Trump trial: First witness returns as judge considers holding former president in contempt

Trial focused on former president's alleged involvement in payment of hush money to adult film star during 2016 campaign

Former US president Donald Trump leaves during a recess at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York. Bloomberg
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The second week of Donald Trump's criminal trial continued in New York on Tuesday, with witness testimony expected to focus on the former president and his legal team allegedly conspiring to spike unflattering stories in the press during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Before the trial began, however, the judge considered whether to hold Mr Trump in contempt for breaching a gag order.

The gag order bars Mr Trump from publicly discussing jurors or witnesses in the case, which is focused on his alleged involvement in the payment of money to an adult film star during his campaign to cover up an affair.

Judge Juan Merchan first imposed the order last month, citing Mr Trump's previous use of “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” language against jurors, witnesses, lawyers and other people involved in cases against him.

Prosecutors say Mr Trump breached the gag 10 times, highlighting one example of how he referred to Stormy Daniels – the adult film actress – and his former lawyer Michael Cohen as “sleazebags” on his Truth Social site.

They are demanding he be fined $1,000 per breach.

Mr Trump's defence team asserted the former president was merely responding to statements Ms Daniels and Mr Cohen had aimed at him.

Donald Trump zips his lips after testifying in civil case – video

Donald Trump zips his lips after testifying in civil case

Donald Trump zips his lips after testifying in civil case

Mr Merchan announced, however, that he would not rule on the issue immediately.

The trial is a historic one, as it is the first time a former or current US president has faced criminal charges.

In opening statements on Monday, prosecutors and defence lawyers painted competing portraits of the former president.

One depicted him as someone who sought to corrupt the 2016 presidential election for his own benefit, and the other described him as an innocent, everyday man who was being subjected to a case the government “should never have brought”.

David Pecker, former publisher of the National Enquirer and a long-time friend of Mr Trump, returned to the witness box after first appearing on Monday.

His testimony focused on efforts to help quash unflattering stories during the 2016 campaign.

Mr Pecker was not only the first witness to answer questions from the prosecution, he is also a crucial part of the state's goal of proving criminal intent.

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Criminal intent means that “not just an act happened, but an act happened for a purpose”, said Elliot Williams, a CNN legal analyst.

“The defendant did something wrong to carry out some criminal purpose.”

Prosecutors say Mr Pecker worked with Mr Trump and Mr Cohen on a “catch-and-kill” strategy to buy up and then spike negative stories, particularly about his personal life, that could damage his campaign.

During his testimony, Mr Pecker, who said he had a "great relationship" with Mr Trump, claimed that when he went to Mr Cohen to notify him about a negative story, Mr Cohen would vet the piece to see if it was true, then approach the publication to try to ensure the story was not published.

One of the stories Mr Pecker discussed paying to kill was a piece about a doorman who claimed Mr Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

He said that helping Mr Trump in this way was of “mutual benefit”.

Mr Pecker also said Mr Trump appeared to him to be almost a "micromanager" when it came to his business affairs, with prosecutors trying to show that the former president had full knowledge of the hush-money payment.

“This was a planned, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people who had something bad to say about his behaviour,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in opening statements on Monday.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Updated: April 23, 2024, 7:23 PM