Key takeaways from 12th day of Trump’s New York hush-money trial

Jury hears testimony on how hush-money payments were made as judge again fines Trump for violating gag order in case.

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters outside his criminal trial in New York
Former US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan criminal court on May 6 [Peter Foley/Pool via AP Photo]

A New York jury has heard more testimony in the criminal trial against former United States President Donald Trump, who is accused of falsifying business records linked to hush-money payments ahead of the 2016 elections.

But even before the jury was seated on Monday, Judge Juan Merchan levied another $1,000 fine against Trump and held him in contempt of court for the 10th time for violating a gag order in the case.

“I do not want to impose a jail sanction and have done everything I can to avoid doing so. But I will if necessary,” Merchan said from the bench.

Imprisonment would be an unprecedented step in the historic trial, which stems from hush-money payments that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The prosecutors have argued that Trump himself directed the payments, in an attempt to silence Daniels, who claimed they had an extramarital affair.

Trump, who faces 34 felony charges in the case, is accused of engaging in a conspiracy that aimed to “undermine the integrity” of the 2016 presidential election, by suppressing information that would have been unflattering to his campaign.

After Merchan’s ruling, jurors saw bank records and heard testimony from two members of the Trump Organization — one a former employee, the other current — who spoke to invoices and logs related to the alleged hush-money payments.

Trump, who is the presumptive Republican Party nominee heading into November’s presidential election, has pleaded not guilty and accused prosecutors of seeking to derail his re-election bid. He has also denied any sexual relations with Daniels.

Here are five key takeaways from the 12th day of the trial.

Bank records shown

For the first time, jurors on Monday heard about the reimbursements at the root of the charges against Trump.

Former Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney testified about conversations he had with the company’s longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg in January 2017 about reimbursing Cohen.

“Allen 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,” McConney testified. “That’s how I found out about it.”

Cohen, who had worked for the Trump Organization for about a decade, had just been taken off the payroll as a salaried employee. However, he had paid $130,000 to lawyer Keith Davidson, who represented the adult film star Daniels, in an effort to buy her silence.

A bank statement displayed in court showed Cohen paying Davidson $130,000 on October 27, 2016, out of an account for a shell company Cohen created for that purpose.

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

The notes spell out a plan to pay Cohen a base reimbursement of $180,000 — covering the payment to Davidson and an unrelated technology bill. That total was then doubled or “grossed up” to cover the state, city and federal taxes that Weisselberg estimated Cohen would incur on the payments.

Weisselberg then added a $60,000 bonus, for a total of $420,000, according to the notes.

The reimbursement payments were listed as legal fees, something which prosecutors say underscores their claim that Trump falsified business records.

Payments made from Trump’s account, McConney says

After paying the first two reimbursement cheques to Cohen through a trust, the remainder of the cheques — covering payments from April to December 2017 — were paid from Trump’s personal account, McConney also testified.

With Trump, the only signatory to that account, in the White House, the change in funding source necessitated “a whole new process for us”, McConney said.

McConney’s own notes were also shown in court. After calculations that laid out that Cohen would get $35,000 a month for 12 months, McConney wrote: “wire monthly from DJT”.

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

McConney’s testimony also touched on a key part of the case: how and why Cohen’s reimbursement for the Daniels payment was entered as a legal expense. He testified that he instructed an accounting department employee to do so.

All expenses had to be entered in the general ledger with a category code, and McConney instructed the accounting team to enter the code for legal expenses: 51505.

“We were paying a lawyer,” McConney said of Cohen on Monday.

Donald Trump awaits the start of a hearing in his hush money trial in New York on May 6
Trump awaits the start of his criminal trial at Manhattan criminal court on May 6 in New York City in the United States [Peter Foley/Pool via AP Photo]

Under cross-examination later in the day, McConney acknowledged that Trump never directed him to log Cohen’s payments as legal expenses, nor did Weisselberg say Trump had wanted them listed that way.

Trump lawyer Emil Bove also pointed out that Cohen was a lawyer and that “payments to lawyers are legal expenses”.

Trump’s team has argued there was nothing illegal about the way Cohen was paid.

Another Trump Organization employee testifies

The prosecution also called Deborah Tarasoff, the accounts payable supervisor at the Trump Organization, to the stand on Monday afternoon.

Tarasoff was the recipient of a 2017 email in which McConney told her to “post to legal expenses” the reimbursement payments to Cohen. She prepared the cheques used to pay the former Trump lawyer.

Tarasoff testified about the process through which the cheques used to reimburse Cohen were issued.

Most of the cheques were paid out of Trump’s personal account and were signed by him at the White House, she said. She added that cheques would then return with Trump’s Sharpie signature.

“I’d pull them apart, mail out the cheque and file the backup,” she said, meaning putting the invoice into the Trump Organization’s filing system.

Two other cheques shown in court were drawn from Trump’s revocable trust, which was used to hold his assets while he was president.

It bore the signatures of two trustees: Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr and Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s longtime finance chief.

The cheques were logged in internal records as legal expenses arising from a retainer agreement. Prosecutors allege the payments were mislabelled to conceal Cohen’s reimbursement and the underlying hush-money payment.

Judge issues another fine against Trump

Monday’s $1,000 fine against Trump was the 10th such punishment for violating a court-imposed gag order, which bars the ex-president from making comments about the jurors, witnesses and families of court employees that might interfere with the case.

But as he issued the fine, Judge Merchan noted the nine previous fines of $1,000 each did not seem to be preventing Trump from violating the gag order.

“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,” Merchan told Trump and his defence team.

The judge also emphasised that jail time was “truly the last resort”, as it could disrupt the trial and have implications for Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign.

But Merchan added that Trump’s “continued, willful” violations of the gag order amounted to a “direct attack on the rule of law”.

The latest violation stemmed from an April 22 interview Trump gave to a right-wing broadcaster, in which he criticised the jury composition. “That jury was picked so fast — 95 percent Democrats. The area’s mostly all Democrat,” Trump said.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom on Monday, Trump continued to strike a defiant tone.

“It’s a ridiculous case, I did nothing wrong — absolutely nothing wrong,” said Trump, accusing the judge of stripping him of his “constitutional rights” with the gag order. “He’s taken away my constitutional right to speak.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies