‘You’re losing all credibility’: Judge scolds Trump attorneys over Truth Social defence in gag order hearing

The judge overseeing Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial in New York appeared unconvinced by his attorney’s defence against allegations that the former president repeatedly and willfully violated a gag order that prevents him from attacking witnesses in the historic case.

Manhattan prosecutors have accused Mr Trump of breaching the gag order through at least 10 different posts on his Truth Social platform and campaign website, including posts targeting Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels – likely witnesses in the trial.

Defence attorney Todd Blanche has argued that Mr Trump’s posts were responding to “political” attacks but failed to offer up any examples of what, exactly, Mr Trump was responding to.

“You presented nothing,” New York Justice Juan Merchan said at the conclusion of an hour-long hearing on Tuesday, as he grew increasingly frustrated with Mr Blanche’s defence.

“You’re losing all credibility, I’ll tell you that right now,” he added.

Lawyers with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office have argued that Mr Trump violated a nearly month-old gag order in the case at least 10 times. On the trial’s second day, while jury selection was underway, the judge also warned Mr Trump directly against intimidating jurors in his courtroom.

Judge Merchan first implemented a gag order in March, banning Mr Trump from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and others connected with the case. The order was expanded one week later to also include public statements about the families of the judge and DA Bragg.

Prosecutors now want the judge to hold Mr Trump in contempt, fine him $10,000, and order him to remove the offending posts. They are “not yet” asking for jail time, prosecutors said.

Judge Merchan will issue a decision at another time.

Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 23 April (REUTERS)
Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 23 April (REUTERS)

On his Truth Social platform on 15 April, Mr Trump took aim at his former lawyer and “fixer” Cohen, posting a column from The New York Post that labelled him a “serial perjurer” who “will try to prove an old misdemeanor against Trump in an embarrassment for the New York legal system”.

Mr Trump’s campaign website also posted the headline and linked to the column.

The former president and his campaign shared the post again the next day.

Mr Trump’s Truth Social account also posted a column with a picture of Mr Cohen titled: “No, Cohen’s Guilty Plea Does Not Prove Trump Committed Campaign Finance-Crimes.”

On 17 April, after seven jurors had been sworn in to hear the case, his Truth Social posted a baseless statement attributed to Fox News personality Jesse Watters. “They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury,” it read.

The very next morning, Juror No 2 returned to court to tell the judge that aspects of her identity released in the media had prompted some of her friends, colleagues and family members to ask her about the case.

“I don’t believe, at this point, that I can be fair and unbiased, and let the outside influences not affect my thinking in the courtroom,” she told the judge.

She was excused from the case.

Moments later, Manhattan prosecutors alerted the judge to Mr Trump’s “disturbing” Truth Social post quoting Watters. “It’s ridiculous, and it has to stop,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy told the judge.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Mr Conroy said Mr Trump has a habit of saying “whatever he wants to say to get the results he wants”.

Here, he is “knowingly and willfully breaching the crystal clear, unequivocal lines drawn up by the court” in the protective order, he said.

The court’s gag orders are “an unequivocal mandate” to restrict Mr Trump’s statements about known witnesses and jurors, prosecutors wrote in a filing last week.

Mr Trump’s “very public statements” should be seen “as attempts to intimidate witnesses to stay quiet,” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass said last week. “This effort continues to this very day.”

Donald Trump with his attorney Todd Blance (right) in a hallway outside a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 23 April (REUTERS)
Donald Trump with his attorney Todd Blance (right) in a hallway outside a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 23 April (REUTERS)

Mr Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records as part of an alleged hush money scheme to silence adult film star Ms Daniels to stop her from going public ahead of the 2016 election about an alleged affair she had with Mr Trump in 2006.

Prosecutors allege that the case is about election interference and a wider scheme to block the release of potentially compromising stories about Mr Trump and his affairs in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election.

The gag order in his criminal trial follows gag orders in his civil fraud case and in his federal election interference case, where prosecutors warned that his social media bully pulpit could be used to fuel attacks.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team, which is overseeing Mr Trump’s federal criminal cases, described that dynamic in court documents as “part of a pattern, stretching back years, in which people publicly targeted” by Mr Trump are “subject to harassment, threats, and intimidation”.

The former president “seeks to use this well-known dynamic to his advantage,” the filing added, and “it has continued unabated as this case and other unrelated cases involving the defendant have progressed”.

Gag orders in the fraud case in New York block Mr Trump, his attorneys and all other parties in the case from disparaging court staff.

A state appeals court allowed the orders to stand after court filings outlined a wave of credible death threats and abusive messages that followed Mr Trump’s attacks against court employees and others.

An official with the New York court system’s Department of Public Safety wrote in an affidavit last year that “the implementation of the limited gag orders” in the fraud case “resulted in a decrease in the number of threats, harassment, and disparaging messages that the judge and his staff received”.

The threats against New York Justice Arthur Engoron and his clerk Allison Greenfield were “serious and credible and not hypothetical or speculative,” he wrote.