Published: 14:27, May 1, 2024
Hush money trial: Trump fined $9,000 for gag order violation
By Reuters
Former US President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, April 30, 2024. (POOL PHOTO VIA AP)

The judge overseeing Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial fined the former US president $9,000 for contempt of court on Tuesday and said he would consider jailing him if he continued to violate a gag order.

In a written order, Justice Juan Merchan said the fine may not be enough to serve as a deterrent for the wealthy businessman-turned-politician and lamented he did not have the authority to impose a higher penalty.

READ MORE: US ex-president Trump stands historic criminal trial

"Defendant is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment," Merchan wrote.

Merchan had imposed the gag order to prevent Trump from criticizing witnesses and others involved in the case.

The $9,000 fine is a relatively small penalty for Trump, who has already posted $266.6 million in bonds as he appeals civil judgments in two other cases

The judge fined Trump $1,000 for each of nine online statements that he said violated his order not to criticize witnesses or other participants in the trial. Prosecutors had flagged 10 posts as possible violations.

The posts, made between April 10 and April 17, included an article calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a "serial liar". Cohen is expected to be a prominent witness in the trial.

Another post quoted a Fox News pundit who claimed "undercover liberal activists" were trying to sneak onto the jury. Merchan rejected Trump's argument that he could not be held liable for "reposts" of material he did not write himself.

Merchan will consider whether to impose further penalties for other statements at a hearing on Thursday. The judge also ordered Trump to remove the statements from his Truth Social account and his campaign website on Tuesday.

Trump said Merchan had taken away his free speech rights. "I am the only Presidential Candidate in History to be GAGGED. This whole 'Trial' is RIGGED," he wrote on Truth Social.

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Trump's lawyer Todd Blanche has argued that the statements at issue were responses to political attacks, but Merchan noted that Blanche was unable to provide any evidence that the expected witnesses had attacked Trump before he insulted them.

The $9,000 fine, due by Friday, is a relatively small penalty for Trump, who has already posted $266.6 million in bonds as he appeals civil judgments in two other cases.

Imprisonment, however, would be an unprecedented twist in the first criminal trial of a former US president.

If that happened, it is unclear whether Trump would be sent to New York City's jail on Rikers Island or whether security concerns would require more lenient treatment, such as home confinement in his Trump Tower triplex. As a former president, he remains under Secret Service protection.

Trump, the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election is charged with falsifying business records to conceal a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump in 2006.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied having sex with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Dancing with the stars

Lawyer Keith Davidson, who worked with Daniels to sell her story, said interest picked up in 2016 after audio from the "Access Hollywood" TV show was released that portrayed Trump making crude remarks about women.

Davidson had previously sold the story of another woman who claimed to have had an affair with Trump, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, to the National Enquirer tabloid.

He said he leveraged an offer from the ABC television network, which he said promised efforts to feature her as a contestant on the "Dancing With the Stars" show.

The Enquirer never ran McDougal's story, in a practice known as "catch and kill" that Davidson said was meant to protect Trump.

The Enquirer's former publisher, David Pecker, testified last week that he used the Enquirer to suppress negative stories about Trump ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump has denied having an affair with McDougal.

READ MORE: Hush money: Prosecutors say Trump corrupted 2016 election

Trump is required to attend the trial and has said he could instead be campaigning ahead of his rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov 5 election.

The criminal case is one of four pending against Trump, but could be the only one to go to trial and result in a verdict before the election.