Trump hush-money trial: Appeals court upholds gag order; Cohen gives more testimony

Donald Trump’s lawyers argue against gag order in hush-money trial, while Michael Cohen testifies against former President

Updated - May 15, 2024 05:25 am IST

Published - May 15, 2024 05:21 am IST - New York

Supporters of former President Donald Trump wait for his motorcade to leave Manhattan Criminal Court at the end of the day’s proceedings on May 14, 2024 in New York City.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump wait for his motorcade to leave Manhattan Criminal Court at the end of the day’s proceedings on May 14, 2024 in New York City. | Photo Credit: Getty Images via AFP

A New York appeals court on May 14 upheld the gag order in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, finding that the judge “properly determined” that Mr. Trump’s public statements “posed a significant threat to the integrity of the testimony of witnesses and potential witnesses in this case as well.” Mr. Trump had asked the state’s intermediate appeals court to lift or modify the gag order, which bars him from commenting publicly about jurors, witnesses and others connected to the case, including Judge Juan M. Merchan’s family and prosecutors other than District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

At an emergency hearing last month, just days before the trial started, Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued that the gag order is an unconstitutional curb on the presumptive Republican nominee’s free speech rights while he’s campaigning for President and fighting criminal charges.

In its ruling, the five-judge appeals panel noted that Mr. Trump wasn’t claiming that the gag order had infringed on his right to a fair trial. Rather, Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued that prohibiting him from commenting restricted his ability to engage in protected political speech and could adversely impact on his campaign.

The appeals court ruled that Judge Merchan “properly weighed” Mr. Trump’s free speech rights against the “historical commitment to ensuring the fair administration of justice in criminal cases, and the right of persons related or tangentially related to the criminal proceedings from being free from threats, intimidation, harassment, and harm”. Mr. Trump’s fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand on May 14, testifying in detail about how the former President was linked to all aspects of the hush-money scheme that prosecutors say was an illegal effort to purchase and then bury stories that threatened his 2016 campaign.

Mr. Trump, the first former U.S. President to go on trial, was joined at the courthouse by an entourage of GOP lawmakers that included House Speaker Mike Johnson and others considered vice presidential contenders for Mr. Trump’s 2024 campaign. Their presence was a not-so-subtle show of support meant not just for Mr. Trump, but also for voters tuning in to trial coverage and for the jurors deciding Mr. Trump’s fate.

As proceedings began, Mr. Johnson held a news conference outside the courthouse, using his powerful pulpit to attack the U.S. judicial system. It was a remarkable moment in American politics as the person second in line to the presidency sought to turn his political party against the rule of law by declaring the Manhattan criminal trial illegitimate.

“I do have a lot of surrogates, and they’re speaking very beautifully,” Mr. Trump said before court as the group gathered in the background. “And they come ... from all over Washington. And they’re highly respected, and they think this is the greatest scam they’ve ever seen.” Mr. Cohen, meanwhile, resumed his place on the witness stand as prosecutor Susan Hoffinger worked to paint him as a Trump loyalist who committed crimes on behalf of the former President.

Mr. Cohen told jurors that he lied to the Congress during an investigation into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to protect Mr. Trump. He also described for jurors the April 2018 raid by law enforcement on his apartment, law firm, a hotel room where he stayed and a bank where he stashed valuables.

“How to describe your life being turned upside-down. Concerned. Despondent. Angry,” he said.

“Were you frightened?” Ms. Hoffinger asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” But he said he was heartened by a phone call from Mr. Trump that he said gave him reassurance and convinced him to remain “in the camp.” He said to me, Don’t worry. I’m the President of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be OK. Stay tough. You’re going to be OK,’” Mr. Cohen testified.

Mr. Cohen told jurors that “I felt reassured because I had the President of the United States protecting me ... And so I remained in the camp.” But their relationship soured, and now Mr. Cohen is one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal critics. His testimony is central to the Manhattan case.

Mr. Cohen testified that after paying out $1,30,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels in order to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter, Mr. Trump promised to reimburse him. He said Mr. Trump was constantly apprised of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign.

Jurors followed along as Ms. Hoffinger, in a methodical and clinical fashion, walked Mr. Cohen through that reimbursement process. It was an attempt to show what prosecutors say was a lengthy deception to mask the true purpose of the payments. As jurors were shown business records and other paperwork, Mr. Cohen explained their purpose and reiterated again and again that the payments were reimbursements for the hush-money. They weren’t for legal services he provided or for a retainer, he said.

It’s an important distinction, because prosecutors allege that the Mr. Trump records falsely described the purpose of the payments as legal expenses. These records form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Mr. Trump with falsifying business records. All told, Mr. Cohen was paid $4,20,000, with funds drawn from a Trump personal account.

“Were the descriptions on this check stub false?” Ms. Hoffinger asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Cohen said.

“And again, there was no retainer agreement,” Ms. Hoffinger asked.

“Correct,” Mr. Cohen replied.

Mr. Trump has pleaded not guilty and also denies that any of the encounters took place.

During his time on the witness stand, Mr. Cohen delivered matter-of-fact testimony that went to the heart of the former President’s trial: “Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off,” Mr. Cohen said. He told jurors that Mr. Trump did not want Ms. Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter to get out. At the time, Mr. Trump was especially anxious about how the story would affect his standing with female voters.

A similar episode occurred when Mr. Cohen alerted Mr. Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Mr. Trump had an extramarital affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” was Mr. Cohen’s message to Mr. Trump, according to testimony. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $1,50,000 in an arrangement that was made after Mr. Trump received a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.” “What I was doing, I was doing at the direction of and benefit of Mr. Trump,” Mr. Cohen testified.

Prosecutors believe Mr. Cohen’s insider knowledge is critical to their case. But their reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizable risks with a jury.

The men, once so close that Mr. Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Mr. Trump, had no visible interaction inside the courtroom. The sedate atmosphere was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff in October, when Mr. Trump walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Mr. Cohen during his civil fraud trial.

Throughout Mr. Cohen’s testimony on May 14, Mr. Trump reclined in his chair with his eyes closed and his head tilted to the side. He shifted from time to time, occasionally leaning forward and opening his eyes, making a comment to his attorney before returning to his recline. Even some of the topics that have animated him the most as he campaigns didn’t stir his attention.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers will get their chance to question Mr. Cohen as early as Tuesday, when they’re expected to attack his credibility. He was disbarred, went to prison and separately pleaded guilty to lying about a Moscow real estate project on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

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