‘It’s clearly strategic’: Why Trump kept attacking judges’ families

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NEW YORK — Every time prosecutors and judges tried to muzzle Donald Trump, he lashed out at their families.

In three different court cases over the past six months, judges imposed gag orders that restrained the former president from vilifying witnesses, court employees and others involved in the proceedings against him. In each case, Trump responded by verbally attacking not only the prosecutors and judges themselves, but also their family members.

“It’s clearly strategic,” said Ty Cobb, who served as a White House lawyer under Trump but has become a frequent critic of the former president.

“His attacks are designed around his traditional approach to delegitimizing the proceedings.”

Late Monday, one of the judges tried to stop him.

After Trump spent several days denigrating the adult daughter of Justice Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing Trump’s Manhattan criminal case, Merchan issued an expanded gag order barring Trump from attacking the judge’s own family. Merchan also expanded the gag to cover the family of the lead prosecutor, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

“The average observer, must now, after hearing Defendant’s recent attacks, draw the conclusion that if they become involved in these proceedings, even tangentially, they should worry not only for themselves, but for their loved ones as well,” Merchan wrote. “Such concerns will undoubtedly interfere with the fair administration of justice and constitutes a direct attack on the Rule of Law itself.”

It’s not just the rule of law that’s under threat. Outside the courtroom, Trump’s judges have faced persistent threats to their personal safety, including “swatting” calls directed at their homes and a racist voicemail threatening murder.

Merchan’s new directive came after Bragg urged him to “clarify” whether an earlier gag order, which Merchan issued last week, applied to comments on the judge’s own family.

“This issue is not complicated,” Bragg’s team wrote. “Family members of trial participants must be strictly off-limits. Defendant’s insistence to the contrary bespeaks a dangerous sense of entitlement to instigate fear and even physical harm to the loved ones of those he sees in the courtroom.”

In his latest fusillade on social media, unleashed within days of Merchan’s original gag order, Trump called Merchan’s daughter a “Rabid Trump Hater” due to her work at a digital marketing agency that has Democratic clients. And he claimed that she had used an image of Trump behind bars as a profile picture for a social media account, although a court official said she had abandoned and deleted that account, and that it had been taken over by someone else.

Trump has launched similar attacks in other cases, using flimsy claims about judges’ relatives in a purported effort to show the judges’ own political biases.

While he was on trial last year in a civil case for business fraud, Trump went after Justice Arthur Engoron’s wife, sharing posts that claimed she had displayed anti-Trump messages on social media. She said the account in question wasn’t hers.

And in Trump’s federal criminal case in Washington, D.C., on charges that he sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election, he shared a post claiming that U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan is from a “Marxist family.” He also went after the family of the lead prosecutor in the case, special counsel Jack Smith, saying that Smith’s “wife and family despise me much more than he does.”

In all three cases, Trump exploited the fact that the versions of the gag orders in effect at the time did not explicitly bar him from attacking the relatives of judges or prosecutors. For instance, in the Manhattan case, in which Trump is accused of falsifying business records in the process of covering up a sex scandal that could have hurt him in the 2016 presidential campaign, Merchan’s original gag order restricted comments about family members of “the court’s staff” — a reference that did not clearly cover the family of the judge himself.

Trump’s attorneys opposed the original gag order as well as Bragg’s effort to clarify or expand it, saying that any new conditions would violate Trump’s right to free speech.

And they wrote that “President Trump’s comments concerning Your Honor’s daughter are, properly understood, a criticism of the Court’s prior decision not to recuse itself” — a reference to Merchan’s decision last year not to step down from the case. Trump had argued at the time that Merchan should recuse himself due in part to his daughter’s work for Democratic candidates.

Just as Trump’s attacks on family members follow a pattern, his lawyers have also repeatedly defended those attacks by saying that Trump, particularly as a candidate for president, has a First Amendment right to make them.

In a court hearing last year in the federal election case, Chutkan questioned Trump’s attacks on Smith’s wife, asking, “In what world, in what case would it be allowable for a criminal defendant to attack a prosecutor's family?”

Trump’s lawyer, John Lauro, defended the comments as a free speech exercise. “Your Honor, I don't think there was an attack on a family member,” Lauro said. “What it was was an indication that there might be political bias in light of Mr. Smith, and certainly a First Amendment exercise of speech would allow a criminal defendant to observe that a prosecution is politically biased.”

On Friday, a federal judge who is not involved in any of the Trump cases gave a television interview in which he criticized Trump’s rhetoric — an unusual step, as sitting judges typically refrain from commenting on pending cases.

“It’s very disconcerting to have someone making comments about a judge,” U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton told CNN. “And it’s particularly problematic when those comments are in the form of a threat, especially if they’re directed at one’s family.”

He added: “It is an attack on the rule of law when judges are threatened, and particularly when their family is threatened.”

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Justice Arthur Engoron's name.