Source: CNN

A New York judge just joined the interminable list of his judicial colleagues, government officials and campaign staff who’ve all tried to do the impossible: rein in Donald Trump.

Judge Juan Merchan late Monday expanded a gag order on the former president ahead of his hush money trial, which begins in less than two weeks, following searing social media attacks by Trump against the case, prosecutors, the legal system and even the judge’s daughter.

The judge warned that Trump’s behavior represented a threat to anyone involved in the case and was even tantamount to an attack on the rule of law.

“It is no longer just a mere possibility or a reasonable likelihood that there exists a threat to the integrity of the judicial proceedings. The threat is very real. Admonitions are not enough, nor is reliance on self-restraint,” Merchan wrote in an order made even more surreal because it was referring to a possibly future president.

The ruling marked the latest extraordinary twist in Trump’s years-long assault on rules and laws that govern every other politician, business magnate or American. And it encapsulates a perilous national moment since it arose from one of four criminal trials that the presumptive GOP nominee is facing while running to reclaim the White House.

The revised order still leaves room for Trump to let off steam at Merchan — which he swiftly did on Tuesday morning on Truth Social, calling for him to step aside in the case — as he heads back out onto the campaign trial in the coming weeks, with stops in Michigan and Wisconsin on Tuesday. And if past experience with partial gag orders in other cases is any guide, the former president will claim his constitutional rights as a defendant and to free speech as an active presidential candidate are being compromised. But thanks to the expanded measure announced Monday, the family of Merchan and relatives of the Manhattan district attorney will be off limits. The gag order had previously prevented Trump making statements about witnesses, jurors, prosecutors, court staff or the family members of prosecutors and court staff.

What happens if Trump doesn’t comply?

Merchan’s latest move raises a grave question. What will the judge do if Trump defies the order? A first step might be fines to try to bring the most famous criminal defendant in the world into line. But at least in theory, there would be the possibility of detention – even if the idea of a former president being sent to jail until he is willing to respect the court strains credulity.

“Ordinarily — a normal defendant you would send him to Rikers,” Adam Pollock, a former New York assistant attorney general, told CNN’s Abby Phillip on Monday, referring to a famed New York jail. “Very quickly he’d figure out in Rikers what the right way to behave before a trial is.” But Pollock added: “President Trump is not every other defendant.”

For all the ex-president’s claims that he is being targeted by Democrats, his capacity to escape serious consequences for his incessant attacks on prosecutors and judges shows that he is enjoying dispensations that no other defendant would get.

Trump’s goal is clear here. He is seeking to whip up a circus atmosphere around the trial, which begins on April 15, to delegitimize the legal system that seeks to hold him to account. He has denied wrongdoing but also seeks to hedge against a possible guilty verdict in a case that is rooted in allegedly falsified business records regarding a payment to an adult film star in 2016. In this case, and three others in which he faces criminal charges, the ex-president is also seeking to deepen his campaign narrative that is also his primary legal defense — that he’s a victim of political persecution.

Trump’s threats are not simply an academic matter. And they are more serious than just rants on social media, as some of the ex-president’s GOP apologists often characterize them. Attacking court staff and their families creates a genuine security risk. The situation is especially troubling because Trump has a proven ability to incite violence with his rhetoric, which was on display when a mob of his supporters attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Trump’s new reality

The revised gag order represents the latest occasion when the unchained world of Trump’s rhetoric has clashed with facts, evidence and the rule of law. Those kinds of collisions will be increasingly central to his destiny in the days ahead.

That’s also the case when it comes to Trump’s wealth. Shares of his media company, Trump Media & Technology Group, tanked on Monday, after its stock soared to improbable heights after it went public last week. The reverse came after the firm, which owns Trump’s Truth Social network, disclosed it lost more than $58 million and generated very little revenue in 2023. Trump is the majority shareholder and his net worth fell by more than $1 billion Monday as a result.

But there was better news for the presumptive nominee as he fought off any bid by New York authorities to begin seizing his properties in line with a massive fraud judgment against him after a civil trial in New York. On Monday night, Trump posted a $175 million bond to stave off any action against the property empire that made his name – until at least September. That’s when the state’s appeals court is due to hear the ex-president’s appeal of a $464 million verdict against him and his adult sons.

Ironically, Trump was able to find an insurance firm to back the bond only after the court system, which he often claims is corrupt and biased against him, gave him a break. On a deadline day last week for Trump to post a near half-billion-dollar bond, an appeals court reduced the value of the requirement and gave him 10 days – until this Thursday – to pay up.

Trump now hits two battleground states on Tuesday with his bond in the civil fraud case paid ahead of the deadline. But the trip only represents an interlude between court matters for the former president.

Once his hush money trial starts in New York in less than two weeks, Trump will be required to be in attendance four days a week when the court sits, which will seriously complicate his opportunities to get out and campaign at a time when President Joe Biden is amping up the pace of his reelection bid. Whether this juxtaposition represents a preview of the rest of the campaign season will depend on the progress of Trump’s other cases. Three other trials – two over election interference and one over his hoarding of classified documents in Florida – have all been bogged down in pre-trial litigation and appeals as his team tries to delay accountability until after the election.

The coming trial

The focus on the hush money case will intensify in the coming days.

And it may test the willingness of Merchan to constrain Trump and to stop his courtroom from being turned into a de-facto political platform for the former president. Trump has already infuriated several judges in other settings, notably Judge Arthur Engoron, who presided over his civil fraud trial and beseeched Trump’s attorneys to keep their unruly client under control.

Trump’s targeting of Merchan’s daughter, who did work for Democratic campaigns, and other court officials is part of his attempt to convince his supporters that the legal system is so corrupt that he cannot get a fair trial — even though the charges against him in his various cases have emerged from grand juries and legal procedures and he has been given every attempt to mount a defense.

His latest threats carry particular menace given the impact of his words in the past.

Temidayo Aganga-Williams, a former senior investigative counsel on the January 6 committee in the last Democratic-run House, said on CNN Monday that courts have no option but to take Trump’s threats seriously. “He knows how to call his supporters. He did it with January 6. I think that’s what he is doing now … he’s acting very precisely. I think we have to heed that warning now.”

Merchan seems to agree.

“The average observer, must now, after hearing defendant’s recent attacks, draw the conclusion that if they become involved in these proceedings, even tangentially, they should worry not only for themselves, but for their loved ones as well,” Merchan wrote in his order Monday.

“Such concerns will undoubtedly interfere with the fair administration of justice and constitutes a direct attack on the Rule of Law itself.”

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