Judge Merchan charges Trump with contempt for violating gag order in Hush-Money trial

Judge Merchan charges Trump with contempt for violating gag order in Hush-Money trial

He was the man behind the hush money, the kindly Beverly Hills lawyer who specialized in celebrity dirt – digging it up, then, for the right price, burying it forever.

But in 2016, attorney Keith Davidson was about to experience something bigger than a sex tape or a run-of-the-mill affair. He had two clients who had stories so important they could influence a presidential election: Their names were Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and they were ready to tell the world about their sexual encounters with Donald J. Trump.

On Tuesday, Mr. Davidson took the witness stand at Mr. Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, telling jurors the behind-the-scenes story of how Mr. Trump’s allies bought his clients’ silence . His hours of testimony opened a rare window into the sordid world of secret celebrity money and corroborated key facts that support the prosecution’s case against Mr Trump, the first US president to face a criminal trial .

In a crucial exchange with prosecutors, Mr. Davidson began linking Mr. Trump to the secret payment of $130,000 to Ms. Daniels, the porn star whose payment is at the heart of the case. Although Mr. Trump did not pay Ms. Daniels directly — her fixer, Michael D. Cohen did — Mr. Davidson portrayed Mr. Trump as the hidden hand shaping the machinations.

“Michael Cohen did not have the authority to actually spend money,” Mr. Davidson told the jury, adding: “I thought Mr. Trump was the beneficiary of this contract.”

The testimony punctuated a high-stakes day that began with the judge finding Mr. Trump in contempt, fining the former president $9,000 for repeatedly violating a gag order and warned that he could go to prison if he continued to attack witnesses and jurors.

“The court will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders,” Judge Juan M. Merchan said in an ominous warning to open the third week of Mr. Trump’s trial. He added that while he was “very aware and protective of the accused’s First Amendment rights,” he would imprison Mr. Trump “if necessary and appropriate.”

The judge’s repression immediately injected tension into the day’s proceedings before three new witnesses took the stand.

Most significant was Mr. Davidson, who began by recounting his portrayal of Ms. McDougal, a Playboy model who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump in 2006.

In gripping testimony, Mr. Davidson read aloud to the jury a series of inappropriate text exchanges from 2016, telling a National Enquirer editor that he had a “Trump hit story” about Mr. Trump cheating on his wife, Melania. Trump, with Ms. McDougal. When some of Ms. McDougal’s friends urged her to go to ABC News, Mr. Davidson warned that the story could fade if the National Enquirer didn’t pay up, and quickly.

“Time is running out,” Mr. Davidson wrote. “The girl is cornered by the estrogen mafia,” a message that Mr. Davidson, mortified by his years-old remarks, called “very unfortunate and regrettable text” during his testimony.

The testimony constitutes another remarkable moment in a trial whose first days have been eventful: a former president, the current Republican candidate, watching helplessly as two strangers revealed details of a sex scandal he had fought to overthrow. keep secret.

He also highlighted the range of evidence the prosecution had to build its case. On Tuesday alone, prosecutors presented live testimony from Mr. Davidson and three other witnesses, a series of provocative text messages, videos of Trump campaign events and excerpts from a deposition the former president gave made in a separate matter – all woven into a story they told. said portrays Mr. Trump as a criminal.

As Mr. Davidson dug into the details, his testimony also reinforced a key part of the prosecution’s claim that The Enquirer was involved in a secret plot to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

The publication bought Ms. McDougal’s silence for $150,000, but balked at shelling out a huge sum for Ms. Daniels. So the tabloid informed Mr. Cohen that Ms. Daniels was shopping his story, thus triggering the secret $130,000 deal.

Mr Davidson provided jurors with a detailed account of the negotiations in Ms Daniels’ case. Although his story of a tryst with Mr. Trump had circulated for years, he noted that interest in the story increased after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which Mr. Trump bragged about groping the women.

The recording rocked Mr. Trump’s campaign, but if Ms. Daniels’ story had been made public, Mr. Davidson said, the situation could have been much worse.

When Mr. Cohen delayed paying, Mr. Davidson recalled phoning him to say “this is a very bad situation,” warning him that Ms. Daniels and her agent were preparing to go public with the matter. Mr. Cohen became agitated, noting that “my man” — Mr. Trump — was campaigning in several states that day and “I’m doing everything I can.”

