Trump hush money trial resumes with witness testimony on Karen McDougal deal

Trump hush money trial resumes with witness testimony on Karen McDougal deal

The criminal trial of former President Donald Trump resumed in a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday with testimony from a key witness who described in detail how one of the hush money transactions at the center of the trial came together.

Prosecutors called on Keith Davidson, the lawyer who represented both Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump and were paid to keep quiet about their allegations during the 2016 presidential election. Trump has denied both women’s claims.

The prosecution showed in previously private text messages how McDougal, a former Playboy model, had her story about allegedly having an affair with Trump bought by the National Enquirer — a key piece of the catch-and-kill accusations facing the former president.

Davidson said he was put in touch with McDougal by her former brother-in-law, who was a client of his. After agreeing to represent her, he reached out to Dylan Howard, who was the editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer. “I have a blockbuster Trump story,” he said in a June 2016 text message that was displayed to the jury.

“Did he cheat on Melania?” Howard asked in one of the texts back. “I really can’t say yet, sorry,” Howard replied. Howard personally met with Davidson and McDougal days later, and initially said he wasn’t interested in her story because she didn’t have any documentary evidence. Davidson said that stance soon changed.

Davidson did not elaborate on the reason but Howard’s boss, David Pecker, testified earlier in the trial that Howard had believed McDougal’s claims. Pecker said he came to believe them also because Trump reached out to him and told him McDougal was “a nice girl.”

Trump, who sat with his eyes closed sporadically through the morning, appeared to be sleeping at times as Davidson began his testimony, sometimes appearing to stir before closing his eyes again.

Before bringing in the jury, Judge Juan Merchan found Trump in criminal contempt for having repeatedly violated his gag order. The judge did not go into specifics from the ruling, but said he’d found Trump violated the order nine times, and fined him $9,000. Prosecutors had argued that he’d done so 10 times.

The amount of $1,000 per post is the maximum the judge can hand down. He noted in his ruling the amount likely doesn’t mean much to Trump, but said he is not able to increase the amount. “Because this Court is not cloaked with such discretion, it must therefore consider whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment” going forward, the judge wrote.

“Defendant is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment,” he wrote.

The judge also granted Trump’s request to be excused from the trial on May 17 for his son Barron’s high school graduation. Trump had repeatedly falsely claimed since the trial began that the judge had rejected that request.

Another of Trump’s sons, Eric Trump, was in court with him on Tuesday, marking the first time a Trump family member has shown up in court since the trial began over two weeks ago.

The first witness of the day was Gary Farro, a banker who worked with then-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen when Cohen, Trump’s self-described “fixer,” paid adult film star Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet during the 2016 presidential campaign about her allegation that she had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

Farro, who in 2016 was an executive at First Republic Bank, testified Friday that Cohen reached out to him in mid-October of that year to set up a bank account for a company he was forming called Essential Consultants LLC.

Cohen described the company to the bank “as a real estate consulting company to collect fees for investment consulting work he does for real estate deals,” Farro told jurors. Prosecutors characterized it as a shell company that was set up to mask the source of the payment, which was made shortly before Election Day.

Farro testified Tuesday the bank would have asked more questions had it known where the money was actually going. “It is an industry we do not work with,” he said, referring to adult films.

Cohen funded the account by transferring $131,000 from his home equity line of credit account, Farro said. The money was then sent via wire transfer to Davidson.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to reimbursing Cohen for the Daniels payment. He has pleaded not guilty.

After Farro wrapped up, prosecutors called to the stand Robert Browning, the director of C-SPAN’s archives. Browning authenticated videos of then-candidate Trump that the network aired during the 2016 election, which prosecutors played for the jury, as well as one from Jan. 2017, when Trump was president-elect. In the 2017 clip, Trump called Cohen “a very talented lawyer.”

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has been keeping its list of witnesses close to the vest, citing Trump’s social media posts blasting expected witnesses Cohen and Daniels.

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