Trump faces potential punishment for violating gag order in hush money trial

NEW YORK — During a devastating day for Donald Trump at his Manhattan hush money trial, a jury heard damning testimony from his decades-long ally David Pecker about a wide-ranging plan to hoist him out of obscurity and into the White House — and the presiding judge said his lead lawyer was “losing all credibility with the court.”

Before the trial resumed, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan heard arguments from prosecutors requesting that the former president be held in criminal contempt for violating an order prohibiting him from publicly attacking trial participants.

Rattling off a laundry list of offending Truth Social posts disparaging jurors and key witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, Assistant District Attorney Chris Conroy asked Merchan to impose thousands of dollars in sanctions and issue a stern warning to Trump, who he said had violated his order “repeatedly,” posing “a very real threat.”

“He did it right here in the hallway outside” on Tuesday and on camera, the prosecutor said. “He says whatever he needs to say to get the results that he wants.”

Trump’s team has argued that he has been defending himself as a political candidate in his online rants, not as a defendant. But Conroy said that was nonsense and that “Throwing ‘MAGA’ into a post doesn’t make it political; it may make it more ominous.”

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche — who said Trump sharing things others said didn’t violate the gag order — balked when asked outright if he could reference specific “attacks” that Trump was defending himself against.

“You’ve presented nothing,” Merchan said, later excoriating the lawyer. “Mr. Blanche, you’re losing all credibility. I have to tell you that right now. You are losing all credibility with the court.

The judge reserved issuing a decision.

Here are highlights of Tuesday’s testimony:

National Enquirer role

During his second day on the stand, Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, told jurors he and Trump went back as far as the late 1980s when they first met at Mar-a-Lago and then worked to fatten each other’s wallets.

Around 2003, 2004, when Trump starred on TV’s “The Apprentice,” the reality show was “tremendous help also for my magazines,” Pecker said, and the show propelled his friend to be nationally known “as the boss.”

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass asked Pecker to describe Trump.

“I would describe Mr. Trump as very knowledgeable. I would describe him as very detail oriented. I would describe him almost as a micromanager,” he said.

“I thought that his approach to money — he was very cautious and very frugal.”

Pecker told a crowded courtroom how he worked to shape the public’s perception of his friend as far back as 2007, when he said Trump first told him that “if there (were) any rumors in the marketplace,” he should “call Michael Cohen directly.”

Prosecutors zeroed in on the August 2015 meeting during which they allege the hush money scheme to hide damaging information about Trump from the voters was born at Trump Tower. Pecker said he, Trump and Cohen were present, with former White House aide Hope Hicks popping in and out of the meeting.

“Donald Trump and Michael, they asked me what can I do and what my magazines could do to help the campaign,” Pecker testified.

Pecker told them he would publish positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his opponents.

Prosecutors displayed several examples to the jury of stories in Pecker’s publications boosting Trump and slamming GOP rivals like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio early in the race.

Among the outlandish headlines were “Donald Trump Blasts Ted Cruz’s Dad for Photos With JFK Assassin,” and “Senator Marco Rubio’s Cocaine Connection.”

Pecker said the stories originated with ideas Cohen would phone in and Pecker and former Editor-in-Chief of the National Enquirer Dylan Howard would then “embellish” them. Pecker assumed Cohen’s directives were the boss’s wishes.

Hush money payoffs

In the year to come, Pecker said the scheme netted the $30,000 buyout of a story a Trump Tower doorman was looking to sell, claiming Trump fathered an illegitimate girl with a maid at Trump Tower.

“The boss would be very pleased,” Pecker recalled Cohen telling him.

He later said they determined it was “absolutely, 1,000% untrue,” but they still bought it in case it was sold to another publication.

“So this was a way to lock it up?” Steinglass asked.

“That’s correct,” Pecker said.

In the months before the 2016 election, Pecker got wind of a Playboy model in California, Karen McDougal, who alleged she’d had a yearlong “romantic” affair with Trump early in his marriage to Melania. Pecker said he urged Trump and Cohen to take it seriously.

What to know

Pecker is testifying under a subpoena and received immunity years ago when American Media admitted to paying off McDougal and the doorman in a nonprosecution agreement in Cohen’s federal case.

In that case, Cohen admitted to violating campaign finance laws by paying porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to stay silent about a decade-old one-night stand and an assortment of other crimes. He was sentenced to three years.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies alleging he repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records in 2017 in paying back Cohen for the hush money payoff to Daniels as part of a wide-ranging scheme to defraud voters.

At the end of the day’s proceedings, Trump launched into a hallway diatribe before reporters, lambasting the judge and the gag order.

“They can say whatever they want. They can lie. But I’m not allowed to say anything,” Trump said.

“I’d love to talk to you people. I’d love to say everything that’s on my mind.”