Live from Mar-a-Lago, former president Donald Trump was televised for an audience of one: the judge in his criminal case.
The television-star-turned-president appeared Tuesday afternoon for an unusual criminal court appearance. The setup, in which a defendant appears via live video feed instead of in person, is extraordinarily rare, and typically used for those who are hospitalized, according to court spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.
New York Judge Juan Merchan decided to hold Trump’s second hearing on felony charges this way to spare the city and court a repeat of the disruptive security operation that accompanied Trump’s in-person arraignment on April 4. In that first appearance, the former president pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records stemming from an investigation into hush-money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign.
Trump sat for Tuesday’s hearing in his Mar-a-Lago home with attorney Todd Blanche by his side. Judge Merchan, prosecutors and another one of Trump’s attorneys greeted him from New York, while dozens of reporters watched in the courtroom.
During the proceedings, Merchan set March 25, 2024, as the date for the start of the trial.
Trump sat at a table in front of two American flags with his hands clasped in front of him, wearing a navy blue suit and a tie with red, white and blue stripes. He said little as Merchan reviewed a protective order he put in place — rules barring Trump from publicizing, or even possessing, much of the evidence Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg will turn over to Trump’s attorneys.
The order means Trump cannot speak publicly about, or post on social media, any material that had not already been made public once it’s turned over by prosecutors to his team.
“Mr. Trump, do you have a copy of that protective order?” the judge asked.
“Yes, I do,” Trump replied, picking up the papers in front of him.
Merchan ordered that some information, labeled “Limited Dissemination Materials” by prosecutors, will only be available to Trump in the presence of his attorneys. He will not be allowed to make copies, photograph or transcribe those documents.
Trump’s attorneys opposed the protective order, writing in a May 1 filing that it “would be an unprecedented and extraordinarily broad muzzle on a leading contender for the presidency of the United States.”
Blanche said at the hearing: “He very much is concerned that his First Amendment rights are being violated by this order. I have made it clear that is not your honor’s intention.”
Merchan responded, “It certainly is not a gag order and it certainly is not my intention to impede Mr. Trump’s ability to campaign for the presidency of the United States.”
Merchan told Trump that if he violates the order he can be sanctioned or fined.
The warning perhaps bears extra weight for Trump, who has tested limits in other cases. Last year, he was held in contempt in a state civil court proceeding for repeatedly failing to comply with a court order. On May 10, just one day after he was found liable for sexual abuse of the writer E. Jean Carroll, and defamation for saying she fabricated the claim, Trump said on national TV that it was a “made up story.” On Monday, Carroll filed in federal court papers seeking more than $10 million in new damages from Trump.
Merchan’s order also bars Trump and his team from disclosing the names of certain Manhattan D.A. personnel until a trial begins.
In an April 24 filing requesting the order, a prosecutor cited Trump’s history of derogatory social media posts and statements related to other investigations, including posts about former special counsel Robert Mueller and his probe into alleged links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia; Trump’s two impeachment inquiries; and the Fulton County, Georgia, investigation into alleged efforts to undermine the presidential election in 2020.
Trump is seeking to have the case moved to federal court. That motion remains unresolved and the case is continuing forward in New York State court while a federal judge considers the issue.
Reporting contributed by Ash Kalmar.