Playmate’s Lawyer Offered Tabloid ‘Blockbuster’ Trump Story

(Bloomberg) -- The jury in Donald Trump’s hush money trial heard the most vivid testimony yet about payments to silence a former Playboy Playmate and an adult film star before the 2016 election, who both claimed to have had affairs with the billionaire developer.

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Los Angeles attorney Keith Davidson took the witness stand Tuesday in New York to recount how he represented the former Playmate, Karen McDougal, who was paid $150,000, and Stormy Daniels, who got $130,000, to keep quiet. Davidson recounted frantic talks with Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the National Enquirer, whose publisher wanted to help Trump win the presidency.

“I have a blockbuster Trump story,” Davidson said in a June 2016 text to an Enquirer editor. Davidson told jurors he meant the text as a “teaser” about McDougal’s relationship with Trump.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges Trump falsified dozens of business records to conceal his repayment to Cohen, who paid Daniels before the election. While hush money payments aren’t illegal, prosecutors say Trump used them to influence the election by hiding his conduct with women.

Earlier Tuesday, Justice Juan Merchan found Trump in contempt of court for repeatedly violating a gag order that barred him from publicly talking about witnesses. The judge imposed a $9,000 fine and warned that future violations could lead to jail for Trump, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.

Prosecutors sought the penalties after Trump repeatedly posted on social media about Daniels and Cohen, both key witnesses against him. After court adjourned for the day, Trump said the ruling was unconstitutional and called the judge “highly conflicted.”

LA Meetings

In relation to the payments, prosecutors say that Trump’s team worked with the Enquirer’s publisher to boost his campaign by buying and burying unflattering stories.

Davidson told jurors about selling McDougal’s story to the tabloid, which agreed to kill it. In a text, Enquirer editor Dylan Howard referred to Trump’s wife, saying: “Did he cheat on Melania?” Davidson replied: “I really cannot say yet. Sorry.”

While Davidson initially sought more than $1 million, Howard made clear that the Enquirer’s owner, American Media Inc., wouldn’t go that high. He met in Los Angeles with McDougal and Howard. Davidson was also talking to ABC News.

“Better be quick,” Davidson texted Howard. He testified that he was “trying to play two entities off each other” to get the best price.

While ABC demanded that McDougal tell her story publicly, she didn’t want to do that, in part because she didn’t want to be depicted as “the other woman,” Davidson said. Instead, she went with AMI.

Last week, former AMI Chief Executive Officer David Pecker testified he had no intention of publishing McDougal’s story because it would embarrass Trump and hurt his campaign.

Davidson said talks over the Daniels story grew heated after the October 2016 release of the so-called Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women. Pecker had said AMI steered clear of her story because he didn’t want to get involved with a porn star and Cohen failed to reimburse him for the McDougal payment, as promised.

That left Davidson to negotiate directly with Cohen, whom he described as excitable, untrustworthy and unreliable. After Cohen struck a deal to pay Daniels $130,000, he failed several times to come through with the money.

“What did I think was really happening?” Davidson said. “I thought he was trying to kick the can down the road until after the election.”

Davidson grew frustrated with Cohen and Trump’s failure to pay Daniels, finally telling Cohen he was no longer acting on her behalf. That’s when Cohen stepped up and instead said, “Goddamn it, I’ll just do it myself,” Davidson testified.

Davidson said he understood that Cohen “would not seek” Trump’s authority to fund the deal but instead pay it himself. The jury was shown dozens of text messages related to the frantic talks. In one, Howard texted Davidson about an “impending storm.”

“I can’t believe Cohen let this go, it’s going to be a sh*tshow,” Davidson responded.

“It was going to be more than a flurry of activity,” Davidson said. “I felt it would be a tornado.”

Ultimately, Cohen tapped a home equity line of credit and paid Davidson himself.

Davidson will continue testifying when the trial resumes on Thursday.

Gag Order

Before Davidson took the stand, Merchan fined the former president $1,000 for each of nine violations of 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.

Trump’s use of social media, news interviews and campaign speeches has created a challenge for judges overseeing his many legal cases as they weigh the impact of his public comments against his free-speech rights — especially as he campaigns for a return to the White House. It also illustrates Trump’s habit of attacking critics with his high-profile bully pulpit to sway public opinion and get what he wants.

(Updates with details of lawyer’s testimony)

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