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Federal judge warns of Trump’s attacks in extraordinary rebuke

A sitting federal judge on Thursday harshly criticized Donald Trump’s attacks on the judge overseeing the former president’s criminal case tied to alleged hush money payments, telling CNN that such statements threaten the viability of the American legal system.

US District Judge Reggie Walton spoke with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on “The Source” in the wake of Trump’s attacks on Judge Juan Merchan, which helped prompt the New York judge to issue a gag order on the former president earlier this week. It is unusual for federal judges to speak publicly, especially about specific political or legal situations.

“It’s very disconcerting to have someone making comments about a judge, and it’s particularly problematic when those comments are in the form of a threat, especially if they’re directed at one’s family,” said Walton, who has also faced threats, as has his daughter. “We do these jobs because we’re committed to the rule of law and we believe in the rule of law, and the rule of law can only function effectively when we have judges who are prepared to carry out their duties without the threat of potential physical harm.”

“I think it’s important in order to preserve our democracy that we maintain the rule of law,” Walton said in the interview. “And the rule of law can only be maintained if we have independent judicial officers who are able to do their job and ensure that the laws are, in fact, enforced and that the laws are applied equally to everybody who appears in our courthouse.”

“I think it’s important that, as judges, we speak out and say things in reference to things that conceivably are going to impact on the process, because if we don’t have a viable court system that’s able to function efficiently, then we have tyranny. And I don’t think that would be good for the future of our country, and the future of democracy in our country,” he continued.

In addition to the New York case and other legal matters, Trump is criminally charged in a federal election interference case, where he faces a likely trial in the courtroom of Judge Tanya Chutkan, one of Walton’s colleagues in the DC District Court. A gag order on Trump in his federal 2020 election case that limits his ability to speak about court staff in a way that could influence his case has been upheld by the appeals courts. Yet Trump continues to rail about judges and others involved in his court cases elsewhere when gag orders don’t limit him. The use of court-imposed gag orders against him have become more widespread in recent months as the former president heads toward criminal trials and because of the history of documented threats his public attacks have inspired.

In New York, Trump has repeatedly attacked District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case and those involved with it ahead of what would be the first criminal trial of a former president. Trump criticized Merchan, his daughter and one of Bragg’s prosecutors in the hours before Merchan issued his gag order. In the order – which does not prevent Trump from talking about Bragg, who is a public figure, or Merchan himself – Merchan cited “a sufficient risk to the administration of justice … and there exists no less restrictive means to prevent such risk.”

Walton said that Merchan “did the right thing” by not including himself in the gag order that he imposed on Trump. The gag order limits Trump from making statements about potential witnesses, attorneys, court staff or the family members of prosecutors or lawyers intended to interfere with the case.

Walton, who has been a senior judge of the federal trial level court in Washington, DC, since 2001, told CNN he is speaking out against threats on judges because he is concerned.

Walton said even though threats may be made against you and your family, “you still have an obligation to ensure that everybody who comes into your courtroom is treated fairly regardless of who they are, or what they’ve done.”

“But nonetheless, it is very troubling because I think it is an attack on the rule of law when judges are threatened and particularly when their family is threatened and it’s something that’s wrong and should not happen,” Walton said.

Prosecutors asked the judge on Thursday to “clarify or confirm” that the gag order covered family members of the judge, district attorney and those included in the order and “direct that defendant immediately desist from attacks on family members,” citing Trump’s social media posts.

“The People believe that the March 26 Order is properly read to protect family members of the Court… such protection is amply warranted,” prosecutors wrote. They also said that multiple potential witnesses “have already expressed grave concerns” about their safety as well as the safety of family members.

Trump’s attorneys responded on Friday, writing, “To ‘clarify or confirm’ the meaning of the gag order in the way the People suggest would be to expand it.”

Trump’s attorneys said they want to file legal briefs to challenge any expansion. The letters were made public on Friday.

Trump’s historic criminal trial will begin with jury selection on April 15, after a dispute over the late production of documents caused Merchan to initially push back the start date. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records stemming from reimbursements to his then-attorney Michael Cohen for hush money payments he made before the 2016 election to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about an alleged affair with Trump. The former president has pleaded not guilty and denied the affair.

This story has been updated with additional details and background information.

CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Kara Scannell contributed to this report.

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