Judge Imposes Gag Order on Trump in Manhattan Criminal Trial


The New York judge presiding over one of Donald J. Trump’s criminal trials imposed a gag order on Tuesday that prohibits him from attacking witnesses, prosecutors and jurors, the latest effort to rein in the former president’s wrathful rhetoric about his legal opponents.

The judge, Juan M. Merchan, imposed the order at the request of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which brought the case against Mr. Trump. The district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, has accused Mr. Trump of covering up a potential sex scandal during and after his 2016 campaign.

The ruling comes on the heels of Justice Merchan’s setting an April 15 trial date, rejecting Mr. Trump’s latest effort to delay the proceeding while he seeks to reclaim the White House. It will mark the first prosecution of a former American president, and it might be the only one of Mr. Trump’s criminal cases to go to trial before voters head to the polls in November.

Under the judge’s order, Mr. Trump cannot make, or direct others to make, statements about witnesses’ roles in the case. Mr. Trump is also barred from commenting on prosecutors, court staff and their relatives if he intends to interfere with their work on the case. Any comments whatsoever about jurors are banned as well, the judge ruled, citing an array of hostile remarks Mr. Trump has made about grand jurors, prosecutors and others.

“His statements were threatening, inflammatory, denigrating,” Justice Merchan wrote in the Tuesday order.

There is one notable exception to the gag order: Mr. Trump is not prohibited from attacking Mr. Bragg, who has received numerous death threats in recent months. Mr. Bragg voluntarily carved himself out of the order; in other Trump cases, prosecutors are also left out of the gag orders.

Although Justice Merchan did not specify how he might enforce the narrowly tailored order, judges typically impose fines. In extraordinary circumstances, they can send someone to jail, though that seems unlikely in this case.

The gag order, along with Justice Merchan’s other recent ruling protecting the identities of potential jurors in the case, reflects the volatile atmosphere that has swirled around Mr. Trump’s four criminal cases and several civil trials.

The order hewed closely to the terms of one in another of Mr. Trump’s criminal cases that was upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington, which wrote that “Mr. Trump’s documented pattern of speech and its demonstrated real-time, real-world consequences pose a significant and imminent threat.”

And in seeking the order last month, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors highlighted Mr. Trump’s “longstanding history of attacking witnesses, investigators, prosecutors, judges, and others involved in legal proceedings against him” — comments that the judge seized on in his ruling.

Mr. Trump, for example, has taken aim at Michael D. Cohen, his onetime fixer and one of Mr. Bragg’s central witnesses, calling him a “liar” and a “rat.” And in a rambling and angry post on his social media site on Tuesday, Mr. Trump made an ominous reference to Mr. Cohen, claiming without explanation that his former fixer was “death.” He also referred to one of Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors in pejorative terms.

Both comments would now arguably violate the gag order. On Tuesday, Mr. Cohen issued a statement thanking the judge for issuing the order.

In another post, Mr. Trump took aim at Justice Merchan and his family, claiming that the judge “hates me,” though those comments do not appear to cross the line the judge has now set.

In Mr. Trump’s other cases, the heated rhetoric has preceded violent threats. After Mr. Trump recently lost his civil fraud case in New York, which was brought by the state attorney general, envelopes of white powder were sent to both the attorney general’s office and the judge who had overseen the case. The judge, Arthur F. Engoron, was also the victim of a hoax bomb threat at his home.

Mr. Trump, who called Justice Engoron a “nut job,” has also targeted the prosecutors in all his criminal cases, falsely accusing them of working in concert with President Biden. He called Mr. Bragg, a Democrat who is Black, a “racist.”

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had opposed the order in the Manhattan case, arguing that it “would be unconstitutional and unlawful to impose a prior restraint on President Trump’s First Amendment speech.”

A spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, Steven Cheung, echoed that claim on Tuesday, calling the order unconstitutional and saying that it prevents the former president “from engaging in core political speech, which is entitled to the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.”

Mr. Cheung also said that “American voters have a fundamental right to hear the uncensored voice of the leading candidate for the highest office in the land.”

Justice Merchan is just the latest judge to impose a gag order on the former president.

In addition to the order in the Washington criminal case, which involves accusations that Mr. Trump plotted to overturn the 2020 election, Mr. Trump was ordered not to comment on court staff members in the civil fraud case after he attacked Justice Engoron’s principal law clerk. Justice Engoron imposed $15,000 in fines on the former president when he ran afoul of that order.

Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of the attorney general, inflicting a more than $450 million judgment on Mr. Trump.

In the Manhattan criminal case, Mr. Trump faces up to four years in prison. The case stems from a hush-money payment that Mr. Cohen made — to a porn star looking to sell her story of a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump — during the 2016 campaign. After he was elected, Mr. Trump helped falsify business records related to his reimbursement of Mr. Cohen, according to prosecutors, further covering up the scandal from voters.

After Mr. Bragg filed the case last year, Justice Merchan initially stopped short of adopting a gag order, while instructing Mr. Trump to refrain from making statements “likely to incite violence or civil unrest.” But since then, Mr. Trump has continued to attack witnesses and prosecutors, prompting Mr. Bragg to seek a more formal order.

Separately, the judge’s recent order protecting prospective jurors in the case effectively barred Mr. Trump from exposing their identities, emphasizing a need to protect those who might decide the highly sensitive case.

The judge also ordered that their addresses be kept secret from everyone except the lawyers in the case, a measure that Mr. Trump’s legal team did not oppose.

In an unrelated order Tuesday, Justice Merchan issued a stern warning to Mr. Trump’s lawyers as well. He reminded them to behave professionally, or risk being held in contempt.

“This court emphasizes that it hopes for and fully expects zealous advocacy from counsel as well as spirited contribution from witnesses and parties alike,” Justice Merchan wrote. “Nonetheless, the court expects that the line between zealous advocacy and willful disregard of its orders will not be crossed.”

Jesse McKinley, Maggie Haberman and Kate Christobek contributed reporting.



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