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Trump instructed to obey court rules ahead of Manhattan criminal trial

FILE - Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his legal team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
Seth Wenig
FILE - Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his legal team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

A state judge in New York cautioned former President Donald Trump on Tuesday to obey a protective order dictating how he can talk about discovery materials during the upcoming criminal trial stemming from hush money payments paid to a former adult movie actress.

The order covers how Trump communicates publicly about emails, photographs, testimony and other evidence gathered as legal proceedings move forward ahead of the trial date set for March 25, 2024.

During a hearing held over a video connection, Judge Juan Merchan told Trump he must obey a protective order or there could be a "wide range of possible sanctions including a finding of contempt."

Trump appeared on screen looking tense and impatient, jaw rigid and fingers interlaced. He only spoke once, saying "I do," when asked if he had a copy of the protective order.

Judge Merchan is overseeing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's criminal case against Trump, which was filed last month.

The formal purpose of the hearing was to explain a protective order, normally a routine measure governing how sensitive discovery materials are handled before a trial.

But this order attempts to limit what information the former president, who has a history of lashing out at judges and prosecutors, is allowed to share publicly about the case against him.

Judge Merchan's protective order notably lists Truth Social, Trump's own social network, first among the various platforms where discovery materials cannot be shared. Further, it says Trump can only view certain materials in the presence of his lawyers or with the explicit permission of the judge.

During the hearing, Todd Blanche, Trump's attorney, pointed out Trump is again "running for president and is a leading contender" and is "very concerned his First Amendment rights" could be curtailed by the order.

"It is not a gag order and it is not my intention to impede Mr. Trump's ability to campaign," Judge Merchan responded. "He is free to deny the [criminal] charges, free to do almost anything not covered in protective order."

Trump was charged on April 4 with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, connected with the hush money payments made in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The payments were part of a scheme meant to suppress adult film actress Stormy Daniels' claim she had an affair with Trump, who was married at the time.

Trump then reimbursed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, allegedly describing the repayments as "legal expenses." Trump pleaded not guilty.

This marks the first time a former president has faced a criminal indictment.

Trump's history of defying judges' orders makes the protective order an early test of Judge Merchan's abilities to enforce the court's will.

On the day Trump was arraigned last month, Judge Merchan declined to issue a gag order but warned Trump to "please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest," adding that he should avoid words that could "jeopardize the rule of law."

Immediately afterwards, however, Trump posted about the case to social media, attacking Bragg and Daniels, who is a potential witness in the case.

The judge overseeing another case against Trump, writer E. Jean Carroll's civil sexual battery and defamation suit, made a strikingly similar warning just a few weeks later, telling Trump's lawyers to "inform your clients and witnesses to please refrain from making any statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest."

Trump posted to Truth Social several times during that trial, and also gave an interview in which he called Carroll's accusation "false" and described the judge as "extremely hostile."

But in that case, despite warning that Trump might be opening "a new source of potential liability," Judge Lewis Kaplan did not impose any penalty on the former president for his words. The jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation, awarding Carroll $5 million in damages. On Monday, Carroll filed new paperwork claiming additional damages for statements Trump made in a CNN town hall immediately after the verdict. Trump is appealing the verdict.

In 2022, Trump was held in contempt of court and fined $110,000 for failing to turn over discovery materials to New York Attorney General Letitia James in her civil probe of Trump business practices. Since then, James has sued Trump for fraud. The case is expected to go to trial later this year.

Trump's status as a candidate for president may complicate the criminal case. At a hearing earlier this month, Judge Merchan said he hopes Trump's trial can begin next February or March. That would place the proceedings squarely in primary season, when Trump would otherwise be expected to be out meeting voters and giving speeches as he vies for the Republican nomination.

In the meantime, Trump's legal team filed a motion to move the matter to federal court, arguing that it "involves important federal questions" relating to Trump's conduct while he was president. The motion is now with U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who ordered a hearing on June 27, but has allowed the state court case — so far — to proceed.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ilya Marritz
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.