Trump Hush Money Trial Takeaways: Gag Order Fight and Pecker Testimony

Tuesday’s session of Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial began with a heated clash between Justice Juan M. Merchan and Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer over a gag order. It ended with an insider’s look into a tabloid newspaper practice known as “catch and kill.”

Prosecutors said that Mr. Trump had “willfully and blatantly” violated a gag order barring him from attacking jurors and witnesses, among others. They said he had done so in comments outside the courtroom and online and should be found in contempt of court.

Mr. Trump’s top lawyer said in response that Mr. Trump was simply defending himself from political attacks. Justice Merchan did not rule, but he scolded the lawyer, Todd Blanche, saying, “you’re losing all credibility with the court.”

A former ally of Mr. Trump, David Pecker, the ex-publisher of The National Enquirer, later testified to buying and burying unflattering stories about Mr. Trump during his 2016 run for president, an arrangement he called “highly, highly confidential.”

Mr. Trump, 77, faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide a payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, made to cover up a sex scandal that threatened to derail his campaign. Ms. Daniels, who may testify, has said that she and Mr. Trump had a brief sexual encounter in 2006, something the former president denies.

Mr. Trump has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the former president — and presumptive Republican nominee — could face probation or up to four years in prison.

Here are five takeaways from Mr. Trump’s sixth day on trial:

Taking the stand for a second day, Mr. Pecker outlined a decades-old friendship with Mr. Trump, a relationship that he said deepened in 2015.

It was then, Mr. Pecker said, that he, Mr. Trump and Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, met at Trump Tower in Manhattan to hatch a plan to write promotional stories about Mr. Trump and negative stories about his political opponents.

Mr. Pecker said he acted as the campaign’s “eyes and ears,” notifying Mr. Cohen about possible scandals, particularly regarding women in Mr. Trump’s life.

Mr. Pecker on Tuesday walked through one of the “catch-and-kill” deals. He said that The National Enquirer learned that a doorman who had worked at a Trump building was looking to sell a story about Mr. Trump fathering a child out of wedlock. The tabloid discovered that the story was apparently false, but paid $30,000 anyway, “because of the potential embarrassment” it could have caused Mr. Trump, Mr. Pecker said.

Mr. Pecker’s testimony depicted an anachronistic New York, with landlines, powerful supermarket tabloids and must-see network television, including “The Apprentice,” which made Mr. Trump nationally famous.

It also shed light on Mr. Pecker’s editorial tactics, including getting tips from Mr. Trump about who was getting kicked off “The Apprentice,” in line with Mr. Trump’s penchant for feeding dirt to tabloids.

Mr. Pecker said that he called Mr. Trump “Donald,” and that they had “a great relationship,” adding that he went so far as to start a magazine called Trump Style. When he proposed the magazine, Mr. Pecker said, Mr. Trump’s biggest question was, “Who’s going to pay for it?”

Christopher Conroy, a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, argued that Mr. Trump had repeatedly violated the gag order that the court imposed on him. One alleged violation included a nine-minute diatribe outside the courtroom on Monday during which he attacked Michael Cohen, his former fixer and a key witness against him.

“He did it right here,” Mr. Conroy said.

But Mr. Blanche said that the former president was “facing a barrage of political attacks” from several potential witnesses and needed to strike back.

“He’s running for president,” Mr. Blanche said. “He has to be able to respond to that.”

Justice Merchan has chastised Trump once so far, for muttering in front of a prospective juror. If he holds him in criminal contempt, it will mark a serious escalation. For their part, prosecutors said they were not seeking to jail Mr. Trump, but wanted him to be fined.

Mr. Trump sat stoically while prosecutors argued that he violated the gag order. But he grew animated during the interplay between Mr. Blanche and Justice Merchan. On several occasions, the former president sharply turned to his other lawyers and whispered.

When Mr. Blanche finished his argument, Mr. Trump immediately beckoned him over before he snatched a piece of paper off the defense table.

Mr. Trump posted on Truth Social right after the hearing, accusing Justice Merchan of taking away his “right to free speech” and claiming that he was “not allowed to defend myself.”

Court is not in session on Wednesday, but prosecutors will continue their direct examination of Mr. Pecker on Thursday.

While Mr. Trump is expected to be in court in Manhattan that day, he may be a little preoccupied: In Washington, some of his other lawyers will be arguing in front of the Supreme Court that Mr. Trump should receive presidential immunity from prosecution in a federal election interference case.

Mr. Trump had sought to take a day away from his New York case to watch those arguments, but Justice Merchan denied his request.

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