Judge rebukes Trump lawyer amid bruising exchanges over gag order

Donald Trump arrives with his lawyer Todd Blanche in New York
Donald Trump arrives with his lawyer Todd Blanche in New York - Brendan McDermid-Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s lawyer was accused of “losing all credibility” in a bruising exchange with the judge overseeing the former president’s hush-money trial.

Justice Juan Merchan admonished the visibly flustered defence lawyer as he was considering the prosecution’s request to fine the Republican nominee $10,000 (£8,000) for allegedly repeatedly violating a gag order.

A ruling was put in place last month banning Mr Trump from attacking jurors, court officials and witnesses.

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Christopher Conroy, the prosecution lawyer, claimed Mr Trump had breached the ruling on 10 occasions, including in a Truth Social post on Apr 10 which called former porn star Stormy Daniels and lawyer Michael Cohen “sleazebags”. Both Ms Daniels and Mr Cohen are key witnesses in the case.

“The defendant has violated this order repeatedly and hasn’t stopped,” Mr Conroy added.

Todd Blanche, Mr Trump’s lawyer, claimed that the former president was responding to a “barrage of political attacks” and was “being very careful to comply” with the gag order. “Mr Blanche, you’re losing all credibility, I have to tell you right now … You’re losing all credibility with the court.”

Despite terse exchanges, Mr Trump twice railed against the judge on Truth Social during a short break and after court finished for the day.

“Highly conflicted, to put it mildly, Judge Juan Merchan, has taken away my constitutional right to free speech,” Mr Trump wrote on his platform. “This is a kangaroo court, and the judge should recuse himself!” he added.

Wearing a freshly pressed navy blue suit and red tie, Mr Trump, 77, later told reporters outside part 59, the courtroom where the case is being held, the gag order is “totally unconstitutional”.

The second day of Mr Trump’s first criminal trial - the first of any former US president - also saw former tabloid executive David Pecker continue to give evidence.

The former president has been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.

Mr Trump is accused of conspiring with Mr Pecker and Mr Cohen to “corrupt” the 2016 presidential election by orchestrating a “catch and kill” scheme to bury stories that could have wounded Mr Trump’s campaign.

Mr Pecker, 72, told the Manhattan Criminal Court he made a “highly confidential agreement” with the two men to act as the “eyes and ears” for Mr Trump and his campaign during an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower.

Mr Pecker said he then told Dylan Howard, the Enquirer’s editor-in-chief, to identify any potential stories about the candidate that he could flag to Mr Cohen.

“I told him that we were going to try to help the campaign and to do that we are going to try and keep this as quiet as possible,” Mr Pecker told the court.

The courtroom on day two of Donald Trump's trial
The courtroom on day two of Donald Trump's trial - Jane Rosenberg

Mr Pecker said he suggested the idea because “when someone’s running for public office like this, it is very common for these women to call up a magazine like the National Enquirer to try to sell their stories.”

Wearing a grey suit, pink tie and blue shirt, the mild-mannered former chief executive of publishing firm American Media Inc (AMI) also told the court how Mr Cohen would direct him to write stories attacking Mr Trump’s political opponents.

He described how the Enquirer bought a story from Trump Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, who claimed Mr Trump fathered a child with a maid who worked for him.

They later discovered the story was not true but paid Mr Sajudin $30,000 for the story - three times the fee usually offered to big celebrities - over fear it would be “embarrassing” if it ran elsewhere.

Mr Pecker also said he called Mr Cohen to discuss former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed to have had a relationship with Mr Trump in 2006 and 2007.

Mr Howard was sent to interview Ms McDougal and an “agitated” Mr Cohen repeatedly called him about it as though he was “under pressure”, Mr Pecker told the court.

Prosecutors say Mr Pecker’s actions helped Mr Trump deceive voters in the 2016 election by burying stories of alleged extramarital affairs at a time when he already faced multiple accusations of sexual misbehaviour.

They have charged Mr Trump with criminally falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to buy the silence of porn star Ms Daniels, who says they had a sexual encounter 10 years earlier.

Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies having an encounter with Ms Daniels. His lawyers argue that Mr Trump did not commit any crimes and only acted to protect his reputation.

AMI admitted in 2018 that it paid $150,000 to Ms McDougal for her story. Mr Trump has denied having an affair with Ms McDougal.

The trial continues.