic hush money trial involving former US President Donald Trump is currently underway, the judge in the high-profile case found the 77-year-old Republican frontrunner in contempt of court for the tenth time and fined him $1,000, saying that further violations could land the former president in jail. This is the second time Trump has been fined for violating the gag order and marks yet another time he has been threatened with jail time.

Justice Juan Merchan said the nine $1,000 fines he had imposed previously did not seem to be deterring the wealthy business mogul from violating the order, which bars him from speaking publicly about the jurors and witnesses in the first criminal trial of a former US president. Merchan said Trump's statements "threaten to interfere with the fair administration of justice and constitute a direct attack on the rule of law."

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” Merchan said, as Trump glowered at the judge. “You are the former president of the United States and possibly the next president as well. There are many reasons why incarceration is truly a last resort for me. To take that step would be disruptive to these proceedings.” 

The $1,000 fine imposed Monday marks the second time since the trial began last month that Trump has been sanctioned for violating the gag order. He was fined $9,000 last week, $1,000 for each of nine violations. The latest violation stems from an April 22 interview with television channel Real America's Voice in which Trump criticised the speed at which the jury was picked and claimed, without evidence, that it was stacked with Democrats.

'Jury is 95 per cent Democrats': Trump

Prosecutors asked 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." Prosecutor Christopher 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."

The judge said Trump’s “continued, willful” violations of the gag order amounted to a “direct attack on the rule of law.” However, Merchan found that other statements flagged by prosecutors that mentioned witnesses Michael Cohen and David Pecker did not violate the gag order. Trump complains frequently that the gag order limits his ability to make his case to voters in his comeback White House bid.

"He's taken away my constitutional right to speak," Trump told reporters outside the courtroom, before the judge fined him. Prosecutors are continuing to build toward their star witness, Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments. 

What is a gag order?

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 sceptical 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.

How far has the hush money trial proceeded?

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.

Prosecutors on Monday later showed jurors business records that documented payments totalling $420,000 from Trump to Cohen, his former fixer and personal lawyer. Those payments were listed as legal fees, but prosecutors say they were actually meant to reimburse Cohen for paying $130,000 to Daniels to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in 2006.

Prosecutors say the $420,000 paid by Trump was meant to cover the $130,000 Cohen paid to Daniels, along with $50,000 in other expenses he had incurred. Trump doubled that total to account for taxes and also included a $60,000 year-end bonus, they say. A former controller in Trump's organisation, Jeffrey McConney, testified that he was not aware of any other instance in which the Trump Organisation reimbursed someone so generously.

Another former Trump employee, Deborah Tarasoff, walked the jury through the 34 invoices, ledger entries and checks stemming from the payments to Cohen, which were made on a monthly basis after Trump won the election. Each represents one of the 34 counts in the indictment against Trump. Most of the checks were signed by Trump personally, and prosecutors highlighted his tall, looping signature in thick ink for the jury.

If found guilty, Trump could face up to four years in prison, though defendants typically face fines and probation. The case features sordid allegations of adultery and secret payoffs, but it is widely seen as less consequential than three other criminal prosecutions Trump faces.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | Trump hush-money trial: Judge signals he may fine him again over ex-President' 'jury is 95% Democrats' remarks


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