Trump aims to scare witnesses in hush-money trial, prosecutors say

FILE PHOTO: A wake for NYPD officer Jonathan Diller at Massapequa Park

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York prosecutors on Monday urged a judge to forbid Donald Trump from criticizing family members of those involved in his upcoming hush-money trial, arguing that he is trying to scare potential witnesses.

In a court filing, prosecutors asked Justice Juan Merchan to make clear that his existing gag order, which bars Trump from publicly commenting about witnesses and court staff, also applies to family members.

They were responding to a March 28 social media post by Trump, who called Merchan's daughter a "Rabid Trump Hater" in a social media post and called for Merchan to be removed from the case.

"Family members of trial participants must be strictly off-limits," prosecutor Matthew Colangelo wrote. "Defendant's insistence to the contrary bespeaks a dangerous sense of entitlement to instigate fear and even physical harm to the loved ones of those he sees in the courtroom."

Merchan's daughter runs a digital marketing agency called Authentic Campaigns, which works with Democratic candidates and non-profits.

Trump's lawyers have argued that her work poses a conflict of interest and have unsuccessfully sought to oust Merchan from the case.

Trump's defense lawyers said Trump's posts did not violate the gag order and were not meant to interfere with the proceedings or cause any harm.

"President Trump must be permitted to speak on these issues in a manner that is consistent with his position as the leading presidential candidate," his lawyer Todd Blanche wrote.

Trump is set to go on trial starting April 15 in New York state court in Manhattan on criminal charges of covering up a $130,000 payment before the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records and denies an encounter with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Trump could face fines or jail time if he violates Merchan's gag order, which does not bar him from criticizing the judge or Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office brought the charges last year.

The case is one of four criminal indictments Trump faces as he prepares to challenge Biden in the Nov. 5 election. He has pleaded not guilty in the other three cases, which stem from efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden and his handling of sensitive government documents after leaving office in 2021.

Trump faces a similar gag order in his Washington, D.C. criminal case over his efforts to reverse the 2020 election results.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Cynthia Osterman)