Former President Donald Trump made a virtual appearance in New York Criminal Court on Tuesday for the first time since he pleaded not guilty last month to 34 counts of falsifying business documents.
A stern-looking Trump appeared before Judge Juan Merchan on video to hear the terms of a protective order barring him from publicly disclosing evidence, which the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office will deliver to his attorneys in the matter of silent payments. Trump – whose in-person arraignment at the same courthouse last month was accompanied by massive security measures and crippled operations there for the day – appeared virtually from Florida, with attorney Todd White by his side.
Merchan has also set a trial date in the case – March 25, 2024. By then, at least 25 states will have already held their presidential primaries, based on currently scheduled dates.
Asked by the judge if he had a copy of the order, Trump replied, “Yes, I did” and acknowledged that he had reviewed it with his attorney.
Blanche told Merchan that Trump is a “leading candidate” in the presidential race and that he “fears his First Amendment rights may be violated.” Merchan said the directive “is not a gag order” and “it is certainly not my intention to interfere in any way with Mr. Trump’s ability to campaign for President of the United States.” .
“He’s certainly free to deny the charges. He’s free to defend himself against the charges. He’s free to campaign. He’s free to do just about anything that doesn’t violate the specific terms of this protective order.” , added the judge. .
Blanche said her client “understands that he must comply” with the order.
Merchan warned that if Trump violates the order, it could result in a “wide range of penalties,” including “contempt, which is punishable.”
“Agreed, Your Honor,” Blanche replied.
Trump complained about the protective order and the trial date on his Truth Social social media website after the hearing.
“I just had a hearing in New York County Supreme Court where I believe my First Amendment rights, ‘free speech,’ were violated, and they imposed a trial date on us on the 25th March, right in the middle of the primary season. Very unfair, but that’s exactly what the radical left Democrats wanted. It’s called ELECTORAL INTERFERENCE,” he wrote.
Prosecutors had argued the virtual appearance was necessary to prevent Trump from disclosing confidential information in the case, then claimed he was unaware of the terms of the order.
“If the defendant violates the terms of a court-issued protective order, the people may seek to enforce its terms by suing for second-degree criminal contempt,” the prosecutor’s office said in a filing on Tuesday. last month, and in “advancement of such a lawsuit, the people will be required to prove that the defendant had knowledge of the contents of the order.”
Trump’s lawyers argued in court papers that the protective order was “extremely restrictive” and that what prosecutors were proposing “would be an unprecedented and extraordinarily broad muzzle on a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States. “.
But Merchan ruled largely in favor of the DA on the issue earlier this month. His order stated that anyone with access to evidence given to Trump’s team by state prosecutors “shall not copy, distribute or disclose” the material to third parties, including social media platforms, “without prior court approval.
Merchan’s order also targeted Trump, saying he is only allowed to review sensitive “limited release materials” in the presence of his attorneys and that he “is not allowed to copy, photograph, transcribe or otherwise independently possess the Restricted Materials”.
Prosecutors with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office argued the order was necessary in part because of Trump’s repeated public attacks on two of the witnesses in their case, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and the adult film star Stormy Daniels.
NBC News has reached out to Trump’s attorneys and a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office for comment on Tuesday’s hearing.
Trump was accused of falsifying business documents related to silent payments to Daniels and another woman near the end of his 2016 presidential campaign to prevent them from discussing their business allegations with him. He pleaded not guilty and said he had no extramarital affair with either woman.
Cohen pleaded guilty to charges related to the payments as well as other criminal charges in 2018 and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was candid about his cooperation with the prosecutor’s office and in his criticism of his former boss.
In a statement Tuesday, Cohen said, “I have less confidence that Donald will abide by any of the terms of the protective order. His anger towards the system that holds him accountable is so severe that he will not be able to control his actions. He is like a petulant child.
In a court filing last week, the prosecutor’s office denied a request from Trump’s team for more information on some of the legal theories behind their case.
Trump’s lawyers had requested information, known as the bill, in an effort to learn more about the evidence against him, including the legal justification for charging the falsified records as a crime instead of ‘an offense.
Under New York law, to elevate the charge to a felony, the accused must have created the false records with the intent to commit or conceal “another crime.”
Prosecutors said they had already turned over and would continue to turn over more evidence than they were legally required to, and said Trump’s lawyers were not entitled to more. “The indictment does not need to identify a particular crime that the accused intended to commit or conceal, and the accused is not entitled to such information in an inventory “, they added.
Trump complained that the criminal case brought by the Democratic DA was part of a partisan “witch hunt” against him, and claimed that Merchan, a state criminal court judge sitting in Manhattan, “hates me “.
Trump’s attorneys filed paperwork earlier this month seeking to transfer the case to federal court. This request is pending.