New York judge threatens Trump with jail for gag order violations

Former US President Donald Trump gestures as returns from a break in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 6, 2024. [AFP]

The New York judge presiding over Donald Trump's historic criminal trial threatened the former US president with jail time on Monday if he commits another violation of his gag order.

Trump, 77, is charged with falsifying business records to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment made to a porn star just days ahead of his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton.

Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was threatening at the time to go public with her story about a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, a salacious revelation that could have been damaging to his White House campaign.

Judge Juan Merchan held Trump in contempt of court and fined him $1,000 on Monday for a violation of the gag order prohibiting him from publicly attacking witnesses, jurors or court staff and their relatives.

Trump, whose trial is taking place six months ahead of an expected White House rematch with Democrat Joe Biden, was also fined a total of $9,000 last week. But Merchan said these penalties were not serving as a "deterrent" and he would have to consider jail time for further violations.

"As much as I do not want to impose a jail sanction..., I want you to understand I will," Merchan told Trump, who sat silently at the defense table dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie.

"At the end of the day I have a job to do and part of that job is to maintain the dignity of the justice system," the judge said, calling Trump's defiance a "direct attack on the rule of law."

Merchan's ruling came at the start of the third week of testimony in the high-stakes trial of the Republican White House candidate, the first former US president to face criminal charges.

Speaking to reporters after the day's proceedings, Trump blasted the case as "election interference" by Democrats to keep him off the campaign trail.

"I should be out campaigning," he said.

‘Two or three more weeks'

Before the day wrapped up, prosecutors said they expect at least two more weeks of witness testimony, drawing an angry reaction from Trump.

"I thought they were going to be finished today and they want two to three more weeks," he told reporters.

He also criticized the gag order.

"Our constitution is much more important than jail, it's not even close," he said. "I'll do that sacrifice any day."

Prosecutors called two witnesses on Monday.

Jeffrey McConney, a Trump Organization executive, walked the jury through the reimbursements to Cohen for the hush money paid to Daniels, saying most of the funds were drawn from Trump's personal account.

McConney was followed by Deborah Tarasoff of the Trump Organization's accounts payable department, who was asked about the checks signed by Trump to pay Cohen back.

Daniels, 45, and Cohen, 57, who has become a vocal critic of his former boss, are both expected to testify at some point during the trial.

Hope Hicks, a former close advisor to Trump, testified last week about the "crisis" that engulfed his 2016 presidential campaign after a tape emerged of him bragging about groping women.

Hicks said she was a "little stunned" by the now infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women's genitalia.

Hicks was a key player in the final stages of Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign when the hush money payments to Daniels were allegedly made.

According to prosecutors, panic over the tape triggered a Trump campaign effort to silence Daniels over her claim of a sexual encounter with the married Trump. Trump denies ever having sex with Daniels.

In addition to the New York case, Trump has been indicted in Washington and Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election won by Biden.

He also faces charges of illegally storing huge quantities of top-secret documents taken from the White House at his home in Florida.