Ultimately, Mr. Cohen made the payment himself and Mr. Trump reimbursed him. Prosecutors accused the former president, who faces up to four years in prison, of falsifying business records to conceal the reimbursement.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen fell out years ago, and their mutual hatred became a major motive in the trial.

Mr. Trump is apparently not the only one in the courtroom with strong feelings about Mr. Cohen, who will be a star witness for the prosecution in the coming weeks. Three different witnesses offered unflattering descriptions of the former repairman; Mr. Davidson called him an “idiot” and recalled that when he spoke to Mr. Cohen, he was met with a barrage of “insults,” “insinuations” and “allegations.” .

While it may seem strange that prosecutors would elicit such unflattering characterizations of a key witness, they could end up working in the prosecution’s favor, by desensitizing jurors to Mr. Cohen’s rough edges and making him a memorable and entertaining character in their eyes. It could work: A few jurors smiled as Mr. Davidson used an expletive to describe him.

The Trump-Cohen feud also surfaced Tuesday in Judge Merchan’s decision to find Mr. Trump in contempt, determining that the former president had flouted the order of silence by making nine statements on social media and on his website campaign in which he attacked the jury and certain witnesses, including Mr. Cohen. The judge ordered Mr. Trump to delete the messages by Tuesday afternoon, which he did.

Mr. Trump, who was accompanied to court by a larger entourage than usual, including his son Eric Trump; a campaign advisor, Susie Wiles; and Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, did not immediately react to the judge’s decision. Shortly after, during a break, he stood up and glared around the room.

This decision marks a low point in relations between the court and Mr. Trump. The former president attended the trial every day, although he was largely relegated to the sidelines, later complaining on camera about the silence order and the judge. Now, with the financial penalty – and the specter of prison – his fury could reach a boiling point.

Prosecutors have already alerted the judge to four new potential violations. These were not covered by Judge Merchan’s order Tuesday and will be discussed at another hearing Thursday morning.

The judge’s ruling and his questioning at last week’s hearing took aim at two of Mr. Trump’s typical tactics: his tendency to lie and his habit of suggesting that every action he takes is political, even when it concerns his criminal cases.

Judge Merchan essentially rejected Mr. Trump’s argument that his posts did not violate the silence order because they were responses to political attacks by adversaries who, coincidentally, happen to be potential witnesses.

Mr. Cohen has criticized Mr. Trump on social media, although last week he vowed to “stop posting anything about Donald,” a decision he said he made “out of respect for the judge Merchan and the prosecutors.”

If Mr. Cohen breaks his silence, he may not be protected from Mr. Trump’s attacks: The judge, in his order on Tuesday, suggested that if witnesses provoke Mr. Trump, the former president could be free to respond .

The gag order, Judge Merchan wrote, cannot “be used as a sword rather than a shield by potential witnesses.”

Besides Mr. Cohen, the other potential witness attacked by Mr. Trump is Ms. Daniels.

The former president denies having sex with Ms. Daniels, and in a post for which he was fined, he attacked Ms. Daniels on her Truth Social website, repeating a years-old statement in which she denied the affair. Mr. Trump added a comment falsely describing the statement as newly discovered: “LOOK WHAT JUST FOUND!” WILL THE FAKE NEWS REPORT IT?

Mr. Trump failed to notice that the original statement was from January 2018 and that Ms. Daniels retracted it shortly afterward.

During last week’s hearing, Judge Merchan focused on Mr. Trump’s lie about when the statement was revealed.

“So it’s not true?” he asked Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche.

“That’s not true,” Mr. Blanche conceded.

In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Merchan concluded that Mr. Trump could be held liable for republishing other people’s comments. In one instance, Mr. Trump quoted Fox News commentator Jesse Watters as disparaging potential jurors in the case as “undercover liberal activists.”

A day after the station, one of the jurors asked to leave the jury.

Judge Merchan imposed the order on Mr. Trump in late March, barring public statements about witnesses, prosecutors, jurors or court personnel, as well as their families. He expanded it to cover his own relatives and those of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg after Mr. Trump found a loophole and repeatedly attacked the judge’s daughter, whose company did contract work. advice for Democratic candidates.

Mr. Trump often attacks people he praised and praises those he once pilloried.

For example, just before Mr. Davidson spoke on Tuesday, prosecutors played a video in which Mr. Trump praised Mr. Cohen, who had stood by him for years. He called him a “very talented lawyer.”

The report was provided by Maggie Haberman, Kate Christobek, Wesley Parnell, Michael Gold And Jonathan Swan.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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