Donald Trump’s bid to return to the White House could prove more complicated than anticipated, at least in the terms of the calendar.
A New York judge today slated March 25, 2024 as the start of the former president’s criminal trial for 2016 payoff hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels over an affair the two allegedly had 17 years ago.
More from Deadline
With an atypically near silent Trump participating by video link, Judge Juan Merchan also used Tuesday’s hearing to caution the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host on what he can say and not say about the 34-count indictment case and any evidence his defense team may see and acquire.
Laying out the protective order to Trump, Judge Merchan warned of a “wide range of possible sanctions including a finding of contempt” if the loose lipped defendant started revealing what he and his team have seen in discovery. Created earlier this month, the protective order forbids Trump for putting up any of that material on “any news or social media platforms, including, but not limited, to Truth Social, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, or YouTube, without prior approval from the Court.”
In fact, the order also limits what material Trump can actually see unless he is in the presence of his lawyers or has a specific waiver from the judge. Visibly taken aback when the trial date was unveiled, Trump’s only utterance today was an “Yes, I do,” when the judge asked if he had a copy of the protective order.
Now, for those of you who are about to point at that protective order and say “But, the First Amendment…,” Judge Merchan today addressed the unique status of the past and potentially future POTUS.
“It is not a gag order, the judge said. “It is certainly not my intention in any way to impede Mr. Trump’s ability to campaign for president of the United States. He is free to deny the charges, free to do almost anything not covered in protective order.”
The March 2024 trial start date will come as most GOP primaries will have come and gone. So, with the Super Tuesday results of March 5 under his belt, poll-leading Trump could have already clinched the Republican presidential nomination when he has to sit in the courtroom.
Unsealed after Trump pleaded not guilty in an April 4 arraignment in Manhattan, the white-collar indictment details the payoff and process of checks written in alleged “catch and kill” payoffs to Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and ex-Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin to quell stories of affairs and illegitimate children. While the criminal charges look to be based on the $130,000 paid to Daniels by then-Trump fixer Michael Cohen in exchange for her silence over the couple’s brief 2006 tryst just before the 2016 election, the indictment overall lists off each and every business transaction and campaign contribution violation, which is how it got to a staggering 34 counts.
The charges from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are all Class E felonies — the lowest category of felony offense under New York law, which carry a maximum prison sentence of four years per count. That means the 76-year-old Trump is looking at 136 years behind bars if found guilty on all counts for the criminal concealment.
Up against a new round of defamation claims, the much-sued and much scandalized Trump was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation on May 9 in E. Jean Carroll‘s civil trial. Ordered to pay $5 million in damages and quickly appealing the decision, Trump, being Trump, proceeded to attack former columnist Carroll as a “wack job” in a CNN town hall. Doubling down as he does, Trump also called the civil trial “a rigged deal.”
Which may have been in part what Judge Merchan today was trying to guard against occurring in the criminal case.
Best of Deadline