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

A man with blond hair, in dark suit and pale blue tie, speaks near barricades
Former President Trump speaks with the media outside a New York courtroom on April 26, 2024.
(Curtis Means / Associated Press)
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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. And if he does it again, the judge warned, the former president 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 presumptive Republican nominee, who had insisted he was exercising his free speech rights. Trump stared down at the table in front of him as the judge read the ruling, frowning slightly.

Merchan wrote that he is “keenly aware of, and protective of,” Trump’s 1st Amendment rights, “particularly given his candidacy for the office of President of the United States.”


“It is critically important that defendant’s legitimate free speech rights not be curtailed, that he be able to fully campaign for the office which he seeks and that he be able to respond and defend himself against political attacks,” Merchan wrote.

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Still, he warned that the court would not tolerate “willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment.”

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 was ordered to pay the gag-order fine by the close of business Friday, and he deleted, as ordered, the offending posts from his Truth Social account and campaign website Tuesday. The judge was also weighing other alleged gag-order violations by Trump and will hear arguments Thursday. He also announced that he will halt the trial on May 17 to allow Trump to attend his son Barron’s high school graduation.

Of the 10 posts, the one Merchan ruled was not a violation came on April 10, in which Trump referred to witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels as “sleaze bags.” Merchan said Trump’s contention that he was responding to previous posts by Cohen “is sufficient to give” him pause on whether the post was a violation.

Among those he found to be violations, Merchan ruled that a Trump post quoting Fox News host Jesse Watters’ claim that liberal activists were lying to infiltrate the jury “constitutes a clear violation” of the gag order. Merchan noted that the words contained within the quotation marks in Trump’s April 17 post misstated what Watters actually said.


“Thus, in this court’s view, this post constitutes the words of defendant himself,” Merchan wrote.

Merchan cautioned against the use of the gag order “as a sword instead of a shield by potential witnesses” and noted that if people who are protected by the order, such as Cohen, continue to attack Trump, “it becomes apparent” they don’t need the gag order’s protection. Cohen has said he will refrain from commenting about Trump until after he testifies at the trial.

Jurors also began hearing from Keith Davidson, a lawyer who represented Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actor Daniels in their negotiations with the National Enquirer and then-Trump attorney Cohen.

He testified that he arranged a meeting at his Los Angeles office to see whether the tabloid’s parent company was interested in McDougal’s story. But Dylan Howard, the Enquirer’s then-editor in chief, told him the tabloid wasn’t keen on the idea because she “lacked documentary evidence of the interaction” with Trump, Davidson testified.

A month after their initial lunch meeting, Howard reached out again to Davidson, suggesting they should resume discussions about the story. At the time, Davidson warned that American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, would need to move quickly.

Davidson testified that McDougal was “teetering” at the time he sent the message and was on the verge of signing a deal to tell her story to ABC News.


Davidson told the jurors that he was playing the Enquirer and ABC News against each other to get the best deal for McDougal. The former Playboy model didn’t want to tell her story publicly, which would’ve been required if she went to ABC, he said.

The tabloid eventually bought the story. Even as the deal was signed, Davidson testified that he understood McDougal’s story would never be published. Asked why American Media would buy a story it didn’t intend to run, Davidson said he was aware of two reasons.

“One explanation I was given is they were trying to build Karen into a brand and didn’t want to diminish her brand,” he said. “And the second was an unspoken understanding that there was an affiliation between David Pecker and Donald Trump and that AMI wouldn’t run this story, any story related to Karen, because it would hurt Donald Trump.”

As for Daniels, the October 2016 leak of Trump’s 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which the presidential candidate bragged about grabbing women sexually without asking permission had “tremendous influence” on the marketability of her story. Before the video was made public, “there was very little if any interest” in her claims, Davidson told jurors.

Asked to describe the tape, which can’t be shown in court, Davidson testified that it involved Trump and the show’s then-host Billy Bush being recorded on a “hot mic” and “some statements by both men that were troublesome.”

A deal was reached with the tabloid for Daniels story, but the Enquirer backed out. Though Pecker testified that he had agreed to serve as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” by helping to squelch unflattering rumors and claims about Trump and women, he drew the line with Daniels after paying out $180,000 to scoop up and sit on stories. Davidson began negotiating with Cohen directly, hiked the price from $125,000 to $130,000, and reached a deal.


“In essence, Michael Cohen stepped into AMI’s shoes,” Davidson said.

Trump’s son Eric joined him Tuesday, the first time a family member has attended the criminal trial. Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton walked into the courtroom with Trump and his entourage for the afternoon session.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush-money payments. The detailed evidence on business transactions and bank accounts is setting the stage for testimony from Cohen, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations and other crimes.

Sisak, Peltz, Offenhartz and Long write for the Associated Press.