Political Speech

Judge Expands Trump’s Gag Order After His Social Media Posts About Judge’s Daughter

Former U.S. President Trump holds presser after criminal case hearing on porn star hush money charges in New York
In this March 25, 2024, file photo, Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at one of his properties after attending a hearing in his criminal court case on charges stemming from hush money paid to a porn star in New York City. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The judge in Donald Trump’s April 15 hush-money criminal trial declared his family off-limits to the former president’s rancor on Monday, expanding a gag order days after Trump assailed his daughter and made false claims about her on social media.

Manhattan Judge Juan M. Merchan amended a week-old ban on Trump making public statements about witnesses, jurors and others connected with the case after the presumptive Republican nominee lashed out at Loren Merchan, a Democratic political consultant in several posts on his Truth Social platform.

Trump is still free to criticize Merchan and another key figure in the case, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat who’s leading the hush-money prosecution. But under the revised gag order, the D.A.’s family is now off-limits from his rhetoric, too.

“This pattern of attacking family members of presiding jurists and attorneys assigned to his cases serves no legitimate purpose,” Merchan wrote. “It merely injects fear in those assigned or called to participate in the proceedings that not only they, but their family members as well, are ‘fair game,’ for Defendant’s vitriol.”

A violation could result in Trump being held in contempt of court, fined or even jailed.

Trump’s lawyer, Susan Necheles, declined comment. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office also declined comment.

Trump’s hush-money case, one of four criminal cases against him, centers on allegations that he falsely logged payments to his former lawyer Michael Cohen as legal fees when they were for Cohen’s work covering up negative stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign. That included $130,000 Cohen paid porn actor Stormy Daniels on Trump’s behalf so she wouldn’t publicize her claim of a sexual encounter with him years earlier.

Trump pleaded not guilty last April to 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in jail time. He denies having sex with Daniels and his lawyers have said that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses, not part of any coverup.

Trump touched off a firestorm last Wednesday — the day after the original gag order was issued — when he suggested on Truth Social, without evidence, that Merchan’s rulings were swayed by his daughter’s political consulting interests and wrongly claimed that she had posted a photo on social media showing him behind bars.

Trump complained that the judge was “wrongfully attempting to deprive me of my First Amendment Right to speak out against the Weaponization of Law Enforcement” by Democratic rivals and that Loren Merchan “makes money by working to ‘Get Trump.’”

Trump’s posts put Merchan in an extraordinary position as a judge and a father. Just two weeks before jury selection in the historic first-ever criminal trial of a former president, Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors wrangled in a series of court filings over the bounds of the original gag order and whether Trump had overstepped them.

“It is no longer just a mere possibility or a reasonable likelihood that there exists a threat to the integrity of the judicial proceedings,” Merchan concluded Monday. “The threat is very real. Admonitions are not enough, nor is reliance on self-restraint.”

Merchan responded after prosecutors asked him Friday to “clarify or confirm” the scope of the gag order and to direct Trump to “immediately desist from attacks on family members.”

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass implored Merchan to “make abundantly clear” to Trump that the gag order protects the judge’s family, Bragg’s family and the family members of all other individuals it covers. He urged Merchan to warn Trump “that his recent conduct is contumacious and direct him to immediately desist.”

Trump’s lawyers fought the gag order and its expansion, citing constitutional concerns about restricting Trump’s speech further while he’s campaigning for president and fighting criminal charges.

On Monday, they said they would soon ask again for Merchan to step aside from the case — promising a court filing in the coming days seeking his recusal based on what they said were “changed circumstances and newly discovered evidence.”

Merchan refused the defense’s demands to exit the case last year when they first made an issue of his daughter’s consulting work and questioned $35 worth of donations he’d made to Democratic causes during the 2020 campaign, including $15 to Biden.

Merchan said then that a state court ethics panel found Loren Merchan’s work had no bearing on his impartiality. He ruled last September that he was certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial” and that Trump’s lawyers had “failed to demonstrate that there exists concrete, or even realistic” reasons for recusal.

Trump’s original gag order, issued last Tuesday, had barred him from either making or directing other people to make public statements on his behalf about jurors or potential witnesses in the hush-money trial, such as his lawyer-turned-nemesis Michael Cohen and porn star Stormy Daniels.

The order, echoing one in Trump’s Washington, D.C., election interference criminal case, also prohibits any statements meant to interfere with or harass the court’s staff, prosecution team or their families. Those prohibitions still apply, along with the newly minted ban on comments about Merchan’s and Bragg’s families.

Merchan, in expanding the gag order, also warned Trump he’ll forfeit his right to see the names of jurors — which are otherwise being kept from the public — if he engages in conduct that threatens their safety or integrity.

“Again, all citizens called upon to participate in these proceedings, whether as a juror, a witness or in some other capacity, must now concern themselves not only with their own personal safety, but with the safety and the potential for personal attacks upon their loved ones,” Merchan wrote. “That reality cannot be overstated.”