July 19, 2024

Donald J. Trump had a dismal day in court on Tuesday as the judge presiding over his criminal trial said Mr. Trump’s lawyer was “losing all credibility” and a key witness pulled back the curtain to expose what prosecutors called a conspiracy to influence the 2016 election.

The witness was David Pecker, longtime publisher of The National Enquirer, and he transported jurors back to a crucial 2015 meeting with Mr. Trump and his fixer at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Prosecutors called it the “Trump Tower conspiracy,” arguing that Mr. Pecker, Mr. Trump and Michael D. Cohen, who was then Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, hatched a plot at the meeting to conceal sex scandals looming over Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Their effort led Mr. Pecker’s tabloids to buy and bury two damaging stories about Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen also purchased the silence of a porn star, a deal at the heart of the case against the former president.

In gripping testimony Tuesday, Mr. Pecker took the jurors inside the meeting, recalling how Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump asked what he and his magazines — fixtures of American supermarket checkout lanes — could do “to help the campaign.” The account bolstered the prosecution’s argument that the men were protecting not just Mr. Trump’s personal reputation, but his political fortunes.

“I would be your eyes and ears,” Mr. Pecker recalled telling them, as he explained the tabloid practice of “catch and kill,” in which an outlet bought the rights to a story, only to never publish it.

Mr. Pecker’s testimony came after a bruising hearing for Mr. Trump and his legal team, as prosecutors argued that the trial is threatened by Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks on witnesses and jurors, mostly launched on social media and his campaign website. They urged the judge, Juan M. Merchan, to hold Mr. Trump in contempt over what they said were 11 violations of a gag order that bars the former president from attacking witnesses, prosecutors, jurors and court staff, as well as their relatives.

When Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, claimed that the former president was trying to comply with the order, Justice Merchan signaled that he found that preposterous, replying with words that no lawyer wants to hear: “You’re losing all credibility with the court.”

The case against Mr. Trump, the first American president to face a criminal trial, centers on Mr. Cohen’s $130,000 hush-money payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors say he paid Ms. Daniels at Mr. Trump’s direction during the 2016 campaign to keep her quiet about a sexual tryst she said she had with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer in his opening statement denied that his client had slept with Ms. Daniels, echoing what Mr. Trump has consistently said.

Mr. Trump who faces up to four years behind bars if convicted, is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records for the way in which he accounted for the $130,000 repayment to Mr. Cohen. Each count reflects a different false check, ledger and invoice that, according to prosecutors, Mr. Trump used to disguise the reimbursement’s true purpose.

Mr. Trump, 77, who is once again the presumptive Republican nominee, faces three other criminal cases in three different cities on charges that he plotted to overturn his 2020 election loss and mishandled classified records once he was no longer president. But with those cases delayed, the Manhattan case may be the only one that makes it to trial before Election Day.

The Manhattan case, in just its sixth day, has become a media and political spectacle as Mr. Trump’s campaign-style attacks on Mr. Cohen and the jury test the limits of the legal system and the judge’s patience.

The gag-order hearing, held with the jury out of the courtroom, demonstrated a jarring reality for Mr. Trump as he seeks to reclaim the White House while under indictment: His political reflexes, and the norm-busting ethos that has defined the Trump era, often clash with the letter of the law.

Witnesses in the case “rightly fear” being subjected to the former president’s “vitriol,” a prosecutor, Christopher Conroy, told the judge. He rattled off statements that Manhattan prosecutors believe crossed the line, including calling Mr. Cohen and Ms. Daniels “sleaze bags” and reposting an attack on the jury pool. That happened the night before a juror who had already been seated asked to be excused.

“What happened here was exactly what this order was meant to prevent, and the defendant doesn’t care,” Mr. Conroy said.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, argued that Mr. Trump’s posts were not personal and did not violate the order, because he was simply responding to “a barrage of political attacks.”

But Justice Merchan bridled, imploring Mr. Blanche to stick to the facts and the law.

“I need to know what is true,” Justice Merchan said, underscoring Mr. Trump’s penchant for using social media to spread lies.

