Judge threatens Trump with jail over gag order violations

Donald Trump is accused of falsifying business records to repay his lawyer for a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, seen here in January 2019 (Ethan Miller)
Donald Trump is accused of falsifying business records to repay his lawyer for a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, seen here in January 2019 (Ethan Miller)

The New York judge presiding over Donald Trump's hush money trial fined the former president on Tuesday for defying a gag order and warned that further violations could see him thrown in jail.

Trump, 77, is accused of falsifying business records to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election, in which Trump ran against Hillary Clinton.

Keith Davidson, Daniels' former lawyer, spent several hours on the witness stand on Tuesday testifying about the negotiations he held with Cohen to secure the X-rated movie star's silence about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.

Before Davidson's testimony, Judge Juan Merchan held Trump in contempt of court for multiple violations of a gag order he imposed on the former president ahead of the trial prohibiting him from publicly attacking witnesses, jurors or court staff and their relatives.

He fined Trump $1,000 each for nine specific violations of the gag order, and instructed him to remove seven "offending posts" from his Truth Social account and two from a campaign website. The posts were removed Tuesday afternoon.

Lamenting that he could not impose a fine "more commensurate with the wealth of the contemnor," the judge warned Trump, -- the first former president to face criminal charges -- that he could be jailed if he continues to violate the gag order.

"Defendant is hereby warned that the Court will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment," Merchan said.

- 'Lots of other places' -

Prosecutors allege that Trump made the hush money payment to Daniels to silence her about a 2006 tryst at a celebrity golf tournament that could have potentially derailed his 2016 White House bid.

Trump denies having sex with Daniels and has used appearances outside the Manhattan courtroom to rail against the case, claiming it is a "witch hunt" by Democrats to torpedo his campaign to recapture the White House.

Speaking to reporters after court ended for the day Tuesday afternoon, Trump attacked the gag order as "totally unconstitutional" and said he should be out campaigning for his likely November rematch against President Joe Biden.

"I'm supposed to be in Georgia. I'm supposed to be in New Hampshire. I'm supposed to be in Ohio and lots of other places," the Republican candidate said. "And they have me sitting here for a Biden trial."

Court will not be in session on Wednesday and Trump has scheduled campaign events in Michigan and Wisconsin, his first since the start of the trial.

- 'Blockbuster Trump story' -

Davidson, the day's star witness, was the attorney for Daniels and Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who also claimed to have had an affair with Trump.

Davidson told the court he was negotiating before the 2016 election to sell McDougal's story to ABC News or American Media Inc, publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid.

"I have a blockbuster Trump story," Davidson told National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard in a message, to which Howard replied "Did he cheat on Melania?"

McDougal's story was eventually purchased by AMI for $150,000 and then buried, according to testimony last week by David Pecker, the former publisher of the tabloid, a scheme known in the industry as "catch and kill."

As for the hush money payment to Daniels, Davidson told the court it was always clear to him from his dealings with Cohen that the real estate tycoon's "fixer" was negotiating on behalf of Trump.

"I don't know if it was ever explicitly stated 'I'm negotiating this for Donald Trump,'" Davidson said, but "(Cohen) let me know at every opportunity he was working for Donald Trump."

Davidson said a non-disclosure agreement between Trump and Daniels was finalized just days ahead of the 2016 vote in which the pair used the pseudonyms of David Dennison and Peggy Peterson.

Cohen, who has become a vocal Trump critic, and Daniels are expected to be prosecution witnesses.

In addition to the New York case, Trump has been indicted in Washington and Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He also faces charges in Florida of allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House.