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Judge warns Trump of potential jail time for violating gag order

The judge in Donald Trump’s criminal trial fined him $1,000 and held him in contempt of court for a 10th time for violating a gag order and warned that further violations could land the former president in jail.

Justice Juan Merchan said the nine $1,000 fines he had imposed so far did not seem to be deterring the wealthy business mogul from violating the order, which bars him from speaking publicly about jurors and witnesses in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

“I do not want to impose a jail sanction and have done everything I can to avoid doing so. But I will if necessary,” Merchan said before the jury entered.

Imprisonment would be an unprecedented step in the historic trial, which stems from a hush money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels in the final weeks of the 2016 election.

After Merchan’s ruling, jurors heard testimony from a former Trump employee that could bolster prosecutors’ case that Trump falsified business records to cover up the hush money payment.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies wrongdoing.

As he imposed the fine, Merchan said he considered jail time “truly the last resort” as it would disrupt the trial, pose extraordinary security challenges and complicate the 2024 presidential election, in which the Republican Trump seeks to win the White House back from Democratic President Joe Biden.

But he said Trump’s “continued, willful” violations of the gag order amounted to a “direct attack on the rule of law.”

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Merchan imposed the 10th $1,000 fine on Monday for an April 22 broadcast interview in which the former president said: “That jury was picked so fast – 95% Democrats. The area’s mostly all Democrat.”

Merchan found that other statements flagged by prosecutors that mentioned witnesses Michael Cohen and David Pecker did not violate the order.

The gag order prevents Trump from making statements about jurors, witnesses and families of the judge and prosecutors if meant to interfere with the case. Violations are punishable by fines of up to $1,000 or jail time of up to 30 days.

Last week Merchan fined Trump $9,000 for nine social media posts that he ruled had violated the gag order.

Trump complains frequently that the gag order limits his ability to make his case to voters in his comeback White House bid.

“He’s taken away my constitutional right to speak,” Trump told reporters outside the courtroom before the start of the 12th day of trial.

PAYMENT RECORDS DISPLAYED

Prosecutors on Monday later showed jurors business records that documented payments totalling $420,000 from Trump to Cohen, his former fixer and personal lawyer.

Those payments were listed as legal fees, but prosecutors say they were actually meant to reimburse Cohen for paying $130,000 to Daniels to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in 2006.

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Trump denies ever having had sex with Daniels.

Prosecutors say the $420,000 paid by Trump was meant to cover the $130,000 Cohen paid to Daniels, along with $50,000 in other expenses he had incurred. Trump doubled that total to account for taxes and also included a $60,000 year-end bonus, they say.

A former controller in Trump’s organization, Jeffrey McConney, testified that he was not aware of any other instance in which the Trump Organization reimbursed someone so generously.

He said he was told by the company’s top finance official Allen Weisselberg that the payments were reimbursements, not legal fees. He said he never spoke with Trump about the payments.

Prosecutors also showed jurors ledger entries that payments to Cohen had not been listed among legal expenses the company paid to outside lawyers.

Most of the jurors appeared to look intently at the email messages displayed on the screens in front of their seats as McConney testified.

Prosecutors say Trump’s payment to Daniels corrupted the 2016 election by keeping the news from voters, at a time when his treatment of women was a central issue in his campaign against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

They say the altered business records covered up election-law and tax-law violations that elevate the 34 counts Trump faces from misdemeanours to felonies punishable by up to four years in prison.

If found guilty, Trump could face up to four years in prison, though defendants typically face fines and probation.

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The main players in the case have yet to testify, including Cohen and Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

The case features sordid allegations of adultery and secret payoffs, but it is widely seen as less consequential than three other criminal prosecutions Trump faces. It is the only one certain to go to trial before the Nov. 5 presidential election.

The other cases charge him with trying to overturn his 2020 presidential defeat and mishandling classified documents after leaving office. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all three.

By JACK QUEEN, LUC COHEN and ANDY SULLIVAN

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