In the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump's April 4, 2023, arraignment on criminal charges related to hush-money payments to an adult film actress, his supporters seized on an innocuous photograph of the judge presiding over the case, Juan Merchan, and his daughter, and weaponized it on social media to imply that the court proceedings were a partisan attack on Trump.
Merchan became the subject of scrutiny after conservatives claimed his daughter, Loren Merchan, had previously worked for Democrats. On the day of the arraignment, Trump's sons shared this claim on their social media accounts. Donald Trump Jr.'s tweet, which featured the photograph of Merchan and his daughter, soon went viral.
"Seems relevant… yet another connection in this hand picked democrat show trial," Don Jr. wrote. "The BS never ends folks. Daughter of Judge on Trump Case Worked on Biden-Harris Campaign." The tweet included a link to a Breitbart article. He shared the same picture and article on TruthSocial.
Eric Trump posted — and then deleted — a tweet stating, "They are all hand picked. It is all pre-arranged. This corruption is on a different level. Daughter of Judge Overseeing Trump's Case Worked For 'Kamala Harris Campaign', Now Serves As President of Company that Has Biden-Harris Campaign As Client."
The photograph, which was pulled from the Flickr account of the Alumni Office of SUNY Geneseo (Loren Merchan's alma mater), went viral as a political tool for Trump supporters, whose aim was to cast doubt on the judge's impartiality by drawing attention to his daughter's work on Democratic political campaigns. Snopes has fact-checked the claim that she worked for Harris' and U.S. President Joe Biden's campaigns, and found it to be true. Loren Merchan was the director of digital persuasion for Kamala Harris' 2020 presidential campaign. She also worked, indirectly, for the Biden-Harris 2020 presidential campaign through a communications firm that provides services for progressive campaigns.
Many online argued that sharing the father-daughter photograph was exposing the judge's family to additional risk. "Because nothing says 'innocent' like threatening a judge's family," Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for one, tweeted:
The photograph was shared mere hours after Judge Merchan warned Trump in court to "Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals."
Before long, a manipulated version of the photograph was circulated in which Loren Merchan's likeness was digitally edited to exaggerate her cleavage, along with insinuations that the father and daughter's relationship was somehow perverted and creepy. The claim had tens of thousands of likes and shares, as of this writing.
(Screenshot via Twitter)
This is not the first time we've fact-checked photographs of women that were manipulated for purposes of spreading sexual innuendo, particularly women related to prominent men. We previously covered a false claim that conservative media personality Ben Shapiro had tweeted about his "hot" and "beautiful" sister. The claim was accompanied by digitally manipulated photographs of her.
We note that painting male public figures as "perverts" involved in questionable relationships with women in their own families is a common trope in online disinformation and appears to be prevalent across the political spectrum.