‘My Civil Rights Have Been Violated’: Trump Demands Judge Drop Gag Order So He Can Defend Himself During Upcoming Debate With Biden

Trump’s attorneys argue that his ‘constitutional mandate for unrestrained campaign advocacy’ is even more pressing now that he will debate President Biden on June 27.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
President Trump arrives at Trump Tower on May 30, 2024, at New York City after being convicted of 34 felonies in state court. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

President Trump’s attorneys in the hush-money case have filed a letter demanding that the New York Supreme Court judge who presides over the case, Juan Merchan, terminate the gag order he imposed on their client, now that the trial has ended. With the first presidential debate coming up on June 27, the attorneys urged the judge to lift the restriction so Trump may freely address the case as he squares off with President Biden.

“Now that the trial is concluded,” defense attorneys Todd Blanche and Emil Bove wrote in their letter to the judge on Tuesday, “the concerns articulated by the Government and the Court do not justify continued restrictions on the First Amendment rights of President Trump – who remains the leading candidate in the 2024 election – and the American people.” 

In a letter sent on Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney, Matthew Colangelo told the judge that the prosecution opposes the termination of the gag order before sentencing on July 11. The court “has an obligation to protect the integrity of these proceedings and the fair administration of justice at least through the sentencing hearing and the resolution of any post-trial motions,” Mr. Colangelo argued. Colangelo proposed that both parties should submit their arguments in writing to the judge in the next few weeks. If Judge Merchan accepts this proposal it could take until the end of the month until there is a ruling on the matter, and Trump could possibly head into the debate with the gag order in place. Judge Merchan has not answered yet.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo wrote in a legal filing on Wednesday that the district attorney opposes lifting the gag order until after sentencing. Department of Justice

Judge Merchan issued a gag order against Trump on March 26, a few weeks before the criminal trial began, prohibiting him from making public comments about witnesses, jurors, court staff, counsel, and their family members, after the Manhattan district attorney’s office had asked for protection of the participants. Evidence submitted by the prosecution showed that Trump supporters were making violent threats against participants, who Trump had publicly criticized. On April 1, the judge extended the order to include his own family members, and those of the district attorney, after Trump had continuously attacked the judge’s adult daughter, Loren Merchan, a Democrat, who has done work for some of Trump’s committed foes such as Vice President Harris and Congressman Adam Schiff.

In their letter, the defense attorneys reminded the judge that he justified the gag order “to protect the integrity of the criminal proceedings,” and “the significant and imminent threats against the trial.” But now that the trial is over, “the stated basis for the gag order no longer exists,” the attorneys wrote. 

merchan
Judge Juan Merchan in his chambers at New York, March 14, 2024. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

“It’s a little bit of the theater of the absurd at this point, right? Michael Cohen is no longer a witness in this trial,” Mr. Blanche told the Associated Press. “The trial is over. The same thing with all the other witnesses. So, we’ll see. I don’t mean that in any way as being disrespectful of the judge and the process. I just want to be careful and understand when it no longer applies.”          

Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and current nemesis, was a key witness during the trial, as was the adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, charged Trump with falsification of business records in a scheme to interfere with the 2016 election. At the heart of the case was a $130,000 hush-money payment Cohen made to Ms. Clifford in 2016 to buy her silence about her claim that she had a single sexual encounter with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe in 2006. The prosecution accused Trump of directing Cohen to wire the money to Ms. Clifford and then disguising his reimbursement to Cohen as a legal fee. Trump was found guilty on 34 felony counts on May 30, making him the first former president in the history of America with a felony conviction. 

Mr. Trump has made no secret of his contempt for the case and his plans to win on appeal. Tuesday morning, he published a video on Truth Social in which, referring to the gag order, he said that “My civil rights have been totally violated with this highly political, unconstitutional and election interfering witch hunt of a trial.” Furthermore, he said, “We’re going to also appeal this rigged trial and we’re going to win at the appellate level or in the appeals courts even if we have to go up to the United States Supreme Court because everybody knew what a disgraceful sham this was.” 

Trump has repeatedly complained that the gag order has stripped him of his “Constitutional Right to Free Speech” by proscribing him from making  comments about Cohen and Ms. Clifford, while they are allowed to slander him. “Especially when all of the sleaze bags, lowlifes, and grifters that you oppose are allowed to say absolutely anything that they want,” Trump wrote in May, clearly referring to Cohen and Ms. Clifford in spite of the gag order.

