The Judge Cracks Down


For months, Donald Trump’s lawyers have approached his legal cases with performative aggression and a pugilistic style, peppering judges with mountains of motions, many of them filled with far-fetched claims. And the former president himself has often been a disruptive presence at the courthouse and on social media, going after witnesses, prosecutors and even the relatives of judges.

Justice Juan Merchan, who is overseeing Trump’s upcoming hush-money trial in Manhattan, made it clear this week that he’s having none of it.

After firing a few warning shots across the Trump team’s bow, Merchan imposed a gag order on the former president on Tuesday, barring him from attacking any witnesses, jurors or prosecutors serving on the case.

Under the order, Trump cannot make, or direct others to make, statements about witnesses’ roles in the case. He is also barred from commenting on prosecutors, court staff and their relatives if he intends to interfere with their work on the case, or about the jurors in his case.

Merchan cited the “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” statements Trump has made about grand jurors, prosecutors and others. To enforce such an order, judges typically impose fines and in extraordinary circumstances can send someone to jail.

The judge also ordered Todd Blanche, Trump’s pugnacious defense attorney, and his partners on the case to stop seeking to delay the trial by filing additional motions without first asking permission, warning there could be consequences.

“The court expects that the line between zealous advocacy and willful disregard of its orders will not be crossed,” he wrote.

Merchan’s displeasure with the Trump legal team built up throughout the week. On Monday, he subjected Blanche to withering questions at a hearing to determine whether to postpone the trial past its April 15 start date, after thousands of new pages of documents were belatedly released by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

Blanche and his partners had accused the prosecution of significant misconduct, complaining that Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, was to blame for the delayed disclosure. The Trump lawyers asked Merchan to delay the trial even further so that they had time to review the material.

But the judge pushed back hard at Blanche’s allegations, saying the attacks on Bragg were “incredibly serious, unbelievably serious,” but completely unsupported by the facts. He then asked why Trump’s legal team had waited so long to complain about the documents it wanted.

At one point, Merchan even seemed to suggest that Blanche should known better than to raise such frivolous issues, asking him how long he had served as a federal prosecutor. Later, the judge marveled that he and Blanche could read the same set of facts, or the same legal opinion, and come away with completely different interpretations.

At the end of Monday’s hearing, Merchan dismissed Blanche’s accusations and denied his request to delay the trial. Trump, sitting at the defense table, shook his head in silence.

Trump has now attended several proceedings linked to his civil and criminal trials and has been disruptive at some of them.

When he showed up in January for a trial in Manhattan to determine how much money he would have to pay the writer E. Jean Carroll, he made noises of disgust and muttered so loudly that the judge, Lewis Kaplan, admonished him.

During closing arguments by Carroll’s lawyer, Trump went so far as to abruptly stand up and walk out of the courtroom. At another point, when the jury wasn’t present, Kaplan threatened to remove Trump from the room.

“I understand you’re probably very eager for me to do that,” the judge said.

Trump responded, “I would love it.”

Some of Trump’s own advisers have privately admitted that stunts like these likely made things worse for him during that trial, which concluded with an $83.3 million judgment.

With a track record like that, the hush money trial, which could last as long as six weeks, will be the next — and the stiffest — test yet of Trump’s ability to push back against the legal system while still maintaining a semblance of courtroom decorum.

Outside of the courtroom, Trump was quick to test the boundaries of Merchan’s gag order. A day after order was imposed he amplified a social media account that he claimed belonged to the judge’s daughter, which featured a photo of Trump behind bars.

The image, Trump complained on his own social media account, made it “completely impossible for me to get a fair trial.” He demanded that Merchan recuse himself from the case.

In the end, court officials said the account supposedly belonging to Merchan’s daughter was a fake.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

What is the reasoning behind DOJ wanting to exclude broadcasting of the federal election trial? — Lynne Riley, Delaware

Alan: In short, because federal courts have long had a nationwide rule against broadcasting trials live on TV and the Justice Department is basically bound to follow it. There is a chance — albeit a slight one — that the trial could be transmitted through a live audio feed. There would, at least, be precedent for that: Both the Supreme Court and the federal appeals court in Washington permit live audio of their hearings.

Since leaving office in 2021, Trump has spent more than $100 million on lawyers and other costs aimed at fending off investigations, indictments and criminal trials, according to a Times review of federal records.

With his first trial looming, Trump’s legal costs have continued to rise. He spent at least $9.7 million in January and February. Here is a look at how donations are paying Trump’s legal bills.

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