Could Donald Trump really go to jail for gag order violations?

Experts say Judge Merchan has "wide latitude," with everything from a wing on Rikers Island to a "time out" in a holding cell behind the courtroom.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the medi
Julia Nikhinson-Pool/Getty Images

If Donald Trump keeps trying the patience of the judge presiding over his hush money trial, the former president could wind up back in his home New York City borough of Queens — specifically the prison on Rikers Island, experts said Monday.

Judge Juan Merchan, who on Monday found that Trump once again had violated a gag order that bars him from disparaging witnesses or the jury, warned the ex-president could face jail “if necessary” for further violations.

Merchan did not specify which jail. But when asked what would happen if the judge sent Trump to Rikers, Frank Dwyer the jail’s top spokesperson said, “The department would find appropriate housing.”  

Trump has contended that he’s the victim of a two-tiered justice system that is treating him more harshly than other individuals. But the former president's critics say it is actually the other way around — that any other criminal defendant who made the kind of public statements Trump has made would have already found themselves behind bars.

The prospect of having Trump locked up while on trial is sure to elicit strong responses from both his supporters and detractors. Trump has repeatedly tried to fundraise off the prospect of being jailed, indicating that his campaign finds that evoking images of him as a political prisoner prompts strong responses from his supporters.

Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said Rikers is the likeliest destination if Merchan goes that route.

What Marchan is trying to do is “end the contempt” and stop Trump from intimidating witnesses and jurors, said Lawlor, a Democrat who is a former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives.

“The whole point is to separate him from his social media,” Lawlor said. “Putting him in jail would do that.”

Trump would immediately be placed in protective custody for his own protection, Lawlor said, meaning he would not be permitted to mingle with the rest of the prison population.

“He’d have no contact with anybody but corrections officers and members of his Secret Service detail,” Lawlor said. “The people at Rikers have lots of experience dealing with high profile prisoners, including vulnerable, elderly people like Trump."

Judge Juan Merchan ruled that former President Donald Trump had violated the court’s gag order for comments about the jury in his New York criminal case.

"Clearly, he would be the highest profile prisoner ever jailed in Rikers, but he wouldn’t be the only high profile prisoner in Rikers,” Lawlor said of Trump, who is 77.

In fact, one of those prisoners is Trump’s former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, who was sentenced last month to five months at Rikers after pleading guilty to two counts of perjury during Trump’s civil fraud trial.

Also, Trump would have to go through the intake process that every prisoner goes through, including the ignominy of having corrections officers making "him get on a scale and then list his actual height and weight on the public website," Lawlor said.

Having Trump behind bars would not be an extra burden on his Secret Service detail, Lawlor added.

“The main job of a Secret Service detail is to protect a former president from being harmed or kidnapped,” Lawlor said. “Having Trump confined to a prison setting would, in some ways, actually make their job easier.”

"The larger issue" is where the Secret Service would be, given that they are armed," said Martin F. Horn, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who once served as commissioner of New York City’s correction and probation departments.

Most likely, Horn said, Trump would be taken to what's called the West Facility, where there would be room enough for the ex-president and his security detail and no other inmates to contend with.

Still, having to ensure the safety of a former U.S. president behind bars would be an unprecedented assignment for the Secret Service, a spokesperson for the agency told NBC News.

The Secret Service does not have its own "custodial services," the spokesperson said.

“Obviously, it’s uncharted territory,” Horn said. “No state prison system has had to deal with this before, and no federal prison has had to either.”

There is another reason Merchan might not be keen on jailing Trump, other experts said.

Being sent to an actual jail may be “what Trump wants to show grievance to his supporters,” Dave Aronberg, a state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, which is where Trump lives most of the time, said in a MSNBC interview with José Díaz-Balart.

More likely, Merchan could give Trump a "time out" in a cell behind the New York City courtroom where he is currently on trial.

Former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin, who took part in the same interview, agreed.

"Maybe an hour in one of those cells might be all that Donald Trump needs to understand the seriousness of violations of gag orders imposed by a very serious judge," Zeldin said.

House arrest is also a possibility, but the judge "has wide latitude about where he could confine" Trump, Horn said.

Lawlor said Merchan is unlikely to confine Trump to a gilded cage, like his apartment in Trump Tower, because he'd still have access to electronics and his aides and be able to defy the judge's orders from there.

"So I don’t think he’d be confined to his Manhattan apartment," Lawlor said. 

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