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Molly Butler / Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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Myths and facts: Debunking right-wing lies and misinformation about Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial

As Trump’s first criminal trial begins, right-wing media repeat his lies and push new falsehoods

Update (last updated 5/1/24): This article has been updated to include additional examples.

On April 15, former President Donald Trump walked into a Manhattan courtroom for the first day of his trial for charges of falsifying business records in order to conceal hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Trump and right-wing media immediately began spreading lies about the trial. 

Right-wing media have wrongly claimed: that a gag order the judge issued on Trump is a violation of his freedom of speech, that the judge has barred Trump from attending his son’s graduation, that Trump should have been charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies, and that Trump should not be prosecuted because Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Steele dossier is similar and yielded only a fine. 

In reality, the case centers on Trump’s attempts to conceal hush money payments to Daniels, who allegedly had an affair with the former president. Trump funneled the payments to Daniels through his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the scheme as well as other crimes. Prosecutors allege that Trump violated election law in paying off Daniels as it was part of a coordinated effort to assist his 2016 campaign and may have also violated state tax law by mischaracterizing Cohen’s reimbursement.

Experts say Merchan’s gag order is consistent with case law. Merchan also declined to answer Trump’s request to be excused from court on May 17 to attend his son’s graduation, stating that it was too early to make a decision but signaling an openness to it. 

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  • Myth: Trump’s gag order is unconstitutional and a violation of his freedom of speech

    • Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett stated that “the gag order is a clear violation of the First Amendment.” He then claimed that “judges get away with it because by the time it’s challenged on appeal the case is over.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/15/24]
    • Jarrett again criticized Trump’s gag order, saying that especially as the leading candidate for president, Trump has a “constitutional right to speak out to defend himself.” He also claimed that “the judge wants to gag Trump so he can’t respond to some of the accusations against him.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Sean Hannity Show, 4/15/24]
    • Conservative judicial activist Mike Davis claimed that Trump’s gag order is “illegal” and that “gag orders are supposed to protect criminal defendants.” Davis continued, “You don't put a gag order on a criminal defendant to gag him during a criminal trial, especially when that criminal defendant is a candidate.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room with Steve Bannon, 4/15/24]
    • Trump ally and anti-Muslim bigot Laura Loomer tweeted that she would “gladly pay the fine for President Trump so he can have free speech.” Trump has amplified Loomer’s content attacking Merchan’s family members, leading Loomer to claim that she would pay Trump’s legal fines “if this asshole named Judge Merchan is really going to target Trump for sharing my videos on Truth Social.” [Twitter/X, 4/15/24; Politico, 4/15/24]
  • Fact: Experts say the gag order is consistent with New York law and precedent

    • Merchan has issued a gag order preventing Trump from making public statements that are meant to interfere with the case, including statements about witnesses and their potential testimony, prosecutors, court staff and their family members, and the members of Merchan’s and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s families. Trump has repeatedly disparaged Merchan’s daughter online and has a history of attacking individuals involved in his legal proceedings. [Reuters, 4/12/24; The Washington Post, 4/17/24]
    • Experts say that Merchan was following case law that goes back decades, that gag orders are rarely found to violate the First Amendment, and that Trump “is free to discuss the criminal justice system but not to make ad hominem attacks on particular people associated with the case.” The gag order does not prevent Trump from speaking about the case, as he can “raise political arguments as he sees fit” as well as comment on Merchan and Bragg. [PolitiFact, 4/11/24; Just Security, 3/27/24; The Associated Press, 4/9/24]
    • Merchan initially resisted imposing the gag order, urging Trump not to make statements that could incite violence and stating that he was “bending over backwards” to give the former president every opportunity “to speak in furtherance of his candidacy.” After Merchan expanded the initial gag order on April 1, Trump reacted on Truth Social, “They can talk about me but I can’t talk about them???” [The Washington Post, 4/9/24
  • Myth: Merchan is blocking Trump from attending Barron’s graduation

