Explainer-Judge likely to lift Trump gag order after hush money guilty verdict

Former U.S. President Trump's criminal trial on charges of falsifying business records continues in New York

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -After the jury in Donald Trump's New York criminal trial returns a verdict, the judge likely will lift his gag order barring the Republican presidential candidate from speaking publicly about witnesses, jurors and others involved in the case.

The former U.S. president has complained about the gag order throughout the trial and when Justice Juan Merchan removes it, Trump can return to lashing out in public remarks and on social media, say legal experts who have been following the trial.

"It's totally unconstitutional. I'm not allowed to talk but people are allowed to talk about me," Trump said outside the courtroom on April 23, one of the many times he has inveighed against the order. "I'd love to say everything on my mind."

Trump has struggled to contain his furor, leading Merchan to hold him in contempt and to fine him $10,000 after determining that 10 posts and statements in media interviews violated the gag order.

He faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide reimbursements to his former lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence before the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she claimed she had with Trump a decade earlier. Trump denies criminal wrongdoing and denies having sex with Daniels.

WHAT DID THE GAG ORDER ENTAIL?

Judges can impose gag orders to protect court proceedings from outside influences. While they are not common in New York state court, federal judges imposed them in the criminal trials of Trump's former 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump ally Roger Stone.

"When it comes to Trump, he has an extraordinary amount of power in terms of the visibility of his social media posts," said New York-based criminal defense attorney Richard Willstatter.

"It's extraordinarily dangerous to expose people to that. The court has an institutional interest in protecting not just these jurors, but in protecting other people who might do jury service," he said.

Merchan on March 26 granted prosecutors' request for the gag order. On April 1, he extended it to cover his own family members and those of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, after Trump called Merchan's daughter a "Rabid Trump Hater" over her political consultancy work.

The gag order did not restrict Trump's statements about Bragg or Merchan.

HOW HAS TRUMP TESTED THE LIMITS OF THE ORDER?

Trump during the trial made public statements that prosecutors said ran afoul of the judge's order.

On his Truth Social platform, Trump shared links to articles that made negative comments about witnesses including Cohen, who served prison time over the hush money payment and testified against Trump.

It was the second case in which Trump was found to have violated a gag order. In a civil fraud case last year, a different New York state judge fined him $15,000 for twice violating an order barring comments about court staff.

Trump's attorneys in the criminal case complained the gag order prevented him from responding to political attacks.

"We have never before had a former president who is on trial, and we have never before had someone who is running for president," said Anna Cominsky, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the New York Law School. "It can't be compared to any other situation."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Although Trump will be largely free to verbally attack witnesses, the jury and court staff after the trial, there are still some topics that could be off limits.

A March 7 protective order prohibits Trump or his attorneys from disclosing the names, business and residential addresses of the jurors.

Legal experts said they expected Merchan to leave this order in place.

Trump faces a separate gag order imposed by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., where he faces charges of trying to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Luc Cohen; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)