Donald Trump fined again over gagging order violation in hush money case

Jurors heard detailed evidence for the first time about the financial reimbursements at the centre of the case.

Donald Trump fined for second time over gagging order violation in hush money case PA Media

The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money trial has fined him $1,000 (£800) and warned of jail time for future gagging order violations.

Jurors heard detailed evidence for the first time about the financial reimbursements at the centre of the case.

The evidence from Jeffrey McConney, the former Trump Organisation controller, provided a mechanical but vital recitation of how the company reimbursed payments meant to suppress embarrassing stories from surfacing during the 2016 presidential campaign and then logged them as legal expenses in a manner that Manhattan prosecutors said broke the law.

Mr McConney’s appearance came as the first criminal trial involving a former US president, entered its third week of evidence.

It yielded an important building block for prosecutors trying to pull back the curtain on the transactions designed to protect Trump’s presidential bid during a pivotal stretch of the race.

Mr McConney, who told jurors that reimbursement cheques were drawn from Trump’s personal accounts, also provided evidence that could help the defence, acknowledging, for instance, that Trump never asked him to log the reimbursements as legal expenses or discussed the matter with him.

His evidence followed a warning from Judge Juan M Merchan that additional violations of a gagging order barring Trump from inflammatory out-of-court comments about witnesses, jurors and others closely connected to the case could result in jail time.

The $1,000 fine imposed on Monday was the second time since the trial began last month that Trump has been sanctioned for violating the gagging order.

He was fined $9,000 last week – $1,000 for each of nine violations.

“It appears that the $1,000 fines are not serving as a deterrent. Therefore going forward, this court will have to consider a jail sanction,” Judge Merchan said before jurors were brought into the courtroom.

Trump’s statements, the judge added, “threaten to interfere with the fair administration of justice and constitute a direct attack on the rule of law. I cannot allow that to continue.”

Trump sat forward in his seat, glowering at the judge as he handed down the ruling. When the judge finished speaking, Trump shook his head twice and crossed his arms.

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” Judge Merchan said. “You are the former president of the United States and possibly the next president as well.

“There are many reasons why incarceration is truly a last resort for me. To take that step would be disruptive to these proceedings.”

The latest violation stems from an April 22 interview with television channel Real America’s Voice in which Trump criticised the speed at which the jury was picked, and claimed that it was stacked with Democrats.

Once evidence resumed, Mr McConney recounted conversations with longtime Trump Organisation finance chief Allen Weisselberg in January 2017 about reimbursing Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, for a $130,000 payment intended to buy the silence of a porn actress who has said she had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

Mr Weisselberg “said we had to get some money to Michael, we had to reimburse Michael. He tossed a pad toward me, and I started taking notes on what he said”, Mr McConney told the court. “That’s how I found out about it.

“He kind of threw the pad at me and said, ‘Take this down’.”

Mr McConney, who worked for Trump’s company for about 36 years, retiring last year after he was granted immunity to give evidence for the prosecution at the Trump Organisation’s New York criminal tax fraud trial.

A bank statement displayed in court showed Cohen paying $130,000 to Keith Davidson, the lawyer for porn actor Stormy Daniels, on October 27 2016 out of an account for an entity Cohen created for the purpose.

Mr Weisselberg’s handwritten notes about reimbursing Cohen were stapled to the bank statement in the company’s files, Mr McConney said.

Those notes spell out a plan to pay Cohen $420,000, which included a base reimbursement that was doubled to reflect anticipated taxes as well as a $60,000 bonus and an expense that prosecutors have described as a technology contract.

Mr McConney’s own notes, taken on the notepad he said Mr Weisselberg threw at him, were also shown in court. After calculations that laid out that Cohen would get $35,000 a month for 12 months, Mr McConney wrote “wire monthly from DJT”.

Asked what that meant, he said: “That was out of the president’s personal bank account.”

Trump is accused of falsifying business records by labelling the money paid to Cohen in his company’s records as legal fees. Prosecutors contend that by paying him income and giving him extra to account for taxes, the Trump executives were able conceal the reimbursement.

Mr McConney said he had instructed an accounting department employee to record the reimbursements to Cohen as a legal expense.

But he acknowledged under cross-examination that Trump never directed him to log Cohen’s payments as legal expenses, nor did Mr Weisselberg relay to him that Trump wanted them logged that way.

He said he never spoke to Trump about the reimbursement issue. Defence lawyer Emil Bove also suggested to Mr McConney that the “legal expenses” label was not duplicitous because Cohen was in fact a lawyer.

“OK,” Mr McConney responded, prompting laughter throughout the courtroom. “Sure. Yes.”

Prosecutors are building towards their star witness, Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments.

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