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Manhattan DA asks judge for a gag order in Trump's hush-money case ahead of next month's trial

Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan criminal court, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in New York. A New York judge says Trump's hush-money trial will go ahead as scheduled with jury selection starting on March 25. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s New York hush-money criminal case asked a judge Monday to impose a gag order on the former president ahead of next month's trial, citing what they called his “long history of making public and inflammatory remarks” about people involved in his legal cases.

The Manhattan district attorney's office is seeking what it described as a “narrowly tailored” order that would bar Trump from making or directing others to make public statements about potential witnesses and jurors, as well as statements meant to interfere with or harass the court's staff, prosecution team or their families.

A gag order would add to restrictions put in place after Trump's arraignment last April that prohibit him from using evidence in the case to attack witnesses.

Without limits, prosecutors said, Trump's rhetoric would “create a significant and imminent threat to the trial by distracting personnel, diverting government resources, and delaying the administration of justice.”

The judge, Juan Manuel Merchan, didn’t rule immediately. Jury selection is scheduled to start March 25. Barring a last-minute delay, it will be the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial.

A spokesperson for Trump's presidential campaign called the gag order request “election interference pure and simple” and called the hush-money case a “sham orchestrated by partisan Democrats desperately attempting to prevent” Trump from returning to the White House.

Trump lawyer Susan Necheles said the defense will respond in court papers later this week.

The Manhattan case centers on allegations that Trump falsified internal records kept by his company to hide the true nature of payments made to his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. The lawyer paid porn actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 as part of an effort during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to bury claims he’d had extramarital sexual encounters.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in jail time.

Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, has lashed out about the case repeatedly on social media, warning of “potential death & destruction” before his indictment last year, posting a photo on social media of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of District Attorney Alvin Bragg and complaining that the judge, Juan Manuel Merchan, is “a Trump-hating judge" with a family full of “Trump haters.”

Trump is already under a similar gag order in his Washington, D.C., election interference criminal case and was fined $15,000 for twice violating a gag order imposed in his New York civil fraud trial after he made a disparaging social media post about the judge’s chief law clerk. In January, a Manhattan federal judge threatened Trump with expulsion from court in a civil trial on writer E. Jean Carroll's defamation claims against him after he was heard saying “it is a witch hunt” and “it really is a con job.”

“Self-regulation is not a viable alternative, as defendant’s recent history makes plain,” prosecutors wrote in court papers. Trump, they said, “has a longstanding and perhaps singular history” of using social media, campaign speeches and other public statements to “attack judges, jurors, lawyers, witnesses and other individuals involved in legal proceedings against him."

In a statement, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said: “Today, the 2-tiered system of justice implemented against President Trump is on full display, with the request by another Deranged Democrat prosecutor seeking a restrictive gag order, which if granted, would impose an unconstitutional infringement on President Trump’s First Amendment rights, including his ability to defend himself, and the rights of all Americans to hear from President Trump."

The requested gag order would not bar Trump from commenting about Bragg, an elected Democrat.

Still, prosecutors contend that Trump's enmity for Bragg — including Truth Social posts calling Manhattan’s first Black D.A. a “degenerate psychopath” who “hates the USA" — has led to a spike in threats against the prosecutor and the district attorney's office.

Last year, prosecutors said, police recorded 89 threats to Bragg, his family or staff, up from just a single threat in 2022, his first year in office. The wave of threats started March 18, according to an affidavit by the head of Bragg's police detail, the day Trump falsely posted online that he was about to be arrested and encouraged supporters to protest and “take our nation back!”

A few days later, prosecutors noted, Bragg’s office received a letter containing a small amount of white powder and a note stating: “Alvin: I’m going to kill you.”

Trump has referred to a key witness in the case, his former lawyer Cohen, as a “convicted felon, disbarred lawyer, with zero credibility" and has made posts mocking Daniels, the porn actor who received one of the alleged hush-money payments.

The gag order request Monday mirrored portions of an order imposed on Trump in October in his separate Washington federal case, where he is charged with scheming to overturn the results of his 2020 election loss to Democratic rival Joe Biden.

A federal appeals court panel in December largely upheld Judge Tanya Chutkan's gag order but narrowed it in an important way by freeing Trump to criticize Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the case. Manhattan prosecutors echoed that ruling by excluding Bragg from their proposed gag order.

Last May, Merchan issued what’s known as a protective order, warning Trump and his lawyers they risked being held in contempt if they disseminated evidence from the hush-money case to third parties, used it to attack witnesses or posted sensitive material to social media.

Merchan, noting Trump’s “special” status as a former president and current candidate, tried to make clear at the time that the protective order shouldn’t be construed as a gag order, saying: “It’s certainly not my intention to in any way impede Mr. Trump’s ability to campaign for the presidency of the United States.”


Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report. __

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Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press

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