    • After leaving the courtroom on Monday, Trump stated to reporters, “It looks like the judge will not let me go to the graduation of my son.” He later reiterated the claim on Truth Social, claiming that he is “being prohibited from attending.” [Associated Press, 4/16/24]
    • Newsmax host Carl Higbie claimed that Merchan barred Trump from attending Barron’s graduation. Higbie then encouraged Trump to dare Merchan to hold him in contempt, saying, “If I was Trump, I would say, ‘You know what, man? Bring it. Put me in jail. I beg you.’” [Newsmax, Carl Higbie Frontline, 4/15/24
    • Fox News personality Rachel Campos-Duffy claimed that Democrats are “trying to demoralize” Trump by not allowing him to attend his son’s graduation. Campos-Duffy added, “This feels super communist.” [Fox News, Outnumbered, 4/16/24]
    • Fox Nation host Piers Morgan, appearing on The Five, also encouraged Trump to get himself arrested by attending Barron’s graduation. Morgan stated, “If you're watching, President Trump, just go to the graduation. Every parent in America, whether they like you or hate you, will go, ‘Yeah. I’d have done that too.’” [Fox News, The Five, 4/15/24]
    • Right-wing influencer Dom Lucre tweeted that it was “barbaric” to not allow Trump to attend his son’s graduation. [Twitter/X, 4/15/24]
    • Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk urged Trump to risk arrest by attending Barron’s graduation. Kirk stated, “I think Donald Trump should defy the New York judge order and go to Barron's graduation. I think he should just defy the order and go to Barron's graduation. Get arrested. It's just more indictments, not as if you're already not facing 700 years in federal prison.” [Real America’s Voice, The Charlie Kirk Show, 4/17/24]
  • Fact: Merchan has not made a decision yet regarding Barron’s graduation

    • When asked if Trump would be excused from attending court on May 17 for the high school graduation of his son, Merchan said it was too early in the trial for a decision but signaled an openness to it if the trial proceeds on schedule. [Rolling Stone, 4/16/24]
  • Myth: Trump should have been charged with misdemeanors, and the charges were filed outside of the statute of limitations

    • Fox News host Greg Gutfeld cited Fox legal contributor Jonathan Turley to claim Trump’s charges were an elevated misdemeanor. Gutfeld said, “According to legal expert Jonathan Turley, Trump is on trial for allegedly falsifying business records related to payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Turley added that it's 'a misdemeanor and the statute of limitations ran out.' Somehow none of that matters in New York City, where guys who randomly punch kids are given a pat on the back and a key to the city, but when it comes to porn star payments you’d better keep records more detailed than a CVS receipt.” [Fox News, Gutfeld, 4/16/24]
    • Fox News host Brian Kilmeade claimed that Trump’s felony charges are actually misdemeanor crimes. He stated, “So they have to show that the felony charges, the prosecutors must show that Trump not only falsified or caused business records to be entered falsely, which would be misdemeanor, but they also have to show an intent to commit and conceal a second crime. But so far Alvin Bragg hasn't told us what that second crime is. So when are we going to find out what the second crime is? And don't you think defense needs to know?” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/15/24]
    • Fox News legal editor Kerri Kupec Urbahn stated that Bragg “has somehow manufactured these very low-level misdemeanor charges into felonies.” Washington Times editor Charles Hurt also called the crime a “paperwork violation” with “no victim.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/15/24]
    • In an appearance on Fox, Turley called Trump’s hush money trial a “Frankenstein case” made up of a “dead misdemeanor” and “dead alleged federal felony.” According to Turley, “They took a dead misdemeanor, they attached it to a dead alleged federal felony and zapped it back into life. So — many of us are just amazed to watch this actually walk into court because it’s not a recognizable crime that any of us have seen.” [Fox News, America Reports, 4/15/24]
    • Right-wing radio host Sean Hannity complained on his show that the alleged infraction is a “misdemeanor, unless they can prove it was done with intent to commit or conceal another crime, and this guy has not even brought that up.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Sean Hannity Show, 4/16/24]
  • Fact: Trump was charged with felonies because he allegedly concealed an underlying crime, and the statute of limitations was extended

    • Under New York state law, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor, but it becomes a felony if the defendant altered the records to conceal an underlying crime. Prosecutors have three theories demonstrating Trump’s violation of federal and state election law and New York tax law. [Politico, 6/13/23]
    • Forbes: “The timeline for bringing criminal charges was extended by more than a year during the pandemic, and prosecutors could also argue the five-year clock was paused whenever Trump spent extended periods living in Florida.” PBS reported: “In New York, the clock can stop on the statute of limitations when a potential defendant is continuously outside the state. Trump visited New York rarely over the four years of his presidency and now lives mostly in Florida and New Jersey.” [Forbes, 4/15/24; PBS, 3/11/23]
  • Myth: Trump should not be prosecuted because Hillary Clinton only paid a fine for the Steele dossier misreporting

