Trump Held in Contempt after Violating Gag Order in Hush Money Trial

Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post
Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday for the start of the third week of his trial for allegedly falsifying documents related to hush money payments.

NEW YORK – Former president Donald Trump was held in contempt of court Tuesday for repeatedly violating a gag order, and the judge overseeing his ongoing criminal trial warned him that he could go to jail if he keeps breaking the court’s rules.

“Defendant is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate continued violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment,” New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan wrote in an eight-page ruling finding Trump violated the order on nine occasions.

The warning delivered by Merchan envisions a scenario even more incredible than the first trial of a former U.S. president – one in which that defendant could be locked up at some point before there is a verdict. It’s unclear to what degree the low-key Merchan wants to engage in a public game of chicken with the presumptive GOP nominee for president.

In court, the judge calmly delivered his ruling at the start of the day’s proceedings and did not speak directly to Trump from the bench. Trump listened impassively to the judge’s decision, and it was difficult to gauge what he made of the contempt finding. His lawyers said they wanted time to study the written decision before making further argument.

Within hours of the judge’s ruling, Trump’s campaign issued an appeal for campaign donations, saying the “Democrat judge just ruled against me.” Trump is due to make campaign stops Wednesday in the Midwest, where he will have more opportunities to violate the gag order if he chooses.

The judge’s contempt finding kicked off the second week of trial testimony, but most of what the jury heard Tuesday centered around the actions not of Trump but of his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.

Cohen is a key prosecution witness in the case, but comes to the role with significant baggage, having previously pleaded guilty to federal crimes including lying.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records, for allegedly disguising a $130,000 hush money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election – money that was first paid by Cohen, and later reimbursed by Trump through transactions that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charges amounted to crimes.

Even as the judge issued a stern warning to Trump over contempt of court, he also sent a message to Cohen and Daniels, both of whom have repeatedly criticized Trump in social media posts and interviews.

The judge warned Cohen and Daniels that if they continue to criticize Trump publicly, he might decide his gag order barring Trump from talking about the witnesses should no longer apply to them.

The contempt finding came on a day of lengthy testimony by a Los Angeles lawyer who was enmeshed in the deals that were struck in 2016 to try to keep quiet alleged sexual liaisons between the presidential candidate and Karen McDougal, a Playboy model, and Daniels.

The lawyer, Keith Davidson, described the negotiations for those deals, which were sometimes angry, sometimes rushed, and involved six-figure payouts to the women to keep quiet.

Davidson said McDougal ended up in something of a bidding war between AMI, the company that published the National Enquirer, and ABC, which he alleged had dangled the prospect of putting McDougal on the cast of “Dancing With The Stars” if she told her story about an alleged affair with Trump.

A representative for ABC declined to comment on Davidson’s testimony.

The lawyer, often testifying with a wry smile on his face as he described the inner workings of deals that were never supposed to become public, was shown a text he sent at the time in which he said some of McDougal’s friends were pushing her to choose ABC, because then her story of an affair with Trump would be made public.

“The girl is being cornered by the estrogen mafia,” Davidson texted at the time. On the witness stand, he called the comment “unfortunate” and “regrettable,” saying it was not his term but a phrase one of McDougal’s associates used at the time.

For hours Tuesday, the jury heard Davidson offer a detailed description of the often tumultuous negotiations to buy the silence of two women who Cohen and others feared could hurt Trump’s presidential campaign.

Davidson said that Daniels’s account of a tryst with Trump years earlier had been rumored, but that there was little interest in buying her account until The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that Trump had made offensive comments about grabbing women in an Access Hollywood recording.

After that, Davidson said, the interest in Daniels reached a quick crescendo, and he helped negotiate what became a $130,000 deal with Cohen to keep Daniels silent.

But after signing the deal, Cohen failed to turn over the money by the agreed-upon date, leading to more acrimonious exchanges. At one point, Davidson said, he walked away from the entire thing, before coming back to the table to finalize the matter.

“The moral of the story is no one wanted to talk to Cohen,” Davidson said, describing the lawyer as untrustworthy, high-strung, and prone to screaming.

The jury also heard Tuesday from the banker who helped Cohen create an account for him to wire the money to Davidson and Daniels, and a C-SPAN archivist who verified certain 2016 campaign videos in which Trump denied allegations made by women against him.

Merchan told Trump on Tuesday that the case was proceeding quickly enough that he would allow him to attend his son’s high school graduation in mid-May. Trump did not visibly react in court to the ruling, but on social media he accused the judge of racing too fast through the evidence.

“The Trial is going like a speeding bullet,” Trump wrote in a social media post that called Merchan “Rigged, Crooked, and, above all, and without question, CONFLICTED. It’s a disgrace to our Country – They’ve taken away my Right to Free Speech. ELECTION INTERFERENCE!!!”