Trump faces possible fines for ‘flouting’ gag order at hush money trial

Click to play video: 'Trump trial: David Pecker details ‘catch and kill’ strategy in hush money case'
Trump trial: David Pecker details ‘catch and kill’ strategy in hush money case
WATCH: Trump trial: David Pecker details 'catch and kill' strategy in hush money case – Apr 23, 2024

Prosecutors in the historic hush money trial of Donald Trump urged a judge Tuesday to fine him and hold him in contempt over social media posts that they say violated a gag order barring attacks on witnesses, jurors and others involved in the case.

Citing 10 posts on his social media account and campaign website that they said breached the order, prosecutors called the messages a “deliberate flouting” of the court’s prohibition and requested a $1,000 fine for each one.

“The defendant has violated this order repeatedly, and he has not stopped,” said prosecutor Christopher Conroy, who said the violations continued Monday with Trump’s comments to reporters outside the courtroom about Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer and the government’s star witness.

A defense lawyer countered that Trump was simply responding to others’ comments in the course of protected speech.

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“There is no dispute that President Trump is facing a barrage of political attacks,” attorney Todd Blanche said.

Judge Juan Merchan did not immediately rule but repeatedly signaled his exasperation with the Trump team. “You’re losing all credibility,” he told 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 for twice violating a gag order imposed at his New York civil fraud trial. But whether it deters him from future incendiary comments, or further antagonizes him, is an open question. The presumptive Republican nominee has thrust his legal jeopardy into the center of his presidential campaign as he lambasts this case and the three others he faces as examples of political persecution.

Click to play video: 'Historic Trump hush money criminal trial begins in New York'
Historic Trump hush money criminal trial begins in New York

Tabloid publisher says he was 'eyes and ears' of Trump campaign

The hearing preceded the scheduled resumption of testimony in the case. 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, returned to the stand Tuesday after he testified briefly Monday.

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Pecker’s testimony was designed to bolster the prosecution’s premise of a decades-long friendship between Trump and the former publisher that culminated in an agreement to give the candidate’s lawyer a heads-up on negative tips and stories so they could be quashed.

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The effort to suppress unflattering information was designed to illegally influence the election, prosecutors have alleged in striving to elevate the gravity of the first trial of a former American president and the first of four criminal cases against Trump to reach a jury.

Pecker is the first witness against Trump, who faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments meant to prevent harmful stories from surfacing in the final days of the 2016 campaign.

With Trump sitting just feet away in the courtroom, Pecker detailed his intimate, behind-the-scenes involvement in Trump’s rise from political novice to the Republican nomination and the White House. He explained how he and the National Enquirer parlayed rumor-mongering into splashy tabloid stories that smeared Trump’s opponents and, just as crucially, leveraged his connections to suppress seamy stories about Trump, including a porn actor’s claim of an extramarital sexual encounter a decade earlier.

Click to play video: 'Trump trial: What to expect from historic hearing of the century?'
Trump trial: What to expect from historic hearing of the century?

Pecker traced the origins of their relationship to a 1980s meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and said the friendship bloomed alongside the success of the real estate developer’s TV show “The Apprentice” and the program’s subsequent celebrity version.

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Their ties were solidified during a pivotal August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump, his lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen, and another aide, Hope Hicks, in which Pecker was asked what he and the publications he led could do for the campaign.

Pecker said he volunteered to publish positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his opponents. But that wasn’t all, he said, telling jurors how he told Trump: “I will be your eyes and ears.”

“I said that anything I hear in the marketplace, if I hear anything negative about yourself, or if I hear about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen,” so that the rights could be purchased and the stories could be killed.

“So they would not get published?” asked prosecutor Joshua Steinglass.

“So they would not get published,” Pecker replied.

To illustrate their point, prosecutors displayed a screenshot of various flattering headlines the National Enquirer published about Trump, including “Donald Dominates!’ and “World Exclusive: The Donald Trump Nobody Knows.” The jury was also shown disparaging and outlandish stories about Trump’s opponents, including surgeon Ben Carson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Click to play video: 'Trump’s attempts to delay hush money trial unsuccessful'
Trump’s attempts to delay hush money trial unsuccessful

Pecker painted Cohen as a shadow editor of the National Enquirer’s pro-Trump coverage, directing the tabloid to go after whichever Republican candidate was gaining momentum.

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“I would receive a call from Michael Cohen, and he would direct me and direct Dylan Howard which candidate and which direction we should go,” Pecker said, referring to the tabloid’s then-editor.

Pecker said he underscored to Howard that the agreement with the Trump operation was “highly, highly confidential.” He said he wanted the tabloid’s bureau chiefs to be on the lookout for any stories involving Trump and said he wanted them to verify the stories before alerting Cohen.

“I did not want anyone else to know this agreement I had and what I wanted to do,” the ex-publisher added.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to his role in the hush money payments. He was once a confidant of Trump’s, but their relationship deteriorated in spectacular fashion. Cohen is expected to be a star government witness, and he routinely posts profane broadsides against Trump on social media.

Trump’s lawyers are expected to make attacks on Cohen’s credibility a foundation of their defense, but in opening with Pecker, prosecutors hoped to focus attention on a witness with a less volatile backstory. Besides maintaining that Trump is innocent, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told jurors that Cohen cannot be trusted and has “an obsession with getting Trump.”

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