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With Trump gagged, allies and surrogates take aim at Bragg's faltering prosecution on his behalf

Judge Juan Merchan originally imposed the gag order in March, barring Trump from discussing jurors, court staff, participating attorneys, or their families. But the gag order does not apply to Trump's allies-- or his detractors.

Published: May 15, 2024 11:00pm

Former President Donald Trump attended court this week alongside many of his prominent Republican allies, many of whom have used the opportunity to criticize the proceedings and repeat several of Trump’s own talking points for which he himself was found in contempt of court.

Trump has been under a gag order as part of the proceedings, which has limited his ability to criticize witnesses and the family members of the judge, whom he has previously suggested are either untrustworthy or benefiting from the proceedings.

His allies, however, are subject to no such restrictions and a litany of high-profile Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Johnson; Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; and a host of House lawmakers.

Several such lawmakers have condemned Judge Juan Merchan's politicization of the justice system, contending that Trump himself is innocent of wrongdoing. Others highlighted potential conflicts of interest involving the family of Judge Juan Merchan, whose daughter is a professional Democratic party operative.

The Trump gag order

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought 34 criminal charges against Trump over allegedly falsifying business records in connection with a 2016 payment his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, made to Stormy Daniels. Trump has pleaded not guilty and contended that the case is part of a broader political witch hunt against him.

Judge Juan Merchan originally imposed the gag order in March, barring Trump from discussing jurors, court staff, participating attorneys, or their families. He subsequently expanded the order to prevent Trump from discussing his daughter, whom Trump has accused of benefiting from the case. Loren Merchan is employed with Authentic, a firm that boasts both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as clients.

Trump was hit with a $9,000 fine in late April after Bragg moved to have him held in contempt for violating the gag order. At issue were posts Trump made on Truth Social criticizing witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, as well as former Manhattan prosecutor Mark Pomerantz. Trump received a $1,000 fine for each posting. He was later fined in early May for a tenth.

The former president has fumed over the gag order, saying in April that “Judge Juan Merchan, has taken away my constitutional right to free speech. Everybody is allowed to talk and lie about me, but I am not allowed to defend myself.”

Key Trump allies are not subject to any gag order

Merchan’s order does not apply to Trump’s political allies, however, and they remain free to address Trump’s concerns publicly, while he may not do so.

Cohen began his testimony last week and has continued to star in the proceedings into this one. The former Trump "fixer" who was disbarred in 2018 has been subject to a litany of attacks on his credibility, including the suggestion from a judge in March that he previously committed perjury. Cohen, himself, has admitted to lying to a judge when entering a false guilty plea.

His credibility, accordingly, has come under fire from Vance and Tuberville, both of whom attended court proceedings on Monday.

“How can you be convinced by somebody that is a serial liar?” Tuberville asked, according to The Hill. “I mean, it should be no reason that anybody should listen to this guy. But at the end of the day the Democrats — the Democrats are trying to beat President Trump in the jury box because they can’t beat him at the ballot box.”

“This guy is a convicted felon who admitted in his testimony that he secretly recorded his former employer, that he only did it once allegedly, and that this was supposed to help Donald Trump,” Vance said, according to Politico. “Does any reasonable, sensible person believe anything that Michael Cohen says?”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, for his part, echoed their sentiments during his own appearance in New York on Tuesday. “The American people can see it’s politically motivated. Their star witness, Michael Cohen, is a known liar who is clearly on a mission for personal revenge,” Johnson posted on X, along with a clip of his remarks outside the courthouse. 

Cohen, he said, “is widely known as a witness who has trouble with the truth. He is someone who has a history of perjury and is well known for it.”

“No one should believe a word he says today. He lied to Congress,” Johnson continued. “He lied to the IRS. He lied to federal election officials. Even Cohen’s own lawyer testified to a grand jury that he is not reliable. So there’s nothing that he presents here that should be given any weight at all by a jury and certainly not this judge.”

Loren Merchan

Trump previously sought the recusal of Merchan on two occasions in light of his daughter’s employment with a firm that stands to benefit from his electoral defeat. Both requests stemmed from Loren Merchan’s employment.

"The Court’s interest in these proceedings by virtue of the close relationship with an immediate relative, and Ms. Merchan’s ongoing receipt of commercial and reputational benefits based on the manner in which Your Honor has conducted these proceedings, requires recusal based on an actual conflict and an unacceptable appearance of impropriety," Trump’s attorneys wrote in April. 

Merchan had already expanded the gag order to prevent Trump’s criticisms of his daughter by the time he rejected the recusal bid.

During his Monday appearance at the courthouse, Vance also took up the issue, observing that Loren Merchan “is making millions of dollars running against Donald Trump, raising money for Donald Trump’s political opponents.”

“No one has a clue what the alleged crime even is,” said former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who attended the trial on Tuesday. “The irony here is that the crime is supposedly about bad bookkeeping, but the real bookkeeping scandal is how to account for Judge Merchan’s own family members being paid millions of dollars by Democratic operatives.”

Although New York law on judicial conduct requires judges to "avoid the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities" this has historically been proven to be an almost impossibly high bar to overcome.

Matthew Colangelo

Trump may not discuss the participating attorneys, though the participation of former Department of Justice senior official Matthew Colangelo in the prosecution has attracted considerable accusations of coordination with the White House.

Colangelo was transferred from the Biden DOJ to Bragg’s office in December 2022. He reportedly received two payments from the DNC in January of 2018 for “political consulting.”

“This sham trial is a politically motivated assault on the leading candidate for U.S. President, green lit by his political opponent, Joe Biden, and carried out at the highest levels of the White House and Department of Justice,” Ramaswamy said. “Joe Biden’s former number #3 at the Department Justice, Matthew Colangelo, is now leading the prosecution effort for Bragg, who himself ran for office on the promise of going after Trump. It’s an insult to American democracy.”

“What we’ve got here is a partisan Democrat district attorney. We have a Biden donor judge,” Johnson said. “And we have an assistant DA who was recently a top official at the Department of Justice, Biden’s DOJ, and who recently received over $10,000 in payments from the Democratic National Committee.”

The First Department, New York's intermediate appellate court overseeing appeals in this case on Tuesday rejected Trump’s request to overturn the gag order, holding that the original order was necessary in light of “Trump’s documented pattern of speech and its demonstrated real-time, real-world consequences pose a significant and imminent threat to the functioning of the criminal trial process.”

He has faced the threat of jail time for further violations of the gag order, but suggested he would be willing to do so.

“This judge has given me a gag order and said you’ll go to jail if you violate it,” he said earlier this month. “And frankly, you know what, our Constitution is much more important than jail. It’s not even close. I’ll do that sacrifice any day.”

Ben Whedon is an editor and reporter for Just the News. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter.

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