Prosecutors accuse Trump of 'willful' violations of gag order

A protestor holds up a sign outside the courthouse where former US president Donald Trump is on trial (Charly TRIBALLEAU)
A protestor holds up a sign outside the courthouse where former US president Donald Trump is on trial (Charly TRIBALLEAU)

Prosecutors on Tuesday accused Donald Trump of brazenly and repeatedly violating a gag order imposed by the judge presiding over his "hush money" trial to prevent him from intimidating witnesses.

Trump, 77, is charged with falsifying business records to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels over a 2006 sexual encounter that could have impacted his 2016 presidential bid.

Judge Juan Merchan interrupted testimony at the first criminal trial of a former president to hold a hearing to determine whether Trump -- who is seeking to recapture the White House in November -- should be held in contempt of court for violating his gag order.

Prosecutor Chris Conroy told the judge that Trump's "willful" and "intentional" attacks on witnesses "clearly violate" the gag order and urged him to fine the real estate tycoon $1,000 for each violation.

"He knows about the order, he knows what he's not allowed to do, and he does it anyway," Conroy said.

"We are not yet seeking an incarceratory penalty," Conroy said, but the court should "remind him that incarceration is an option should it be necessary."

Jailing Trump could potentially set up a conflict with the Secret Service, the body charged with protecting former and current presidents.

Merchan, who warned Trump on April 1 not to publicly attack witnesses, jurors, court staff or their relatives, said he would issue his ruling at a later date.

Trump lashed out following the 90-minute contempt hearing, saying the judge was "highly conflicted" and "has taken away my constitutional right to free speech."

"Everybody is allowed to talk and lie about me, but I am not allowed to defend myself," Trump complained on his Truth Social platform. "This is a kangaroo court, and the judge should recuse himself!"

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Prosecution witnesses in the trial are expected to include Daniels and Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen, who arranged the alleged $130,000 hush money payment to the adult film actress.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Cohen and Daniels on Truth Social, calling them, for example, "two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our country dearly."

Trump's attorney Todd Blanche told Merchan during the contempt hearing that "President Trump is being very careful to comply with your honor's rules."

"There is no dispute that President Trump is facing a barrage of political attacks from all sides including from the two witnesses who are referenced," Blanche said.

He drew the ire of the judge after claiming that Trump's reposting of articles from news sites should not be considered violations of the gag order.

"You're losing all credibility with the court," the judge told Blanche.

The contempt hearing, held without the presence of the jury, came one day after opening arguments in the sensational trial being held in a Manhattan courtroom.

Trump has repeatedly denounced the case as a "witch hunt" intended to keep him off the campaign trail ahead of his election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, was the first witness called by the prosecution and he returned to the stand on Tuesday after the contempt hearing.

Prosecutors began walking Pecker through a practice known as "catch and kill" which involved squashing negative stories about Trump.

Pecker, who described Trump as a friend -- "I would call him Donald" -- said he would reach out to Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, to warn him about potential negative stories.

"When I notified Michael Cohen of a story that was a negative story, he would try to vet it himself, see if the story was true or not," Pecker said.

And he would go to the individual publication to make sure the story wasn't published and get it killed."

Prosecutors allege that the $130,000 payment made to Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election was made to silence her ahead of the vote and amounted to "election fraud."