Former President Donald Trump’s vitriolic rants against the Manhattan district attorney’s office have already prompted warnings that his online posts could be seen as an incitement to violence.
But they could also put Trump in serious legal hot water—and potentially even jail.
That's because Trump’s ravings—if he keeps them up after he’s been criminally charged—will likely to prompt a judge to slap down a gag order, which would restrict Trump and potentially others close to him from speaking out about the case, according to former prosecutors and legal experts who spoke with VICE News.
“There is no question that the court should impose a very strict gag order, not only on the former president but anyone who he might solicit to talk on his behalf,” said Robert C. Gottlieb, a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan DA’s office. “This isn’t a game. He has made it clear that he is willing to destroy the foundation of fair and equal justice for all in order to save his own skin.”
Over the last week, Trump has ramped up racist attacks on Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor now weighing whether to indict Trump over his involvement in a $130,000 hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Trump has called Bragg, the first Black man ever elected Manhattan DA, an “animal” and a “racist,” while urging MAGA followers to “protest!” Trump warned that “potential death & destruction” could occur if he’s indicted, and called Bragg a “degenerate psychopath.” A group of about 175 former federal prosecutors slammed Trump in an open letter on Sunday, warning that his statements “can be construed as inciting violence.”
Bragg’s office recently received a threatening letter containing white powder and the words: “"ALVIN: I AM GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The letter was addressed to Bragg and mailed from Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday, according to NBC News.
Gag orders are a run-of-the-mill feature in criminal cases, especially when a defendant’s statements could be interpreted as threatening prosecutors, influencing witnesses, or tainting the jury pool. And violating a gag order means committing the crime of contempt of a court order—which, in New York, can be punished by up to a year in jail.
Other members of Trump’s orbit have already faced gag orders in past criminal cases. That includes Trump’s longtime political advisor Roger Stone and former 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Stone was gagged by federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson after one of his social media accounts posted a picture of Jackson next to what looked like crosshairs. Stone apologized profusely and claimed he initially thought the cross was just some kind of “Celtic occult symbol.”
In Trump’s case, however, he would likely have to violate the order repeatedly before a judge places him in contempt, lawyers said.
“I do think if he were charged and he continued to make these kind of inflammatory public statements, he would face a gag order,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former New York prosecutor and now an expert on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School. “Judges generally give many warnings before holding a litigant in contempt, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Trump has woven attacks on Bragg and other prosecutors eyeing him for criminal charges into the fabric of his public remarks, social media posts, and even fund-raising emails—meaning that a gag order would also mess with the strategy for his ongoing presidential campaign. Trump’s most recent rally appearance included repeated remarks about his legal situation.
“This is really prosecutorial misconduct,” Trump said about the Manhattan probe. “The innocence of people makes no difference to these radical left maniacs.”
Ironically, Trump’s status as a candidate could give him room to argue that limiting his ability to talk freely about one of his regular campaign themes unduly limits his speech.
“I think a judge would be likely to ask all of the parties to refrain from making public statements about the case, but as a practical matter, when the defendant is a politician, the judge will also be concerned about restricting political speech,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in the legendary Southern District of New York. “I very much doubt that he would be jailed for speaking about the case.”
Yet repeated violations of a gag order could force the judge in his case to make a tough decision about whether to find a former president in contempt, legal experts said.
“Whether you’re a former president, or a mobster, or anyone else, if you threaten harm, you initially must be gagged, and if you repeat the threats, then you should be charged with contempt of court,” Gottlieb said.
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