Trump faces threat of jail time as judge warns of contempt violations

Justice Juan Merchan’s threat of jail time for Donald Trump’s violation of a gag order signals a potentially historic moment: a former U.S. president facing incarceration. Though reluctant, Merchan fined Trump $1,000 and held him in contempt for a tenth time. While jailing Trump may fuel his base’s persecution narrative, it could sway undecided voters, especially given Trump’s ongoing legal battles. Experts weigh the impact on voter perception and the potential for unrest among Trump’s staunch supporters.

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By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON, May 7 (Reuters) – If the judge overseeing Donald Trump’s hush money trial is to be taken at his word, America could be careening toward an unprecedented moment: A former U.S. president behind bars.

Justice Juan Merchan on Monday threatened Trump with jail time for repeatedly violating a gag order in the criminal case underway in Manhattan, although Merchan said it is a step he is reluctant to take.

Jailing Trump would almost certainly inflame his already loyal base of supporters and in their minds further Trump’s narrative that he is being politically persecuted, an argument that helped him win the 2024 Republican nomination.

But being jailed – even for a brief time – would remind other voters of the chaos that has routinely followed Trump, including the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, several political analysts said.

That could be particularly damaging for Trump with voters who remain undecided between him and Democratic President Joe Biden and are just tuning into the race with six months to go before the November election, the analysts said.

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Some of those voters may be turned off by the sordid details of Trump’s alleged tryst with a porn star and his attempts to cover the affair up, said Chris Stirewalt, an election analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Being jailed for contempt of court could further alienate them, as would any right-wing violence or uptick in threats that might result from him being put behind bars.

“It isn’t good for persuadable voters,” Stirewalt said. “It just looks like trouble.”

Merchan on Monday fined Trump $1,000 and held him in contempt of court for a tenth time for violating an order that bars him from speaking publicly about jurors and witnesses, warning that further violations could land him in jail.

Merchan called Trump’s past statements “a direct attack on the rule of law” that he could not allow to continue even as he said jailing the former president would be “a last resort.”

Trump’s campaign quickly responded with a statement calling the threat a “Third World authoritarian tactic.”

The Republican candidate’s hardcore supporters on social media were incensed. U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn said Trump was being punished for defending himself and that the trial was a “sham.” Rogan O’Handley, a popular conservative commentator on social media, wrote: “If Trump is jailed, this country will rip apart.”

Exploiting the case

While Trump has frequently groused about the trial and has railed against the judge and prosecutors, the court proceedings have given him a regular platform with which to air his grievances in appearances before the gathered media. His campaign has worked to exploit the case, regularly asking for donations based on the gag order and the threat of jail time.

A photo of Trump in jail would likely prompt a similar response from the campaign that followed the release of his mug shot by Georgia prosecutors in a separate case last year.

Trump’s campaign worked to turn the image into a political and commercial opportunity, with the photo ending up on T-shirts and beer coolers as a symbol of his defiance.

Trump faces additional federal and state prosecutions for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and for allegedly mishandling classified documents. Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown the race with Biden remains neck-and-neck, a sign that Trump has lost little support nationally despite his legal woes.

In a poll taken just ahead of the start of the hush money trial in April, about half of independent voters believed allegations that Trump paid money to keep his indiscretions quiet, but about the same portion believed the prosecutions against him were excessive and politically motivated.

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At the same time, 60% of independents and 24% of Republicans said they would not vote for Trump in November if he is convicted of a felony. Another 24% of Republicans said they weren’t sure.

“Independents are the key here, and their reaction will depend on whether the decision seems fair,” said John Geer, an expert on public opinion at Vanderbilt University. “Given the number of violations of the gag order and the judge’s effort to extend more chances to follow the rules, it may pose some problems for Trump.”

The wild card is whether some of Trump’s die-hard supporters would respond to his jailing with public threats or outright violence. Elizabeth Neumann, a former official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under Trump, said that was unlikely if Trump is jailed for a brief period.

“The reaction would likely be tied to the severity of the judge’s penalty,” Neumann said. “Jail time for a day or two doesn’t give organizers enough time to mobilize a large group to protest at the courthouse.”

In the long run, Neumann said, Trump’s supporters realize that their goal is to get Trump elected and “political violence would disrupt those efforts.”

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(Reporting by James Oliphant. Additional reporting by Luc Cohen, Helen Coster and Ted Hesson Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O’Brien)