Trump faces contempt hearing for comments on witnesses

Trump faces contempt hearing for comments on witnesses

Donald Trump faces a contempt of court hearing on Tuesday as part of his historic criminal trial, with New York prosecutors insisting the former president repeatedly violated the gag order issued to prevent him from intimidating witnesses.

Donald Trump in court

The hearing comes a day after the jury heard opening arguments in Trump's hush money case, with prosecutors placing him at the center of a criminal conspiracy while his defense team insisted he was "cloaked in innocence."

The case, which centers on allegations of business fraud in the lead-up to Trump's 2016 election victory, is the first-ever criminal trial of a former US president -- and is already imperiling Trump's November White House bid as he's unable to ditch court for the campaign trail.

Tuesday's contempt hearing will focus on statements the Republican made about witnesses Michael Cohen -- his former personal fixer -- and Stormy Daniels, a porn star.

The ex-president is accused of falsifying business records with Cohen to buy the silence of Daniels over an alleged 2006 sexual encounter that could have negatively impacted his presidential bid.

Trump has been under a partial gag order imposed by Judge Juan Merchan to prevent him from publicly attacking witnesses, prosecutors and relatives of court staff.

But that didn't stop him from posting on his social media site about Cohen and Daniels, whom he called "two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our country dearly."

Trump has also made statements about the jury, which the prosecution has added to their original complaint on the gag order violation.

Cited in the supplemental complaint is another Truth Social post, where Trump quoted Fox News commentator Jesse Watters as alleging that "undercover liberal activists (are) lying to the judge in order to get on the Trump jury."

Trump's lawyers say the gag order violates his free speech rights, while the prosecution worries his statements could trigger harassment of those involved with the case.

- Jury intimidation concerns -

Merchan has already scolded Trump to his face after the defendant was muttering loud enough to be heard by prospective jurors and gesturing animatedly.

"I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom," Merchan said.

Jurors will remain anonymous to the public during the trial, though one already stepped down before proceedings began, citing worries about potentially identifying information being released during jury selection.

A finding that Trump is in contempt of court could potentially land the ex-president in jail, setting up a conflict with the Secret Service, the federal policing body charged with protecting Trump and all living presidents.

Even if a fine is a much more likely punishment, Trump has said it would be a "great honor" to be jailed.

On Monday, lawyers from both sides laid out their opening arguments in the case, with prosecutors alleging Trump engaged in a multi-layered conspiracy of fraud and cover-ups.

"It was election fraud, pure and simple," Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo told the jury.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche countered that "President Trump did not commit any crimes."

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, was the first witness called by the prosecution.

His tabloid allegedly bought the rights to another story regarding Trump's infidelity ahead of the election but never ran it, with prosecutors alleging he used a "catch-and-kill" policy to aid Trump.

He's due to go back on the stand Tuesday at 11:00 am (1500 GMT), after the contempt hearing.

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