Trump Faces Prospect of Additional Sanctions in Hush Money Trial as Key Witness Resumes Testimony

Former President Donald Trump talks to reporters as leaves the courtroom
Former President Donald Trump talks to reporters as leaves the courtroom following the day's proceedings in his trial at Manhattan criminal court in New York, Tuesday, April 30, 2024. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

NEW YORK — Donald Trump faces the prospect of additional sanctions in his hush money trial as he returns to court Thursday for another contempt hearing followed by testimony from a lawyer who represented two women who have said they had sexual encounters with the former president.

The testimony from attorney Keith Davidson is seen as a vital building block for the prosecution's case that Trump and his allies schemed to bury unflattering stories in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. He is one of multiple key players expected to be called to the stand in advance of prosecutors' star witness, Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer.

Prosecutors are seeking $1,000 fines for each of four comments by Trump that they say violated a judge's gag order barring him from attacking witnesses, jurors and others closely connected to the case. Such a penalty would be on top of a $9,000 fine that Judge Juan M. Merchan imposed on Tuesday related to nine separate gag order violations that he found.

It was not immediately clear when Merchan might rule on the request for fresh sanctions, but the prospect of further punishment underscores the challenges Trump the presidential candidate is facing in adjusting to the role of criminal defendant subject to rigid courtroom protocol that he does not control. It also remains to be seen whether any rebuke from the court will lead Trump to adjust his behavior given the campaign trail benefit he believes he derives from painting the case as politically motivated.

During a one-day break from the trial on Wednesday, Trump kept up his condemnation of the case, though stopped short of comments that might run afoul of the gag order.

“There is no crime," he told supporters in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I have a crooked judge, is a totally conflicted judge.”

The trial, now in its second week of testimony, has exposed the underbelly of tabloid journalism practices and the protections, for a price, afforded to Trump during his successful run for president in 2016.

The case concerns hush money paid to squelch embarrassing stories, including from a porn actor and a former Playboy model, and reimbursements by Trump that prosecutors say were intentionally fraudulent and designed to conceal the true purpose of the payments and to interfere in the election.

The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, testified last week that he offered to be the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign and described in detail his role in purchasing a sordid tale from a New York City doorman that was later determined to not be true as well as accusations of an extramarital affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

The goal was to prevent the stories from getting out, a concern that was especially pointed in the aftermath of the disclosure of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which he was heard describing grabbing women without their permission.

A separate $130,000 payment was made by Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer, to porn actor Stormy Daniels, to prevent her claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump from surfacing.

Trump’s company then reimbursed Cohen and logged the payments to him as legal expenses, prosecutors have said in charging the former president with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison.

Returning to the stand Thursday will be Keith Davidson, a lawyer who represented both Daniels and McDougal in their negotiations with the National Enquirer and Cohen.

He testified that he arranged a meeting at his Los Angeles office during the summer of 2016 to see whether the tabloid’s parent company American Media, Inc. was interested in McDougal’s story. At first, they demurred, saying she “lacked documentary evidence of the interaction,” Davidson testified.

But the tabloid at Pecker's behest eventually bought the rights, and Davidson testified that he understood — and McDougal preferred — it would never be published. One reason for that, he said, is that there was an “unspoken affiliation” between Pecker and Trump and a desire by the company that owned the Enquirer to not publish stories that would hurt Trump.

The morning will begin with another gag order hearing. The four statements at issue were made by Trump before Merchan warned on Tuesday that additional violations could result in jail time.

They include comments to reporters and in interviews assailing Cohen's integrity.

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