Trump faces potential punishment for violating gag order as hush money trial resumes

NEW YORK — Donald Trump on Tuesday was threatened with thousands of dollars in fines — and potentially jail time — for denigrating anticipated witnesses and jurors in his hush money case in violation of a gag order.

Before the trial resumed, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan heard arguments from prosecutors requesting that the former president be held in criminal contempt for almost a dozen violations of his order prohibiting him from publicly attacking trial participants in the last week alone.

The DA’s office said Trump disseminated comments by Fox News host Jesse Watters that disparaged potential jurors and shared posts on his social media site calling his former fixer Michael Cohen a liar. Cohen is slated to be the trial’s star witness. Gag order violations can result in jail time.

After a short break, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker told the court he learned about a Trump Tower doorman looking to sell a story claiming Trump “fathered an illegitimate girl with a maid at Trump Tower.”

Pecker told his editor in chief to negotiate a price to get it off the market — who secured it for $30,000.

“The boss will be very pleased,” Pecker recalled Cohen telling him. Merchan looked right at Trump as Pecker said this.

Pecker said the story would have been explosive and that it would have sold the most copies of the Enquirer since Elvis Presley’s death.

He later said they determined it was “absolutely, 1,000% untrue,” but they still bought it in case it was sold to another publication.

“So this was a way to lock it up?” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass asked.

“That’s correct,” Pecker said.

The prosecution displayed more than a dozen pro-Trump headlines in the National Enquirer, including “Melania Trump: How she inspired Donald Trump to run for president,” and “Donald Trump beating Hillary in key swing state poll.”

Other headlines attacked Trump’s GOP rivals with outlandish claims: “Donald Trump blasts Ted Cruz’s dad for photos with JFK assassin” and “Senator Marco Rubio’s Cocaine Connection.”

Pecker said stories about Trump’s opponents originated with a call from Cohen, who would say they wanted him to run a story, whether it be about Cruz, Rubio, Ben Carson or someone else.

“That was the basis of our story, and then we would embellish it from there.”

Whether he heard things informally or “injected himself into it,” Pecker said Cohen was in Trump’s environment, and he assumed his directives were Trump’s wishes.

“Michael was physically in every aspect of whatever the campaign was working with, at least at the Trump Organization, at Trump Tower.”

Pecker said he was present when Trump infamously descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 and announced he was running for president — not long after a poll of National Enquirer readers showed 80% were enthusiastic about a Trump presidency.

Steinglass then asked Pecker about the August 2015 meeting where Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg said the hush money scheme began.

Pecker said former Trump campaign press secretary and top aide Hope Hicks was “in and out” of the meeting.

“At that meeting, Donald and Michael, they asked me, what can I do and what my (magazines) ... could do to help the campaign,” Pecker said.

“I said what I would do is I would run or publish positive stories about Mr. Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponents,” ... I said I would be your eyes and ears ... ”

“If I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear anything about women selling stories, I would notify Michael as I did over the last several years, I would notify Michael Cohen and then he would be able to have them killed ...” or someone would purchase them, Pecker said.

At one point Tuesday, Trump’s lead attorney got a dressing down from Merchan in a humiliating back-and-forth attempting to defend his client’s online behavior.

“You’re losing all credibility with this court,” Merchan said of Todd Blanche, drawing gasps in the courtroom.

The attorney claimed Trump’s posts sharing what others had said about the trial’s anticipated main witnesses were not willful violations of the gag order. But Merchan said Trump sharing Watters’ words that disparaged jurors was “not a repost at all.” He noted that Trump had to write out what the Fox host had said, including quotation marks.

Blanche said it wasn’t meant to threaten or intimidate jurors.The judge reserved issuing a decision.

After Blanche drew the judge’s ire, the former president got his lawyer’s attention with a slap on the arm and said something in his ear. Blanche leaned away, prompting Trump to lean in again and say something else. Blanche then put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes, looking anguished.

Before the trial started, Merchan had barred Trump from commenting on witnesses, potential witnesses, jurors and all involved in the trial — and their family members.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies alleging he repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records in 2017 in paying back Cohen for a hush money payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels.