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Judge holds Trump in contempt, fines him $9,000 and raises threat of jail in hush money trial

Apr 30, 2024, 7:49 AM | Updated: 8:23 am

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 30: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears in court during his trial...

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 30: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears in court during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 30, 2024 in New York City. Former U.S. President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images)

(Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump was held in contempt of court Tuesday and fined $9,000 for repeatedly violating a gag order that barred him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to his New York hush money case. If he does it again, the judge warned, he could be jailed.

Prosecutors had alleged 10 violations, but New York Judge Juan M. Merchan found there were nine. The ruling was a stinging rebuke for the Republican former president, who had insisted he was exercising his free speech rights.

Merchan wrote that Trump “is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment.”

Trump stared down at the table in front of him as the judge read the ruling, frowning slightly.

The ruling came at the start of the second week of testimony in the historic case. Manhattan prosecutors say Trump and his associates took part in an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by burying negative stories. He has pleaded not guilty.

Trump must pay the fine by the close of business on Friday, Merchan said in a written ruling. He must remove seven offending posts from his Truth Social account and two from his campaign website by 2:15 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Merchan said.

Merchan is also weighing other alleged gag order violations by Trump and will hear arguments Thursday.

Court was resuming Tuesday with Gary Farro, a banker who helped Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen open accounts, including one that Cohen used to buy the silence of porn performer Stormy Daniels. She alleged a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies.

For his part, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee has been campaigning in his off-hours, but he is required to be in court when it is in session, four days a week. Outside the courtroom, Trump criticized prosecutors again.

“This is a case that should have never been brought,” he said.

Jurors so far have heard from two other witnesses. Trump’s former longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff, recounted that she recalled once seeing Daniels at Trump’s office suite in Trump Tower and figured the performer was a potential contestant for one of Trump’s “Apprentice”-brand shows. Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker laid out how he agreed to serve as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” by helping to squelch unflattering rumors and claims about Trump and women.

Through detailed testimony on email exchanges, business transactions and bank accounts, prosecutors are forming the foundation of their argument that Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments. The prosecution is leading up to crucial testimony from Cohen himself, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes. Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.

It’s unclear when Cohen will take the stand; the trial is expected to go on another month or more. And with every moment Trump is in court as the first of his four criminal trials plays out, he’s growing increasingly frustrated while the November election moves ever closer.

“Our country’s going to hell and we sit here day after day after day, which is their plan, because they think they might be able to eke out an election,” Trump declared last week in the courthouse hallway.

Also this week, Merchan may decide on prosecutors’ request to fine Trump for what they say were violations of a gag order that bars him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to the case. The judge also has set a hearing Thursday on another batch of alleged gag order violations.

Prosecutors used Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend, to detail a “catch and kill” arrangement in which he collected seamy stories about the candidate so the National Enquirer or Trump’s associates could buy and bury the claims. Pecker described how he paid $180,000 to scoop up and sit on stories from a doorman and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He didn’t involve himself in the Daniels payout, he said. He testified for parts of four days.

Trump says all the stories were false. His attorneys used cross-examination to suggest Trump was really engaged in an effort to protect his name and his family — not to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

Farro first took the stand Friday. While a senior managing director at First Republic Bank, he was assigned to work with Trump’s lawyer for about three years, in part because of his “ability to handle individuals who may be a little challenging,” Farro said, adding that he didn’t find Cohen difficult.

Farro detailed to jurors the process of helping Cohen create accounts for two limited liability companies — corporate-speak for a business account that protects the person behind the account from liability, debt and other issues. Farro testified that Cohen indicated the companies, Resolution Consultants LLC and Essential Consultants LLC, would be involved in real estate consulting.

Prosecutors showed jurors emails in which Cohen describes the opening of the Resolution Consultants account as an “important matter.”

Cohen acknowledged when he pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 that it had been formed to send money to American Media, Inc., the Enquirer publisher. It was meant as a payback for their purchase of McDougal’s story. But the deal never went through.

Farro said that since the account was never funded, it was never technically opened. Instead, Cohen pivoted to starting up the Essential Consultants account, which he later used to pay Daniels $130,000.

When asked whether Cohen seemed anxious to get the bank accounts set up, Farro testified: “Every time Michael Cohen spoke to me, he gave a sense of urgency.”

Farro told the 12-person panel that the bank’s policy prohibited doing business with entities tied to “adult entertainment,” including pornography and strip clubs. Trump’s lawyers have not yet had a chance to cross-examine Farro.

___

Long reported from Washington.

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Judge holds Trump in contempt, fines him $9,000 and raises threat of jail in hush money trial