Trump exploits gaps in gag order in Stormy Daniels hush money case

In the wake of a gag order preventing him from verbal attacks against key players in the Stormy Daniels hush money case, Donald Trump has taken full advantage of targets still on the table — focusing his Truth Social crosshairs squarely on the presiding judge’s daughter.

Ahead of the trial starting on Apr. 15, state Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan on Tuesday restricted Trump’s comments about anticipated witnesses like Daniels and Michael Cohen, jurors, proposed jurors, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s staff members and their relatives, and court employees and their families in light of his record of “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” attacks against perceived legal adversaries.

Merchan’s narrowly tailored gag order came hours after Trump fired off an incendiary online post referencing his daughter.

The former president and presumed Republican presidential nominee in this year’s election continued to invoke Merchan’s daughter in online tirades on Wednesday and Thursday, including by name, speculating that she was profiting from her dad’s rulings at her job at a D.C.-based political firm that advises Democrats and had been trashing him online.

“[The] Judge’s daughter is allowed to post pictures of her ‘dream’ of putting me in jail,” Trump wrote Wednesday. “[But] I am not allowed to talk about the attacks against me, and the Lunatics trying to destroy my life.”

Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers in New York, Thursday, March 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Judge Juan Merchan. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Courts spokesman Al Baker told the Daily News the account that Trump referenced on X hasn’t belonged to Merchan’s daughter for about a year. “Rather, it represents the reconstitution, last April, and manipulation of an account she long ago abandoned,” Baker said. It’s unclear who is now running the account.

In a court filing made public Friday, prosecutors asked Merchan to order Trump to cease his attacks on family members and clarify whether his order included his and Bragg’s relatives, writing they believed it did and that it was “amply warranted,” given Trump’s “threatening and alarming remarks about family members of trial participants” and resulting harm. They said his attacks could chill potential witnesses with “grave concerns” about their safety.

In response, Trump’s lawyers said the order did not outline such a ban. They opposed any expansion or warning to Trump, asking Merchan to schedule a hearing if he’s considering otherwise so they could argue the First Amendment protected his comments about political activity by Merchan’s daughter.

Merchan previously addressed his daughter’s job in response to Trump’s complaints, writing that he was certain of his ability to be impartial and that Trump had demonstrated no “realistic reasons” for his recusal. In his decision granting prosecutors’ gag order request, he mentioned Trump’s comments about him, his relative, and Bragg, who have shouldered the brunt of Trump’s ire about the case and ensuing death threats. Still, he appeared to stop short of explicitly barring such remarks.

Bruce Green, a Fordham University law professor and legal ethics expert, said there’s significant interest in protecting the privacy and safety of involuntary trial participants like jurors and witnesses. However, the bar is much higher for public figures like Merchan and the DA.

“I think the judge recognized that it would be hard to make the case, and even if one could, it’s not worth it,” Green said. “And in some ways, it’s better to deflect the defendant’s attention to the judge and the elected district attorney than to other people who haven’t put themselves out in public life.”

Green said a lawsuit could result if Trump’s defense strategies in the court of public opinion cross the line into defamation. Still, barring potential threats of violence, he doesn’t see Merchan intervening.

“Frankly, if [Trump is] going to later make an appellate argument that he was denied a fair trial because the judge was biased and was personally involved, then that could be part of his claim,” Green said.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies in his Manhattan case, alleging he concealed reimbursement to Cohen for a hush-money scheme executed before the 2016 election aimed at hiding sex scandals from voters. The charges are among 91 he faces along the East Coast, all of which he contests.

Trump’s campaign spokesman could not be reached. 

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