Stormy Daniels arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 09, 2024 at New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

His attorneys also cited “continuous attacks by Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels” in their letter on Tuesday. As the Sun reported, Ms. Clifford gave an exclusive interview to the UK-based tabloid, Daily Mirror, on Sunday, where she called Trump an “egomaniac” and characterized him as petulant, arrogant and entitled. She also said he should be incarcerated and barred from playing golf. Meanwhile, Cohen, who frequently speaks about Trump on mainstream and social media, admitted during cross-examination at trial that he referred to Trump as “a dictator douche-bag,” and that he said Trump should go back to “where he belongs, in a f—ing cage, like a f—ing animal.” 

On May 29, Trump posted comments on Truth Social that clearly referred to Cohen as the “bum that got caught stealing from me.” He did not, however, name Cohen directly. It’s unclear if Judge Merchan will consider this clear reference to Cohen as a violation of the gag order. The prosecution, which early on in the proceeding had brought up the gag order violations numerous times, leading to Judge Merchan to fine Trump several thousand dollars, has not raised the matter of Trump’s recent social media postings. They may do so during sentencing if they seek incarceration.  

But more important than the ongoing feud between Trump and Cohen is the upcoming debate with Mr. Biden. Trump’s attorneys argued in their letter that Trump’s “constitutional mandate for unrestrained campaign advocacy” is even more pressing now that he will debate President Biden on June 27 at CNN’s studios at Atlanta, Georgia, in a  critical battleground state Mr. Trump very narrowly lost in 2020.

“Debate on the qualifications of candidates is at the core of our electoral process and the First Amendment freedoms, not at the edges,” the attorneys wrote, citing a 2002 Supreme Court decision regarding the First Amendment rights of candidates for judicial office. And in a second citation, they wrote, “an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench, would probably engender resentment, suspicion and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.” 

Actor Robert De Niro argues with a Trump supporter after speaking to reporters in support of President Biden across the street from Trump's criminal trial in New York, Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Actor Robert De Niro argues with a Trump supporter after speaking to reporters in support of President Biden across the street from Trump’s criminal trial in New York, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. AP/Seth Wenig

The two-time Oscar winning actor Robert De Niro, the attorneys added, campaigned for President Biden in an official campaign event outside the Manhattan courthouse, on the day of closing arguments in Trump’s trial. Furthermore, when President Biden commented on the verdict on May 31, he called Trump’s statements that the case was “rigged” and a political witch hunt, brought by the White House to stop him from winning the presidency, “reckless” and “dangerous.” On Monday, President Biden said at a fundraiser at Greenwich, Connecticut, that Trump “wants you to believe it’s all rigged. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

While Trump’s attorneys urged the judge to allow their client to speak about the participants in the case, they added in a footnote that “the defense does not concede that there was ever a valid basis for the gag order and reserves the right to challenge the irreparable First  Amendment harms caused by the order.”  

Early on, Judge Merchan fined Trump a total sum of $10,000 for violating the gag order ten times during and before the trial, and threatened to send Trump  to jail if he continued to make public comments about trial participants. But despite several possible gag order violations since the imposition of the fines, the judge and prosecutors have been silent on the matter.

Before and during his trial, Trump tried to appeal the gag order but a mid-level appeals court denied his request twice, once by a single judge and again by a full five-panel of judges. His attorneys said they plan to appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. In January, that same court refused to hear Trump’s arguments against another gag order, issued by another judge, Arthur Engoron, who presided over his civil fraud case. 

Loren Merchan, Judge Juan Merchan’s daughter, has worked as a Democratic operative. Facebook

During that trial, after which Trump was fined the astronomical sum of almost half a billion dollars, Trump had attacked the judge’s principal law clerk, Allison Greenfield, and posted a picture of her with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling her, without proof, “Schumer’s girlfriend.” Trump was fined a total of $15,000 for violating the gag order, as he continued to post about Ms. Greenfield, saying she was co-judging the case by whispering into the judge’s ears and rolling her eyes. Evidence provided by the court showed that Ms. Greenfield received hundreds of threats to her personal cell phone and email, which included anti-Semitic insults, after Trump began posting about her on social media.         

These violent threats made by Trump’s angry supporters appear to be among the principal reasons the courts continue to deny Trump’s gag order appeals. Defense lawyers have argued that Trump should not be held accountable for the actions of third parties; however, the evidence has shown again and again that the threats increase as soon as Trump posts negative statements about someone on social media or makes disparaging comments during his press conferences. 

However, there is a stark difference between a widely unknown law clerk and public personas such as Ms. Clifford and Cohen, who give interviews on television and could be considered celebrities who are therefore, perhaps, fair game. It remains to be seen if the appeal courts agree.   

The letter, sent by Mr. Blanche and Mr. Bove, was not signed by defense attorney Susan Necheles, who was a key part of the defense team during the trial, leading the defense cross-examination of Ms. Clifford. It’s unclear what the notable absence of her signature means for Trump’s defense team.


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