Before Donald Trump’s arraignment in New York yesterday, there was so much chatter about a possible gag order in the case that two powerful congressional committee chairmen — House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan and House Oversight Chair James Comer — issued a joint statement condemning the idea.
We soon learned that the Republican congressmen’s concerns were unfounded. At the former president’s arraignment, neither prosecutors nor defense counsel sought such an order, and Judge Juan Manuel Merchan didn’t seem especially eager to issue one.
That said, as NBC News reported, the judge also didn’t rule out the possibility of a gag order in the future: “Merchan said at Tuesday’s hearing that Trump and potential witnesses should refrain from statements that may incite violence or unrest and avoid words or conduct that undermine the rule of law. Merchan said if he saw such [communications] in the future, he’d have to take a closer look.”
It was against this backdrop that the former president hosted a post-arraignment event at his glorified country club last night — roughly six hours after hearing Merchan’s warning about inflammatory rhetoric. NBC News reported:
Just hours after he left his fingerprints in a Manhattan courthouse and on American history, former President Donald Trump returned to his home turf at the Mar-a-Lago club here and proclaimed that he is being unjustly persecuted by prosecution.
Much of the relatively brief speech was entirely in line with expectations. Trump whined. He lied. He railed against perceived foes and listed perceived grievances. He lied some more. He denounced the many investigations he’s facing. He felt sorry for himself.
For the Republican’s critics, the remarks were more likely to generate boredom than outrage. As my MSNBC colleague Jarvis DeBerry summarized, “[E]ven his most diehard supporters may have found it hard to feign excitement during a predictable recitation of everybody who is corrupt and deserving of prosecution — except him. Lots of whining, little winning.”
There was, however, one part of Trump’s speech — which was delivered by way of a teleprompter — that stood out for me: He lashed out at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg before calling the judge overseeing his criminal case “a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family.”
It matters that the former’s president’s rhetoric wasn’t true, but it also matters that Trump publicly attacked the prosecutor and the judge just hours after Merchan warned the defendant about incendiary rhetoric. As MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem put it, the former president “seemed to disregard” the instructions.
As for why, exactly, a criminal defendant facing multiple felony counts would ignore a judge’s request on the same day as his arraignment, let’s take a step back and consider the larger context.
The whole point of a gag order is to prevent those involved in a pending case from making public comments that might interfere with a fair trial. Merchan apparently didn’t want to use such a tool, no doubt mindful that Trump is a candidate for public office. But the judge also wants Trump to show some rhetorical restraint in order to help protect the integrity of the process.
With this in mind, is it possible the Republican disregarded those instructions in the hopes of picking a fight with Merchan? My colleague Lisa Rubin explained via Twitter this morning why Trump might be trying to trigger an aggressive judicial response:
First, that Trump is spoiling for a public, political fight on his constitutional, free speech rights is obvious. That he could also take this fight to appellate courts, thereby also delaying the real proceedings, makes it a two-fer for him. Second, Trump desperately wants out of Juan Merchan’s courtroom and Manhattan criminal courts generally. Baiting Merchan into issuing a gag order by threatening him & others perversely could improve Trump’s chances at recusing the judge and removing the case from Manhattan.
To be sure, it’s possible that Trump just blurted out this provocative rhetoric last night because that’s what he does. The former president isn’t exactly known for his impulse control. Maybe he targeted the prosecutor and the judge because he simply couldn’t help himself.
But it’s also possible that Trump — who’s made no secret of his desperate desire to move the case to a different venue — made provocative comments yesterday with a specific strategy in mind.