Trump tries to get around his gag order, praising "surrogates" who "beautifully" attack witnesses

GOP lawmakers extend their support of Trump by attacking the jury, the witnesses, and Judge Merchan in his stead

Published May 14, 2024 12:12PM (EDT)

Elected officials including (L-R) Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) speak to the media outside of the Criminal Court where former U.S. President Donald Trump is on trial on May 13, 2024 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Elected officials including (L-R) Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) speak to the media outside of the Criminal Court where former U.S. President Donald Trump is on trial on May 13, 2024 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

If you gag one mouth, three more shall appear.

While Donald Trump has been prevented by Judge Juan Merchan from going after witnesses and jurors in his hush money trial, the former president’s Republican allies have become his attack dogs.

On Monday, as Michael Cohen testified, three lawmakers —Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y. — attacked him outside the courthouse.

Vance called Cohen a “convicted felon” who admitted that he secretly recorded his former employer. “Does any reasonable, sensible person really believe anything that Michael Cohen says?” Vance asked. What the senator failed to note in his complaint was the context in which Cohen recorded Trump: to reassure David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, that they were acting in good faith with respect to a $150,000 hush payment to Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Tuberville also took a stab at Cohen’s credibility. “I’m sitting here listening to a guy on the stand that they had to get out of house arrest because he lied in another court to testify in this court,” Tuberville said. Here, the senator was just plain wrong: Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, not in a court, and he was released from home confinement in 2021 (he was sentenced to three years in prison for his own role in the hush money scheme).

Turberville, taking another page from Trump, also suggested that the people he saw inside the Manhattan courtroom were not Americans. “I am disappointed in looking at the American — supposedly American citizens — in that courtroom, that the D.A. comes in and acts like it’s his Super Bowl,” he said.

Malliotakis, for her part, called Cohen a “convicted disbarred perjurer.”

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Trump's surrogates also went after the judge and his family, citing the fact that Merchan's daughter works for a company that has worked for Democrats. Trump has claimed that poses a conflict of interest, an argument rejected by judges who examined the evidence.

Vance, considered a potential vice president pick, asserted that "the judge inside — his daughter is … raising money for Donald Trump’s political opponents."

That followed an attack last Thursday from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who outside the Manhattan courthouse called Merchan's daughter a "political operative" and declared that one prosecutor's spouse has donated to Democrats "and I think to Biden." Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the New York state legal system is being run by and for President Joe Biden.

Trump has been pleased with the performance, telling reporters Tuesday that he has "a lot of surrogates and they are speaking very beautifully."

“They come from all over ... and they think this is the biggest scam they’ve ever seen,” Trump said.

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Trump seems to be testing the limit of his gag order, disclaiming responsibility for what his surrogates say. Scott himself denied that the former president has told him what to say. “No, I’m fed up,” he insisted last week.

It could be a savvy move, relying on surrogates, at least if the court believes that Trump is not putting the words in their mouths.

“They can say whatever they want to say,” former federal prosecutor David Weinstein told the Associated Press. “They are not bound by a gag order.”

But some argue that what the former president deems very beautiful speech might be a violation of his gag order. Joyce Alene, a former U.S. attorney under President Barack Obama, posted on X: “The gag order prohibits Trump from making comments about jurors/witnesses and also from causing others to make them.”

Ultimately whether that's the case will be up to Merchan. In the meantime, though, Trump continues to benefit from a corps of GOP politicians willing to do what his wife Melania has not: show up to court. On Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., made his own appearance. Speaking to reporters in Manhattan, Johnson declared that he had come "on my own, to support President Trump, because I am one of hundreds of millions of people and one citizen who is deeply concerned about this."

By Nandika Chatterjee

Nandika Chatterjee is a News Fellow at Salon. In 2022 she moved to New York after graduating from the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign where she pursued a B. A in Communication and a B.S. in Psychology. She is currently an M.A. in Journalism candidate at NYU, pursuing the Magazine and Digital Storytelling program, and was previously an Editorial Fellow at Adweek.

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Donald Trump Juan Merchan Michael Cohen Stormy Daniels