Judge alters Trump’s gag order, letting him talk about witnesses, jury after hush money conviction

A judge on Tuesday modified Donald Trump's gag order, freeing the former president to comment publicly about witnesses and jurors in the hush money criminal trial that led to his felony conviction, but keeping others connected to the former president’s case off limits at least until he is sentenced July 11.

Judge Juan M. Merchan’s ruling — just days before Trump’s debate Thursday with President Joe Biden — clears the presumptive Republican nominee to again go on the attack against his former lawyer Michael Cohen, porn actor Stormy Daniels and other witnesses. Trump was convicted May 30 of falsifying records to cover up a potential sex scandal, making him the first ex-president convicted of a crime.

Trump’s lawyers had urged Merchan to lift the gag order completely, arguing there was nothing to justify continued restrictions on Trump’s First Amendment rights after the trial’s conclusion. Trump has said that the gag order has prevented him from defending himself while Cohen and Daniels continue to pillory him.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office asked Merchan to keep the gag order’s ban on comments about jurors, court staffers and the prosecution team in place at least until Trump is sentenced on July 11, but said last week they would be OK with allowing Trump to comment about witnesses now that the trial is over. Prosecutors had opposed lifting the ban on comments about the jury.

Trump was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records arising from what prosecutors said was an attempt to cover up a hush money payment to Daniels just before the 2016 presidential election. She claims she had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier, which he denies.

The crime is punishable by up to four years behind bars, but prosecutors have not said if they would seek incarceration and it’s unclear if Merchan would impose such a sentence. Other options include a fine or probation.

Following his conviction, Trump complained that he was under a "nasty gag order" while also testing its limits. In remarks a day after his conviction, Trump referred to Cohen, as "a sleazebag," though not by name.

In a subsequent Newsmax interview, Trump took issue with jury and its makeup, complaining about Manhattan, "It’s a very, very liberal democrat area so I knew we were in deep trouble," and claiming: "I never saw a glimmer of a smile from the jury. No, this was a venue that was very unfair. A tiny fraction of the people are Republicans."

Trump’s lawyers, who said they were under the impression the gag order would end with a verdict, wrote a letter to Merchan on June 4 asking him to lift the order.

Prosecutors urged Merchan to keep the gag order’s ban on comments about jurors and trial staff in place "at least through the sentencing hearing and the resolution of any post-trial motions." They argued that the judge had "an obligation to protect the integrity of these proceedings and the fair administration of justice."

Merchan issued Trump’s gag order on March 26, a few weeks before the start of the trial, after prosecutors raised concerns about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s propensity to assail people involved in his cases.

Merchan later expanded it to prohibit comments about his own family after Trump made social media posts attacking the judge’s daughter, a Democratic political consultant. The order did not prohibit comments about Merchan or District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office prosecuted the case.

During the trial, Merchan held Trump in contempt of court, fined him $10,000 for violating the gag order and threatened to put him in jail if he did it again.

In seeking to lift the gag order, Trump lawyers Todd Blanche and Emil Bove argued that Trump was entitled to "unrestrained campaign advocacy" in light of Biden’s public comments about the verdict, and Cohen and Daniels ′ continued public criticism.