Trump’s New York hush money trial resumes with more testimony in third week

Previous testimony focused on Trump’s alleged ‘catch and kill’ scheme, with more witnesses expected to take the stand in the days ahead.

Former President Donald Trump and his lawyer Todd Blanche exit the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York [Curtis Means/ via AP]

Former United States President Donald Trump is due back in a Manhattan court on Tuesday, as his criminal “hush money” trial enters a third week.

Tuesday’s proceedings come after a long, three-day weekend. The first week of the case revolved largely around jury selection, while the second saw the prosecution and defence present opening statements and witness testimony.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential race, has been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to $130,000 paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Prosecutors allege Trump paid Daniels “hush money” to ensure her silence before the 2016 presidential election, after she claimed to have had an affair with him.

For the felony charges to stick, though, the prosecutors must convince jurors the falsifications were done in service of another crime.

They have argued that the “hush money” payments were designed to influence the 2016 race, during which Trump faced scrutiny over his relationships with women, including allegations of harassment.

The defence, on the other hand, has maintained Trump is innocent and was acting within the law to prevent his family from public embarrassment. Furthermore, the former president has denied having sexual relations with Daniels.

The trial is expected to last approximately six weeks, according to Juan Merchan, the judge presiding over the case.

Witnesses testify to campaign activity

Last week saw the first witness called to the stand, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Over four days and 10 hours of questioning, Pecker told prosecutors he became the “eyes and ears” for Trump’s campaign, after a meeting with the then-presidential candidate and his lawyer Michael Cohen.

Pecker recounted liaising regularly with Cohen, as he bought the exclusive rights to stories that he then stifled, part of a so-called “catch and kill” scheme.

Those stories included information that could have been politically damaging for Trump. They included an account of an alleged affair with model Karen McDougal and a claim from a Trump Tower doorman that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Prosecutors said this “catch and kill” scheme was part of a coordinated effort to reduce scrutiny over allegations Trump faced of sexual misconduct.

Pecker testified that the effort was explicitly meant to help Trump’s campaign and that the politician did not seem concerned about the information reaching his family.

During cross-examination, the defence noted that Pecker had entered into other “catch and kill” agreements with prominent figures, including former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and prominent Democratic politician Rahm Emanuel, in an apparent attempt to undermine the publisher’s claim that his agreement with Trump was extraordinary.

Following Pecker’s testimony, prosecutors called to the stand Rhona Graff, who worked as Trump’s business assistant from 1987 to 2021.

She testified that she once saw Daniels at Trump Tower before Trump ran for president. She added she heard Trump say he was interested in casting her on The Apprentice, the reality TV show he hosted.

Graff said the email addresses of Daniels and McDougal were both stored in the computer systems of Trump’s company.

Banker Gary Farro later testified that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, set up accounts with him shortly before the election for two shell companies, including one that was used to pay Daniels.

Farro said Cohen led him to believe the firm, Essential Consultants LLC, would be involved in real-estate consulting. His testimony is set to resume on Tuesday.

Scrutiny over social media

Judge Merchan could also rule this week on whether Trump violated a partial gag order that bans him from speaking about individuals involved in the trial, including Cohen and Daniels, who are both expected to testify.

Prosecutors said last week that Trump had violated the order more than a dozen times in social media posts and public comments. Some of those infractions even occurred at the court, they added.

While penalties could potentially include jail time, prosecutors have said they are not seeking that at this time.

The New York trial is the result of one of four criminal indictments Trump currently faces.

Last week, the US Supreme Court heard arguments from Trump’s defence team, claiming his actions while in office should be protected under presidential immunity.

The case has a direct bearing on one of the criminal indictments against him: a federal case brought in Washington, DC, that alleges Trump attempted to overturn the 2020 election. Trump’s lawyers have maintained he should be immune from prosecution because his statements and actions constituted official acts.

It was not immediately clear when the top court would issue a decision in the case.

Trump also faces a separate federal case brought in Florida related to classified documents he removed from the White House after his term ended. Prosecutors allege he made efforts to conceal those documents, even after officials attempted to retrieve them.

The fourth indictment is a state-level case in Georgia: There, he faces further allegations related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies