The Defense Turns Up the Heat

During the first two weeks of testimony in Donald Trump’s criminal trial, the defense has often turned to three Ds to counter the prosecution’s arguments: denial, downplaying and deflecting responsibility.

As the case heats up, though, Trump’s legal team has increasingly gone on the offensive, confronting prosecution witnesses head-on — a strategy that was on full display today, during a rugged cross-examination of Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels.

Daniels, a porn star, was paid $130,000 by Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, in 2016 to ensure her silence about a single-night sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.

In two days of testimony, Davidson offered a vivid description of the deal to cover up Daniels’s story and another hush-money arrangement involving Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. McDougal’s story was never published, part of a pattern of “catch-and-kill”: the supermarket tabloid practice of buying up negative stories and then burying them.

Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer once known for representing people with salacious claims against celebrities, was straightforward in describing the deals. Jurors heard about emails and texts between him and Cohen, who paid $130,000 to Daniels, less than two weeks before the 2016 election. That payment underlies the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records that Trump faces, related to Cohen’s reimbursement. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies having sex with Daniels and McDougal.

Late today, the jury heard also directly from Trump — in a way — when prosecutors played a secret recording between him and Cohen, discussing the McDougal deal. While the existence of the recording was previously known, it spoke to a central element of the prosecution’s case: that Trump was aware of what prosecutors have called a conspiracy to help him get elected.

Earlier, the defense had wasted little time attacking Davidson during cross-examination, suggesting within minutes that he had skated on the edge of extortion and was given to convenient lapses of memory. Emil Bove, one of Trump’s defense attorneys, dived into a variety of deals that Davidson had a hand in, including lurid interactions involving Charlie Sheen and Tila Tequila, a reality television star.

He also bluntly suggested that such deal making had sometimes bordered on extortion, questioning Davidson about his familiarity with the statute of limitations on extortion charges and also asking him: “What does the word ‘extortion’ mean to you?”

“You did everything you could to get as close to that line as possible without crossing it, right?” Bove said.

“I did everything I could to make sure that my activities were lawful,” Davidson replied.

Things got testy fast, lawyer vs. lawyer under the glare of dozens of reporters, as Bove drove into Davidson’s practice, and past allegations against him, including in 2012, when he was investigated — but not charged — in a case involving a sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan, the mustachioed wrestling star.

Earlier, under more friendly questioning from prosecutors, Davidson had chafed a little, at one point rejecting the term “hush money” for his preferred word for a payment for a client’s silence. A “consideration,” he called it.

But such debates grew heated when Bove suggested Davidson would “extract” money from celebrities in sticky situations.

“There was no extraction,” Davidson countered.

Words, of course, have meanings, a reality that also arose earlier today, when prosecutors again sought to hold Trump in contempt of court for four additional comments, some about Cohen, that prosecutors consider violations of the judge’s gag order, which bars attacks on jurors, witnesses, prosecutors and members of the judge’s family.

On Tuesday, Justice Juan Merchan found Trump in contempt for nine online posts, fining him $9,000, forcing him to take down the postings and threatening him with jail if such violations continue.

Trump, known to be a tough client, has been unhappy with the level of aggression from his defense team. And today, his lead attorney, Todd Blanche, argued at length that Trump should be allowed to speak out against what he described as “political attacks.” He cited Cohen’s comments to journalists about Trump’s “lies,” a possible television show Cohen may be pitching and TikTok videos Cohen has made bashing the former president.

Merchan did not immediately rule, though he seemed open to some of Blanche’s arguments, and finally tried to get him to wrap up.

“You made your point,” Merchan said.

But Blanche kept speaking, saying that neither Cohen nor Daniels should be covered by the gag order. “They are not people who need to be protected,” he said.

Cohen is likely to face a barrage of hard questions from the defense when he testifies, probably later this month. And already his name has been frequently used — and abused — in testimony, including by Davidson, who described him as a “pants-on-fire” attorney: frantic, mercurial and given to outbursts and profanity.

Last week, the defense had also sought to damage the testimony of David Pecker — the former publisher of The National Enquirer — but seemingly had mixed results cross-examining a grayed, stooped man who answered questions in a “what, me worry?” monotone. By contrast, Davidson seemed annoyed by Bove’s persistent questions, even as Bove mentioned that both men were lawyers.

“I’m not here to play lawyer games with you,” Bove said. “I’m just asking for truthful answers.”

“You’re getting truthful answers,” Davidson responded, before leaning into his final word. “Sir.”

Here’s the team we have reporting on the trial. During the proceedings, we’ll be sending you updates more frequently, including breaking news alerts and our weekly analysis on Thursdays.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

How will this trial affect Trump’s ability to campaign and for how long? — Suzannah Cowley, Australia

Jesse: It has certainly limited him during weekdays, though he has managed to use his time outside of the courtroom — literally in the hallway outside — to feed red meat to his supporters, bashing the criminal case and Democrats in general. This week, he also used Wednesday — an off day for court — to hold rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan. His weekends are also free for campaigning. And as always, his social media presence continues unabated, with frequents posts on his Truth Social account and campaign website.

  • We’re still waiting for several key rulings in Trump’s classified documents case in Florida — chiefly a ruling by Judge Aileen Cannon about when the trial will start. Before that, she is likely to have to make decisions on Trump’s request for more discovery information and about delaying a key filing on the handling of classified materials at trial, both of which could come at any time.

  • After hearing arguments last week about Trump’s claim of immunity in the Jan. 6 case, the Supreme Court could issue a ruling in late June or early July.

Trump is at the center of at least four separate criminal investigations, at both the state and federal levels, into matters related to his business and political careers. Here is where each case stands.

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