• Politics
  • Donald Trump

With Jail Threat Looming, Trump Team Holds Breath After Stormy Daniels’ Testimony

5 minute read

Donald Trump was not happy. As porn star Stormy Daniels took the stand in Trump’s hush-money trial Tuesday, the former President was “cursing audibly” as she outlined the lurid details of their alleged sexual dalliance from 2006, when Trump was 60 and she was 27. At one point, Daniels claimed that Trump told her: “You remind me of my daughter.”

Trump, who denies the affair, has a history of going ballistic over far less personal attacks. But in the hours that followed, he held his tongue. While Trump has repeatedly violated a gag order that prohibits him from attacking witnesses or jurors, the stakes are higher this time. On Monday, Judge Juan Merchan warned Trump that another infraction could land him in a prison cell. 

Now, Merchan, Trump’s lawyers, and the rest of the nation will be waiting minute-by-minute to see whether Trump continues to restrain himself, or whether he will stay true to the Trumpian creed of always punching back. 

For someone who relishes theatrics, Trump may enjoy keeping everyone in suspense. “President Trump is very strategic in what he does,” says Rep. Wesley Hunt of Texas, a close Trump ally. “Chaos to us is not chaos to him.” 

Some in Trump’s orbit are rooting for chaos, encouraging him to engineer a standoff with the American judicial system. They argue that the image of a former President sitting in a prison cell for speaking his mind would turn public opinion against the proceedings. “He should fight it even if it means jail,” says Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

Even those closest to Trump don’t know what he will do next. “The lawyers are quite adamant that they would prefer him not making any comments that would even sniff the line of the gag order restrictions,” says a source close to Trump. But his attorneys recognize the futility of trying to keep him quiet. “They understand he has a campaign to run. They realize this is a unique situation.”

Trump’s comments on Daniels or the trial will carry more weight after Merchan ruled on Monday that he has violated his gag order for the tenth time, fining him $1,000 per violation. The next step, he told the former President, would be “punishable by incarceration.”

There are signs Trump has still been tempted to lash out. Early Tuesday morning, Trump fumed on Truth Social that he had just learned who prosecutors were calling to testify that day. “This is unprecedented, no time for lawyers to prepare,” he wrote. “No judge has ever run a trial in such a biased and partisan way.” Within a half hour, the post was deleted

Trump will have to endure the ordeal again on Thursday when Daniels returns to the Manhattan courtroom. Her testimony is central to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case that Trump falsified business records to conceal payments to Daniels during the 2016 campaign. The money, Bragg argues, was to purchase her silence and influence the election outcome.

To Trump’s allies, his political standing amid profound legal peril has been vindication of his pugnacious style. After facing indictments on a range of charges, including election interference and willfill retention of U.S. national security secrets, Trump steamrolled the GOP primary and is currently ahead in most polls. 

“They're trying to convict him in the court of public opinion on all of the mainstream networks, and they're not succeeding,” says Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump family friend and GOP consultant who saw Trump over the weekend. “I think that gives Trump a sense of peace.”

Republican officials are also rallying around him. Many trekked to Mar-a-Lago over the weekend, including Hunt, who proposed a bill last week that would ensure Trump keeps his Secret Service protection no matter the outcome of his prosecutions; it was in response to another measure, proposed by a Democrat, that would strip former Presidents of their Secret Service detail if convicted of a felony. At Mar-a-Lago, Hunt says, Trump campaign officials held a briefing showing how Trump is polling better now compared to this stage of the last election. 

Within Trump’s inner circle, there’s a debate over whether he should take the witness stand in his own defense. “He shouldn't testify because [the prosecutors] haven't made their case yet,” says a Trump confidant. “That's when defendants should not testify—when the other people have just not made their case.” 

Some Trump allies argue the risk of him drawing a perjury charge is too great, given his proclivity for making false statements. Trump has said he “probably” will testify, though his lawyers are waiting to see how the case unfolds, sources familiar with the matter tell TIME. “The attorneys are supportive of his right to testify. Based on how this trial goes, they'll have stronger opinions one way or the other.”

Judge Merchan seemingly wants to avoid a confrontation with Trump. In Monday’s court session, he told Trump that “incarceration is truly a last resort for me.” But at some point, he stressed, he will have to uphold the justice system’s standards of protecting witnesses and juries from threats and intimidation. In other words: he really would send Trump to the slammer. 

For now, Trump isn’t calling Merchan’s bluff. “Great day in court,” he posted on Truth Social Tuesday night. “I can’t believe I’m gagged, as the Republican nominee for President, from talking about it.” But only Trump knows whether his self-restraint will last.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com