Judge conducts hearing on request to hold Trump in contempt for online posts

23 April 2024, 16:14

Trump Hush Money
Trump Hush Money. Picture: PA

Prosecutors in the historic hush money case cited 10 posts on Trump’s social media account and campaign website that they said breached the order.

A judge held a hearing on Tuesday on prosecutors’ request to hold Donald Trump in contempt of court and fine him for social media posts that they say violated a gag order.

Prosecutors in the historic hush money case cited 10 posts on Trump’s social media account and campaign website that they said breached the order, which bars him from making public statements about witnesses in the case.

They called the posts a “deliberate flouting” of the court’s order.

“The defendant has violated this order repeatedly, and he has not stopped,” said prosecutor Christopher Conroy, who said the Manhattan district attorney’s office would seek additional sanctions for Trump’s comments on Monday to reporters outside the courtroom about Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer and the government’s star witness.

Judge Juan Merchan did not immediately rule but repeatedly signalled his exasperation with the Trump team.

“You’re losing all credibility,” he told Todd Blanche after the lawyer asserted that Trump was trying hard to comply.

The hearing could result in further financial punishment for Trump, who last year was fined 15,000 dollars (£12,000) for twice violating a gag order imposed at his New York civil fraud trial.

The hearing preceded the scheduled resumption of testimony in the case, with a longtime publisher expected back on the stand Tuesday to tell jurors about his efforts to help Trump stifle unflattering stories during the 2016 campaign.

David Pecker, the former National Enquirer publisher who prosecutors say worked with Trump and Cohen on a strategy called “catch and kill” to suppress negative stories, testified briefly on Monday.

Mr Pecker’s testimony followed opening statements in which prosecutors alleged that Trump had sought to illegally influence the 2016 race by preventing damaging stories about his personal life from becoming public, including by approving hush money payments to an adult film actor who alleged an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied that.

“This was a planned, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people who had something bad to say about his behavior,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

A defence lawyer countered by attacking the integrity of the one-time Trump confidant who is now the government’s star witness.

“President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should not have brought this case,” defence lawyer Todd Blanche said.

The opening statements offered the 12-person jury and the voting public radically divergent roadmaps for a case that will unfold against the backdrop of a closely contested White House race in which Trump is not only the presumptive Republican nominee but also a criminal defendant facing the prospect of a felony conviction and prison.

Trump Hush Money Who’s Who
Adult film actor Stormy Daniels (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

The case is the first criminal trial of a former American president and the first of four prosecutions of Trump to reach a jury.

“The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election. Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” Mr Colangelo said.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison — though it is not clear if the judge would seek to put him behind bars.

A conviction would not preclude Trump from becoming president again, but because it is a state case, he would not be able to pardon himself if found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg revisits a years-old chapter from Trump’s biography when his celebrity past collided with his political ambitions and, prosecutors say, he scrambled to stifle stories that he feared could torpedo his campaign.

APTOPIX Trump Hush Money
Former US president Donald Trump waits for the start of proceedings in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday (Yuki Iwamura/AP)

The opening statements served as an introduction to the colourful cast of characters that feature prominently in that tawdry saga, including Stormy Daniels, the actor who says she received the hush money; Cohen, the lawyer who prosecutors say paid her; and Mr Pecker, who prosecutors say agreed to function as the campaign’s “eyes and ears”.

In his opening statement, Mr Colangelo outlined a comprehensive effort by Trump and allies to prevent three stories — two from women alleging prior sexual encounters — from surfacing during the 2016 presidential campaign.

That undertaking was especially urgent following the emergence late in the race of a 2005 Access Hollywood recording in which Trump could be heard boasting about grabbing women sexually without their permission.

“The impact of that tape on the campaign was immediate and explosive,” Mr Colangelo said.

Within days of the Access Hollywood tape becoming public, Mr Colangelo told jurors that The National Enquirer alerted Cohen that Ms Daniels was agitating to go public with her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.

“At Trump’s direction, Cohen negotiated a deal to buy Ms Daniels’ story to prevent American voters from hearing that story before Election Day,” Mr Colangelo told jurors.

But, the prosecutor noted: “Neither Trump nor the Trump Organisation could just write a check to Cohen with a memo line that said ‘reimbursement for porn star payoff’.”

So, he added, “they agreed to cook the books and make it look like the payment was actually income, payment for services rendered”.

Those alleged falsified records form the backbone of the 34-count indictment against Trump. Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Ms Daniels.

Mr Blanche, the defence lawyer, sought to preemptively undermine the credibility of Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his role in the hush money scheme, as someone with an “obsession” with Trump who cannot be trusted.

He said Trump had done nothing illegal when his company recorded the cheques to Cohen as legal expenses and said it was not against the law for a candidate to try to influence an election.

Mr Blanche challenged the notion that Trump agreed to the Daniels payout to safeguard his campaign, characterising the transaction instead as an attempt to squelch a “sinister” effort to embarrass Trump and his loved ones.

“President Trump fought back, like he always does, and like he’s entitled to do, to protect his family, his reputation and his brand, and that is not a crime,” Mr Blanche told jurors.

The efforts to suppress the stories are what is known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill” — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

Besides the payment to Ms Daniels, Mr Colangelo also described arrangements to pay a former Playboy model 150,000 dollars (£120,400) to suppress claims of a nearly year-long affair with the married Trump.

Mr Colangelo said Trump “desperately did not want this information about Karen McDougal to become public because he was worried about its effect on the election”.

He said jurors would hear a recording Cohen made in September 2016 of himself briefing Trump on the plan to buy Ms McDougal’s story. The recording was made public in July 2018. Mr Colangelo told jurors they will hear Trump in his own voice saying: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

Mr Pecker is relevant to the case because prosecutors say he met Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

He described the tabloid’s use of “chequebook journalism”, a practice that entails paying a source for a story.

“I gave a number to the editors that they could not spend more than 10,000 dollars” on a story without getting his approval, he said.

By Press Association

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