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Trump’s trial features fierce debate over what he can say: 5 takeaways

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the end of the day during his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 19, 2024 in New York City. Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records last year, which prosecutors say was an effort to hide a potential sex scandal, both before and after the 2016 presidential election. Trump is the first former U.S. president to face trial on criminal charges.   (Photo by Maansi Srivastava - Pool/Getty Images)
By Jesse McKinley and Kate Christobek New York Times

NEW YORK — Tuesday’s session of Donald Trump’s criminal trial began with a heated clash between Justice Juan M. Merchan and Trump’s lead lawyer over a gag order. It ended with an insider’s look into a tabloid newspaper practice known as “catch and kill.”

Prosecutors said Trump had “willfully and blatantly” violated a gag order barring him from attacking jurors and witnesses, among others. They said he had done so in comments outside the courtroom and online and should be found in contempt of court.

Trump’s top lawyer said in response that Trump was simply defending himself from political attacks. Merchan did not rule, but he scolded the lawyer, Todd Blanche, saying, “you’re losing all credibility with the court.”

A former ally of Trump, David Pecker, the ex-publisher of the National Enquirer, later testified to buying and burying unflattering stories about Trump during his 2016 run for president, an arrangement he called “highly, highly confidential.”

Trump, 77, faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide a payment to a pornographic film actor, Stormy Daniels, made to cover up a sex scandal that threatened to derail his campaign. Daniels, who may testify, has said that she and Trump had a brief sexual encounter in 2006, something the former president denies.

Trump has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the former president — and presumptive Republican nominee — could face probation or up to four years in prison.

Here are five takeaways from Trump’s sixth day on trial:

Pecker describes “catch-and-kill.”

Taking the stand for a second day, Pecker outlined a decades-old friendship with Trump, a relationship that he said deepened in 2015.

It was then, Pecker said, that he, Trump and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, met at Trump Tower in Manhattan to hatch a plan to write promotional stories about Trump and negative stories about his political opponents.

Pecker said he acted as the campaign’s “eyes and ears,” notifying Cohen about possible scandals, particularly regarding women in Trump’s life.

Pecker on Tuesday walked through one of the “catch-and-kill” deals. He said that the National Enquirer learned that a door attendant at a Trump building was looking to sell a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock. The tabloid discovered that the story was apparently false, but paid $30,000 anyway, “because of the potential embarrassment” it could have caused Trump, Pecker said.

Pecker paints a portrait of a bygone era.

Pecker’s testimony depicted an anachronistic New York, with landlines, powerful supermarket tabloids and must-see network television, including “The Apprentice,” which made Trump nationally famous.

It also shed light on Pecker’s editorial tactics, including getting tips from Trump about who was getting kicked off “The Apprentice,” in line with Trump’s penchant for feeding dirt to tabloids.

Pecker said that he called Trump “Donald,” and that they had “a great relationship,” adding that he went so far as to start a magazine called Trump Style. When he proposed the magazine, Pecker said, Trump’s biggest question was, “Who’s going to pay for it?”

Trump’s short leash could get shorter.

Christopher Conroy, a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, argued that Trump had repeatedly violated the gag order that the court imposed on him. One alleged violation included a nine-minute diatribe outside the courtroom on Monday during which he attacked Cohen, his former fixer and a key witness against him.

“He did it right here,” Conroy said.

But Blanche said that the former president was “facing a barrage of political attacks” from several potential witnesses and needed to strike back.

“He’s running for president,” Blanche said. “He has to be able to respond to that.”

Merchan has chastised Trump once so far, for muttering in front of a prospective juror. If he holds him in criminal contempt, it will mark a serious escalation. For their part, prosecutors said they were not seeking to jail Trump, but wanted him to be fined.

Trump appeared frustrated.

Trump sat stoically while prosecutors argued that he violated the gag order. But he grew animated during the interplay between Blanche and Merchan. On several occasions, the former president sharply turned to his other lawyers and whispered.

When Blanche finished his argument, Trump immediately beckoned him over before he snatched a piece of paper off the defense table.

Trump posted on Truth Social right after the hearing, accusing Merchan of taking away his “right to free speech” and claiming that he was “not allowed to defend myself.”

Thursday will be a big day for Trump in two courts.

Court is not in session Wednesday, but prosecutors will continue their direct examination of Pecker on Thursday.

While Trump is expected to be in court in Manhattan that day, he may be a little preoccupied: In Washington, some of his other lawyers will be arguing in front of the Supreme Court that Trump should receive presidential immunity from prosecution in a federal election interference case.

Trump had sought to take a day away from his New York case to watch those arguments, but Merchan denied his request.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.