Trump Jury Hears Him Discuss Payment With Cohen on Secret Tape

(Bloomberg) -- The jury in Donald Trump’s hush money criminal trial heard a secret recording in which the former president discussed a payment with his then-lawyer Michael Cohen months before the 2016 election.

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The exchange, played in court on Thursday, was made by Cohen, a key prosecution witness. The recording didn’t name names or specify the amount of the payment, but the timing coincides with a $150,000 deal with former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump years earlier.

Trump, who is campaigning to return to the White House in the November election, is on trial for allegedly falsifying business records to conceal a $130,000 hush payment to another woman, adult-film star Stormy Daniels, days before the 2016 election. Both women may take the witness stand.

Cohen can be heard saying he needs to set up a shell company to facilitate a payment, and mentions “David” — an apparent reference to then American Media Inc. Chief Executive Officer David Pecker, who published the National Enquirer and ultimately made the hush payment to McDougal. Pecker also testified earlier in the trial about his efforts to help Trump win the election, including by buying and burying negative stories about Trump.

“I need to open up a company regarding the transfer of information related to that info for David,” Cohen tells Trump in the recording. “It’s all the stuff, because you don’t know...I am all over that, when it comes to the financing.”

“What financing?” Trump asks.

“No, no, no I’ve got it,” Cohen assured him.

It’s unclear if the jury will hear the entire recording, which also includes Trump referring to the full amount of the hush payment and suggesting Cohen pay in cash. Cohen ultimately turned on Trump and pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from the payments.

Earlier Thursday, the jury heard from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who represented Daniels when she accepted $130,000 from Cohen to keep silent about an alleged affair with Trump. He testified about his concern that his role in arranging the hush payments may have helped the real estate mogul win the White House.

Davidson, who also represented McDougal, described a series of text messages in which he expressed his concern to Dylan Howard, the editor of the Enquirer, on election night 2016, after the salacious stories about Trump were suppressed.

“What have we done?” the lawyer said to Howard in a text message displayed on screens for the jury. “Oh, my god,” Howard responded.

Trump is on trial in Manhattan for allegedly falsifying dozens of business records to conceal the payment to Daniels.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg argues the hush-money agreement with Daniels in 2016 became crucial after the release of the so-called Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump boasted about assaulting women. Trump went on to win the election against Hillary Clinton.

Hogan, Sheen and Lohan

On cross-examination, Trump attorney Emil Bove attempted to depict Davidson as a sleazy lawyer who had a history of extorting settlements from celebrities caught up in scandals.

Beyond Daniels and McDougal, Davidson represented clients in negotiations involving former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and actors Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan, according to Bove.

Bove asked if Davidson had sought $1 million from Hogan’s representatives to buy a video tape, which showed him having sex with a friend’s wife. Davidson said he made a “monetary demand.”

The tape was later published by the website Gawker. Hogan sued Gawker for invasion of privacy and was awarded $140 million, bankrupting both the site and its founder, Nick Denton.

The exchange grew testy at times, after Davidson said several times he couldn’t recall specific cases. Bove said his memory seemed “a little fuzzy.”

Contempt Hearing

Earlier Thursday, before the jury entered the courtroom, lawyers for the district attorney urged Justice Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the trial, to hold Trump in contempt of court for a second time. Prosecutors said that Trump’s comments about Cohen and other witnesses have violated a gag order.

But Trump attorney Todd Blanche said the former president’s comments are fair game because he is just responding to Cohen’s insulting online comments. Several of Cohen’s recent posts mocking Trump — including one depicting him wearing an orange prison jumpsuit — were displayed on screens.

Merchan earlier this week fined Trump $9,000 and threatened to jail him over future violations of the gag order. Prosecutors said they were still seeking fines, rather than incarceration for the latest statements.

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. Trump’s remarks became an issue after individuals he attacked on social media were swamped with online threats by his supporters.

The judge ended the hearing without issuing a ruling on the contempt issue.

But in the afternoon session, Trump lawyer Susan Necheles asked the judge to allow Trump to post articles by legal experts criticizing the prosecution and the witnesses. The lawyer argued such preapproval was necessary because the gag order is vague, drawing the wrath of Merchan.

“I am not going to give advance rulings. There is no ambiguity in the order,” Merchan said. “My advice to your client is steer clear.”

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