Trump fined $9,000 for hush money trial gag order violations, threatened with jail

NEW YORK — Donald Trump was held in criminal contempt and hit with $9,000 in sanctions for repeated gag order violations — and warned he could wind up in jail — as his Manhattan hush money trial resumed Tuesday.

State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan reprimanded the ex-president after finding that nine out of 10 posts recently flagged by prosecutors, which referenced the jury and anticipated witnesses Michael Cohen and porn star Stormy Daniels breached a pretrial order prohibiting the ex-president from publicly commenting on individuals involved in the case.

Merchan didn’t buy Trump’s argument that sharing things other people said didn’t violate the order, finding there was “no doubt whatsoever” that his intent and purpose when reposting is “to communicate to his audience” his endorsement, Merchan wrote in an accompanying written order, saying he’ll consider putting Trump behind bars if there were further violations.

Before announcing his decision, Merchan threw Trump a bone by saying he’d let him attend his son Barron’s high school graduation next month. That was about the only good news for the former president, who decried Merchan as “rigged” and “crooked” on his social media website amid a jam-packed day of testimony centering on the negotiations that preceded the hush money transactions at the heart of the case.

Later in the day, a midlevel New York appeals court rejected his request to freeze the trial while he attempts to fight several rulings by Merchan.

Prosecutors on Tuesday called Keith Davidson as their sixth witness. The lawyer counseled Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal as they considered coming forward with allegations about sexual relationships with Trump in the leadup to the 2016 election.

Davidson said his initial involvement in the hush money payoffs came months before the election with a friendly tip to his pal Dylan Howard, then editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer, regarding McDougal’s allegations of a lengthy affair with Trump shortly into his marriage to Melania.

After meeting with Davidson and McDougal in Los Angeles, the supermarket tabloid struck a deal for $150,000, with the understanding her claims would never hit the headlines.

Davidson said there was “an unspoken understanding that there was an affiliation between (then-AMI head) David Pecker and Donald Trump and that AMI wouldn’t run this story — any story related to Karen — because it would hurt Donald Trump.”

The bombshell release of the Access Hollywood tape the following October saw Davidson mired in a last-minute scramble alongside Cohen to compensate Daniels for staying silent about her claims that she slept with Trump at a charity golf tournament in 2006.

The infamous tape, in which Trump bragged about having license to molest women, ensured Trump was “f—ed,” Davidson said in a text to Howard displayed in court.

A couple of days later, Davidson notified Howard that Daniels’ claims were “already out there,” on an online gossip blog. The editor agreed Trump was “f—ed,” but said Daniels speaking out would be “the final nail in the coffin.”

A deal was reached between AMI and Daniels, but the publisher soon after backed out, which jurors heard about last week from Pecker, who testified that although he agreed to bury negative press about Trump, he worried an association with an adult film actress would hurt his media empire’s brand.

After much back-and-forth, they ultimately settled on a $130,000 payment to Daniels. Jurors saw the agreement, which disguised Trump and Daniels’ identities under the pseudonyms Peggy Peterson and David Dennison. The attorney said he used the initials “PP” to signify “plaintiff” and “DD” for “defendant.”

But as the election grew closer, Daniels still hadn’t been paid, and Davidson grew suspicious of Cohen, wanting to back out of the deal himself.

“I recall having conversations with Dylan (Howard) where I would express that I believed Cohen was not being truthful,” he testified, later adding he suspected Trump’s fixer “was trying to kick the can down the road until after the election” and didn’t have authority to sign off on the payment.

Davidson said he bugged Cohen, who ultimately told him, “Goddamn. I’ll just do it myself.”

Davidson’s testimony came after jurors heard from two witnesses who authenticated evidence and Cohen’s former banker, Gary Farro, who shed light on the fixer’s mad dash to get Daniels the money by opening an account for a shell company in the days before the election and using it to wire money to Davidson after obtaining a home equity line of credit.

Farro said he thought the LLC was for real estate consulting and that it would have been heavily scrutinized had the bank known it involved Trump’s campaign and a porn star.

Trump, the presumptive Republican frontrunner in this year’s White House race was accompanied by his son, Eric, marking his first relative to attend the trial. He’s pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsification of business records, alleging he illegally concealed reimbursement to Cohen.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office says the compensation capped a scheme to defraud the electorate devised at an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Trump, Cohen and Pecker, who spent four days on the stand last week.

Davidson is expected to continue testifying when the trial resumes Thursday after Merchan hears arguments about potentially four more gag order violations by Trump.

Pressed on whether he believed Cohen was acting on his boss’s orders toward the end of Tuesday’s proceedings, Davidson said it was his assumption.

“Every single time I talked to Michael Cohen, he leaned on his close affiliation with Donald Trump,” the lawyer said. “It was part of his identity. He let me know at every opportunity he could that he was working for Donald Trump.”