    • Turley falsely compared Trump’s charges to Hillary Clinton and the Steele dossier. He wrote in the New York Post, “Once again, the contrast to other controversies is telling. Before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign denied that it had funded the infamous Steele dossier behind the debunked Russian collusion claims.” [New York Post, 4/14/24]
    • Far-right troll Jack Posobiec posted, “In 2022, Hillary Clinton quietly settled a campaign finance violation over reporting the *Steele Dossier* funding as ‘legal services.’ She paid a fine and was never arrested. The same thing Trump is on trial for right now.” [Twitter/X, 4/16/24]
    • Gregg Jarrett argued Trump’s prosecution was unfair, because Clinton was only fined for the Steele dossier despite also incorrectly booking the expense. He argued, “Hillary Clinton did pretty much the same thing. She too used a lawyer to secretly pay for the phony Steele dossier and booking it as ‘legal expenses.’ She was fined by the FEC but she wasn’t prosecuted.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/15/24]
    • Roger Stone posted, “Hillary Clinton falsely reported the payments by her campaign for the fabrication of the ‘Steele dossier’ as ‘legal expenses.’ I don't recall her being prosecuted. #TwoTieredJustice.” [Twitter/X, 4/16/24]
    • The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway promoted Turley’s article and highlighted the Clinton comparison. She wrote, “Excellent point from Turley here. When DNC/Hillary Clinton lied about the 2016 campaign funding of the Steele Dossier, there were no criminal charges or media calls for accountability. But the Trump NDA gets charged?? Rule of law destroyed.” [Twitter/X, 4/15/24]
  • Fact: Trump’s hush money payments allegedly involved the falsification of business records to conceal a crime, rather than mischaracterizing campaign expenditures

    • Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hired a firm to conduct opposition research on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, which led to the compilation of a dossier by former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The report made salacious allegations about Trump, many of which have since been discredited. [CNN, 11/18/21]
    • The campaign misreported the spending as legal services rather than opposition research. Under an agreement with the Federal Elections Commission, the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign paid $105,000 and $8,000 in fines, respectively. [The Associated Press, 3/31/22]
    • Unlike in Trump’s case, the civil penalty paid by Clinton’s campaign and the DNC “appears to relate to highly technical rules about how campaign spending through an intermediary should be reported.” The DNC and Clinton campaign were fined for improper reporting, while Trump was charged with falsifying business records to allegedly conceal a crime. [Politico, 3/31/22]
    • The Washington Post reported that “This analogy isn’t terribly strong, given, first, that the campaign and the Democratic National Committee faced punishment for the reporting and, second, that it centered on the mechanics of properly reporting campaign spending to the FEC.” [The Washington Post, 3/21/23]
  • Myth: All Trump did was use a nondisclosure agreement, which is perfectly legal

    • On The Faulkner Focus, former federal prosecutor Andrew Cherkasky said, “It would have been perfectly legal … and was legal” for Trump to make a payment for the NDA “to get rid of this nuisance that business people get rid of all the time.” He argued that cases like this end in acquittal “when you have a good jury.” [Fox News, The Faulkner Focus, 4/15/24]
    • Fox News host Mark Levin disregarded the theory of the case and said, “It's not hush money. They're nondisclosure agreements.” [Westwood One, The Mark Levin Podcast, 4/24/24]
    • Fox News contributor Andy McCarthy focused on the NDA, saying, “It’s not illegal to bury compromised or politically-damaging information.” He added, “There is nothing criminal about that. Nondisclosure agreements are a staple of civil litigation in the United States.” [Fox News, The Faulkner Focus, 4/26/24]
    • On Fox News, former Trump attorney Jim Trusty claimed Trump's NDA usage “does not actually constitute anything criminal.” He called the case against Trump “tawdry scandalous distasteful stuff” and complained that, “If nondisclosure agreements were criminal, Congress would be in prison right now.” [Fox News, America Reports, 4/25/24]
  • Fact: The trial is not about the NDA, but whether Trump illegally tried to cover up the payment for the NDA

    • Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has specifically refuted the idea that the NDA was criminal, but asserts that the crime was in how Trump hid that payment. In an interview, Bragg stated, “We would say it's about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up.” [USA Today, 4/15/24]
    • While there is nothing inherently illegal about a nondisclosure agreement, when an NDA is used to cover up a crime or the money paid is an illegal payment, the NDA can become a criminal matter. As Tess Wilkinson-Ryan of the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law explained to Slate: “It’s legally OK if the information being kept confidential is not about a crime, or if keeping it confidential doesn’t otherwise violate the law. If the payment itself is illegal—imagine bribery or blackmail—that’s a matter of criminal law.” [Slate, 3/27/23]
  • Myth: Prosecutors are charging Trump over killing negative stories, which isn't a crime

    • Fox News legal editor Kerri Kupec Urbahn said, “It is not a crime to do a catch-and-kill scheme.” She continued, saying, “It is not a crime to suppress bad stories about yourself, whether you are running for president or not. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/26/24]
    • Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen misleadingly claimed that Trump was “accused of suppressing a negative news story.” He added, “If that was a crime, every campaign press secretary in America would be prosecuted.” [Fox News, Outnumbered, 4/26/24]
    • On The Faulkner Focus, former Assistant District Attorney Phil Holloway claimed David Pecker’s testimony is proof the prosecution is “having a very difficult time finding anything that was actually illegal.” Holloway claimed it is not election interference, but rather “normal campaign conduct.” [Fox News, The Faulkner Focus, 4/26/24]
    • Fox News contributor Sol Wisenberg argued, “The idea that paying for a catch-and-kill story could constitute election interference in a way that lifts this misdemeanor into a felony … is a joke.” [Fox News, Ingraham Angle, 4/26/24]
  • Fact: The legality of the catch-and-kill scheme is not in question; it is part of the prosecution's argument that Trump was trying to protect his electoral chances

    • Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified to paying Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about having an affair with Trump and then never releasing the story. According to the Associated Press, there had been “some talk of reimbursement from Trump’s orbit, but Pecker was ultimately never paid” for the McDougal story. [Associated Press, 4/25/24]
    • Pecker testified that he believed Trump wanted the McDougal story killed in order to help protect Trump’s presidential bid.  Pecker speculated that Trump’s interest in squashing McDougal’s story was “basically [about] what the impact would be to the campaign and the election.” [The Washington Post, 4/25/24]
    • The prosecution brought forward the catch-and-kill scheme described by Pecker in part to establish a pattern in which Trump and his associates buried negative news stories close to Election Day, not to question the criminality of the scheme itself. Pecker’s testimony also helps the prosecution introduce other aspects of their argument, including Michael Cohen’s alleged role as an intermediary for Trump. [The Guardian, 4/26/24]
  • Myth: Legal analysts don’t understand what crime Trump is being accused of committing

    • Fox News contributor Todd Piro told Laura Ingraham that he can’t say what the crime is, adding, “We’ve read legal scholars say they can't figure out the crime.” He said after watching courtroom testimony he still doesn’t know what the crime is. [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 4/25/24]
    • Fox News legal editor Kerri Kupec Urbahn claimed it is still “unclear what this underlying crime is that Donald Trump is alleged to have concealed.” Summarizing the first part of the trial, Kupec said, “They did not reveal anything that was criminal in nature or that directly related to Donald Trump's payments to Michael Cohen who paid Stormy Daniels.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/25/24]
    • Fox anchor John Roberts questioned, “Where is the crime?” and emphasized similar comments from Fox News contributors Andy McCarthy and Jonathan Turley, as well as Trump’s argument that the trial should “be over” because there is “no underlying criminal behavior here.” Fox anchor Shannon Bream said prosecutors will have to convince jury members that there is an underlying crime. [Fox News, America Reports, 4/26/24]
  • Fact: The alleged underlying crime is about Trump committing fraud to better his chances of winning the 2016 presidential election

    • Trump was charged with 34 felony counts on the basis that business records were allegedly falsified to conceal an underlying crime of violating state and federal election law as well as New York tax code. While New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg still needs to prove that Trump had intent to violate the law, Bragg has extensively explained the underlying crime Trump is accused of committing. [Media Matters, 4/15/24]