It then got worse for Mr. Blanche, who appeared flummoxed by the judge. At one point, Justice Merchan called one of his arguments “silly.”

Prosecutors have asked Justice Merchan to fine Mr. Trump $1,000 for each statement, although Mr. Conroy wondered aloud if Mr. Trump, who has sold campaign merchandise with his mug shot, was actually angling for jail time. The judge, whose daughter has been among Mr. Trump’s targets, did not immediately rule.

The case against Mr. Trump commenced Monday, when both sides delivered opening statements that offered dueling visions of Mr. Trump and the evidence. A prosecutor accused the former president of orchestrating a “criminal conspiracy and a coverup.” Mr. Trump’s lawyer proclaimed, “President Trump is innocent.”

The prosecution then called its first witness, Mr. Pecker, who returned to the stand on Tuesday for a second day of testimony.

In about two and a half hours of examining Mr. Pecker on Tuesday, the prosecution placed him firmly in Mr. Trump’s orbit, as a longtime fan and friend who became an extension of the 2016 Trump campaign. His closeness to Mr. Trump — and his gentle, almost grandfatherly affect — appeared to bolster his credibility.

“I would call him Donald,” Mr. Pecker recalled, adding that he had “a great relationship with Mr. Trump over the years,” and that he had launched a magazine with him called “Trump Style.”

Mr. Pecker described a symbiotic relationship between Mr. Trump and The National Enquirer during the former president’s turn as a reality television host on “The Apprentice.” Mr. Trump would leak details of the show to the magazine, which in turn would run stories on the contestants.

The relationship took on national significance after the crucial 2015 meeting at Trump Tower.

“I received a call from Michael Cohen telling me that the boss wanted to see me,” Mr. Pecker recounted for the jury.

Afterward, Mr. Cohen routinely contacted Mr. Pecker, checking in weekly, or even daily. The purpose of their conversations was often was to protect Mr. Trump from negative stories, including a doorman’s apparently false claim that Mr. Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock. Mr. Pecker, who purchased the story, testified that Mr. Cohen had told him “the boss would be very pleased” to have that story suppressed.

Mr. Pecker, who later also bought a story from a former Playboy model who said she had had an affair with Mr. Trump, explained that Mr. Cohen was “physically in every aspect of whatever the campaign was working on.” But, in a detail that the defense may seize on, he testified that Mr. Cohen, who was not a campaign employee but Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, may have “injected himself” into the campaign at times.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have not yet cross-examined Mr. Pecker, but when they do, they are likely to seize on that description of Mr. Cohen. A central theme of Mr. Trump’s defense is to portray Mr. Cohen as a renegade and a liar, and to distance the former president from the most problematic evidence.

Yet Mr. Pecker’s testimony placed Mr. Trump directly in the middle of their conspiracy. And in a sign that at least Mr. Pecker knew that their arrangement was problematic, he noted that he wanted to keep it “confidential.” When a prosecutor, Joshua Steinglass, asked why, Mr. Pecker explained that he did not want it to “leak” that he helped the campaign.

Under questioning, Mr. Pecker acknowledged that he did not merely spike detrimental stories but promoted helpful ones. Mr. Cohen, he explained, would feed him information about Mr. Trump’s Republican primary opponents, and The National Enquirer would sometimes “embellish” them.

The tabloid, for example, ran stories about Mr. Trump’s primary opponents, including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The prosecutors illustrated the point for jurors, posting several lurid headlines on screens: “Donald Trump Blasts Ted Cruz’s Dad for Photo with J.F.K. Assassin,” “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!” and, in a moment of ironic foreshadowing, “Ted Cruz Shamed by Porn Star.”

At the Trump Tower meeting, Mr. Pecker said, he had indicated that he expected many women “would come out to try to sell their stories” about Mr. Trump, because he was known as “the most eligible bachelor and dated the most beautiful women.”

Mr. Trump was not, in fact, a bachelor. He had married his third and current wife, Melania Trump, in 2005.

Kate Christobek, Alan Feuer, Wesley Parnell and Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.

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