For the entirety of his unorthodox political career, and for decades before in the hype-friendly confines of New York City real estate, Donald Trump’s gift for gab has always been an advantage. Quick with a joke — or a jab — he proved irresistible to innumerable reporters, and millions of voters, who devoured his untrammeled style of slash-and-burn rhetoric.

But today, Trump’s enthusiasm for criticizing others ran headfirst into an immovable object: a gag order laid down by the state judge, Juan Merchan, overseeing his criminal trial.

That eight-page decision by Merchan was prologue to a day of gripping, granular testimony from a lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, the porn star whose $130,000 payout, in the days leading up to the 2016 election, led to the charges against the former president.

The testimony — by Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer — included a series of text messages and emails concerning the hush-money payoff as the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about groping women, threatened to sink his campaign. Davidson also described a previous 2016 deal with Karen McDougal, another client, a former Playboy model who said she had a romantic and sexual affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.

Trump is charged with falsifying 34 business records to cover up the payment to Daniels. He has denied the affairs with Daniels and McDougal and the charges against him; the former president could face probation or prison if convicted.

The morning began with a rebuke as Merchan found Trump in contempt of court for violating the judge’s gag order — which protects witnesses, jurors, court staff and the judge’s own family from attacks. That represented nine online posts “about known witnesses” and “making public statements about jurors,” the judge wrote.

Those posts — on Trump’s Truth Social account and his campaign website — included reposts of other conservative commentators. The former president’s defense team had argued that because those posts did not originate with Trump, he should not be sanctioned. Merchan soundly rejected that, calling such logic “counterintuitive and indeed absurd,” and saying Trump “intentionally selected” those posts “to maximize exposure.”

Trump was ordered to take down the nine “offending posts” by 2:15 p.m., and fined $9,000, small change for the former president. But the judge paired that penalty with a potentially much steeper punishment, warning Trump that continued violations would mean Merchan could “impose an incarceratory punishment” — time in jail.

The jailing of Trump for violating the order would be an unprecendented step in what is already an unprecendented case: the first prosecution of a former American president. For Trump, avoiding this punishment depends on his capacity to control his postings and public statements. He has not, of course, always been known for his discipline in such circumstances.

Still, while the former president has had outbursts in other trials, his behavior at his criminal case has been muted, almost to the point of hibernation: As he has on other days, Trump kept his eyes closed during much of the testimony today, including during some of Davidson’s hours of testimony.

Davidson was central to negotiations between McDougal and Dylan Howard, a top editor at The National Enquirer, which had agreed to “catch-and-kill” negative stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign. Those negotiations were outlined in texts between the two men, introduced as evidence by the prosecution.

“I have blockbuster Trump story,” Davidson told Howard in June 2016.

“I will get you more than ANYONE for it,” Howard responded. “You know why.”

Davidson admitted to applying pressure on Howard, suggesting that McDougal was “being cornered by the estrogen mafia,” a disparaging term for other women who wanted her to tell her story to ABC.

Finally, Howard agreed to a deal. “Get me a price,” he wrote, adding, “All in.”

In October 2016, as Trump reeled from the Access Hollywood tape, the deal for Davidson’s other client, Daniels, came into focus. At the time, Davidson was blunt in his assessment of Trump’s political fortunes.

Trump was toast, Davidson texted, using an obscene phrase.

“Wave the white flag,” Howard responded. “It’s over people!”

But it wasn’t. Davidson testified he soon began to work on the Daniels deal, which had now fallen to Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, after Howard’s employer, AMI, had passed.

Davidson imagined it would be easy money, describing Daniels’s manager calling it “the easiest deal you’ve ever done in your entire life.” (Davidson laughed at this memory, as he sat on a witness stand.)

In fact, the money didn’t come through immediately, and Daniels and Davidson got frustrated, threatening to pull out if the $130,000 wasn’t paid. Davidson questioned Cohen’s motives — “I thought he was trying to kick the can down the road till after the election,” he testified. The money was finally paid, less than two weeks before Election Day.

Davidson said he believed that he was dealing with Trump, through Cohen. “I never thought otherwise,” he said under questioning, noting later that Cohen “leaned on his close affiliation with Donald Trump.”

“It was part of his identity,” he said, adding that he believed Mr. Trump “was the beneficiary of this contract.”

Davidson is expected to continue on the stand on Thursday; a robust cross-examination by the defense will follow. Court is off tomorrow, and Trump plans to campaign in two battleground states, Wisconsin and Michigan; you can count on prosecutors in Manhattan keeping an ear out for his remarks, mindful of the gag order.

Cohen is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution, though the jury will have already heard a lot about him, including his propensity for screaming and being difficult.

As Davidson put it today, “The moral of the story is no one wanted to talk to Cohen.”

Here’s the team we have reporting on the trial. During the proceedings, we’ll be sending you updates more frequently, including breaking news alerts and our weekly analysis on Thursdays.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

Why did The National Enquirer decide to help Trump? Was there anything in it for them, by doing this? Some benefit that Trump would provide later? — Pete Thurlow, Bernardsville, N.J.

Jesse: David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, described the arrangement with Trump as mutually beneficial in testimony last week. The tabloid promoted his candidacy — and ran negative stories about his opponents — and the candidate fed Pecker information about “The Apprentice,” and, more broadly speaking, helped to sell magazines. “It was good for business,” Pecker said on the stand.

  • We’re still waiting for several key rulings in Trump’s classified documents case in Florida — chiefly a ruling by Judge Cannon about when the trial will start. Before that, however, she is likely to have to make decisions on Trump’s request for more discovery information and about delaying a key filing on the handling of classified materials at trial, both of which could come at any time.

  • After hearing arguments last week about Trump’s claim of immunity in the Jan. 6 case, the Supreme Court could issue a ruling in late June or early July.

Trump is at the center of at least four separate criminal investigations, at both the state and federal levels, into matters related to his business and political careers. Here is where each case stands.


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