Donald Trump Assails Judge and His Daughter After Gag Order in New York Hush-Money Criminal Case

NEW YORK (AP) -- Donald Trump lashed out Wednesday at the New York judge who put him under a gag order ahead of his April 15 hush-money criminal trial, making a fallacious claim about his daughter and urging him to step aside from the case.

In a social media post, the former president suggested without evidence that Judge Juan M. Merchan was kowtowing to his daughter's interests as a Democratic political consultant. He also made a claim -- later repudiated by court officials -- that she had posted a social media photo showing Trump behind bars.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, complained on his Truth Social platform that the gag order issued Tuesday was "illegal, un-American, unConstitutional." He said that Merchan, a veteran Manhattan jurist, was "wrongfully attempting to deprive me of my First Amendment Right to speak out against the Weaponization of Law Enforcement" by Democratic rivals.

Trump claimed that Merchan's daughter, Loren Merchan, whose firm has worked on campaigns for President Joe Biden and other Democrats, had recently posted a photo on social media depicting her "obvious goal" of seeing him jailed.

In a statement, a spokesperson for New York's state court system said that claim was false and that the social media account Trump was referencing no longer belongs to Loren Merchan. It appears to have been taken over by someone else after she deleted it about a year ago, court spokesperson Al Baker said.

The account on X, formerly known as Twitter, "is not linked to her email address, nor has she posted under that screenname since she deleted the account. Rather, it represents the reconstitution, last April, and manipulation of an account she long ago abandoned," Baker said.

Messages seeking comment were left for Loren Merchan and Trump's campaign.

Trump did not link to the purported photo, but an X account under the name "LM" showed a photo illustration of an imprisoned Trump as its profile picture Wednesday morning. It was later changed to an image of Vice President Kamala Harris as a child.

Loren Merchan's consulting firm had linked to that account in its social media posts in past years, but it is now private with no posts displayed and states that it joined the platform in April 2023, after Baker said she deleted it. Usernames on X can be taken over by other users after they're deleted.

The gag order, which prosecutors had requested, bars Trump from either making or directing other people to make public statements on his behalf about jurors and potential witnesses in the hush-money trial, such as his lawyer turned nemesis Michael Cohen and porn star Stormy Daniels. It also prohibits any statements meant to interfere with or harass the court's staff, prosecution team or their families.

It does not bar comments about Merchan or his family, nor does it prohibit criticism of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the elected Democrat whose office is prosecuting Trump.

Trump's post insinuating that Loren Merchan had posted the photo came after conservative commentator Laura Loomer posted a story online Tuesday claiming to have unearthed her X account.

"So, let me get this straight," Trump wrote on Truth Social, "the Judge's daughter is allowed to post pictures of her 'dream' of putting me in jail ... but I am not allowed to talk about the attacks against me, and the Lunatics trying to destroy my life and prevent me from winning the 2024 Presidential Election, which I am dominating?"

Bragg's office declined to comment.

Trump's three-part Truth Social post was his first reaction to the gag order. His focus on Merchan's daughter echoed his lawyers' arguments last year when they urged the judge to exit the case. The judge had also made several small donations totaling $35 to Democratic causes during the 2020 campaign, including $15 to Biden.

Merchan said then that a state court ethics panel found that Loren Merchan's work had no bearing on his impartiality. The judge said in a ruling last September that he was certain of his "ability to be fair and impartial" and that Trump's lawyers had "failed to demonstrate that there exists concrete, or even realistic reasons for recusal to be appropriate, much less required on these grounds."

In a recent interview, Merchan told The Associated Press that he and his staff were working diligently to prepare for the historic first trial of a former president.

"There's no agenda here," Merchan said. "We want to follow the law. We want justice to be done."

Trump's hush-money case, set to be the first of his four criminal cases to go to trial, centers on allegations that he falsely logged payments to Cohen as legal fees in his company's books when they were for Cohen's work during the 2016 campaign covering up negative stories about Trump. That included $130,000 Cohen paid Daniels on Trump's behalf so she wouldn't publicize her claim of a sexual encounter with him years earlier.

Trump pleaded not guilty last April to 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in jail time. He denies having sex with Daniels and his lawyers have said that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses, not part of any coverup.

In issuing the gag order, Merchan cited Trump's history of "threatening, inflammatory, denigrating" remarks about people involved in his legal cases. A violation could result in Trump being held in contempt of court, fined or even jailed.

Though not covered by the restrictions, Merchan referenced Trump's various comments about him as an example of his rhetoric. The gag order mirrors one imposed and largely upheld by a federal appeals court panel in Trump's Washington, D.C., election interference criminal case.

Trump's lawyers fought a gag order, warning it would amount to unconstitutional and unlawful prior restraint on his free speech rights.

Merchan had long resisted imposing one, recognizing Trump's "special" status as a former president and current candidate and not wanting to trample his ability to defend himself publicly.

But, he said, as the trial nears, he found that his obligation to ensuring the integrity of the case outweighs First Amendment concerns. He said Trump's statements have induced fear and necessitated added security measures to protect his targets and investigate threats.