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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Judge cites Trump for contempt, and says he is attacking the rule of law

Former President Donald Trump arrives at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. The judge overseeing Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan held the former president in contempt for a second time in two weeks, fining him $1,000 on Monday for breaking a gag order that bars him from attacking jurors, and warning that he could jail him for “a direct attack on the rule of law.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Alan Feuer, Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich and William K. Rashbaum

The judge overseeing Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan rebuked the former president Monday for mounting “a direct attack on the rule of law,” holding him in contempt of court for a second time and threatening to jail him if he continued to break a gag order that bans him from attacking jurors.

In a moment of remarkable courtroom drama, Judge Juan M. Merchan addressed Trump personally from the bench, saying that if there were further violations, he might bypass financial penalties and place the former president behind bars.

Merchan acknowledged that jailing Trump was “the last thing” he wanted to do, but explained that it was his responsibility to “protect the dignity of the justice system.”

The judge said that he understood “the magnitude of such a decision” and that jailing Trump would be a last resort. He noted: “You are the former president of the United States and possibly the next president as well.”

As the judge delivered his admonition and imposed a $1,000 fine, Trump stared straight at him, blinking but not reacting, and when the remarks were over, the former president shook his head.

It was the second time in two weeks that Trump had been punished for breaking the gag order, which also bans him from attacking prosecutors, witnesses and others. Among the violations of which Trump has been accused, Merchan has taken those involving the jury most seriously.

The violation for which he was punished Monday stemmed from an incident on April 22, when Trump made disparaging remarks about the jurors during a telephone interview with a far-right media outlet, Real America’s Voice. The jury, he said, had been picked “so fast” and was “mostly all Democrat,” adding, “It’s a very unfair situation.”

Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which brought the case accusing Trump of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal, argued that Trump had committed a total of four new violations of the order. But Merchan concluded that only the incident in which Trump attacked the jury amounted to a violation.

“Defendant not only called into question the integrity, and therefore the legitimacy of these proceedings, but again raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones,” Merchan wrote in his order holding Trump in contempt.

The order came less than a week after Merchan issued a separate decision fining Trump $9,000 for nine earlier violations. In that ruling, the judge said he lacked the authority to issue larger fines against the billionaire former president and warned him that continued disobedience could land him in jail.

Although Trump’s comments to Real America’s Voice came before the judge issued his first contempt order — and initially warned Trump of jail time — Merchan appeared exasperated by the continued violations. On Monday, he issued a more explicit and sterner warning, all but pleading with the former president to stop attacking the jury.

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” Merchan said, adding quickly, “But at the end of the day, I have a job to do.”

Together, the two contempt rulings were the latest reminder of the extraordinary lengths to which judges have gone to keep Trump from lashing out at participants in his various legal entanglements.

Last year, a judge in Manhattan overseeing Trump’s civil fraud trial imposed $15,000 in fines on the former president for violating a gag order. The former president is also under a gag order in a federal case in Washington, in which he has been charged with plotting to overturn the 2020 election, but he has not yet been accused of violating that one.

Trump has bridled in various ways at the constraints of Merchan’s order, which was first put in place in March and then expanded several days later.

On Thursday, for instance, one of his lawyers, Susan Necheles, asked Merchan to evaluate a stack of articles that Trump had wanted to post online about the case.

Necheles expressed concern that the articles might violate the gag order because they mention the names of witnesses, but Merchan refused to rule in advance about whether Trump could post them. He cautioned Necheles: “When in doubt, steer clear.”

That same afternoon, when court let out for the day, Trump falsely told reporters that the gag order would prevent him from testifying in his own defense at the trial. On Friday morning, Merchan took a moment to publicly correct the former president, instructing him that the order “does not prevent you from testifying in any way.”

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