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Trump faces jail threat over gag order as prosecutors zero in on transactions at heart of the case

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump returns to his hush money trial Tuesday facing a threat of jail time for additional gag order violations as prosecutors gear up to summon big-name witnesses in the final weeks of the case.

Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who has said she had a sexual encounter with Trump, and Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer and personal fixer who prosecutors say paid her to keep silent in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, are among those who have yet to take the stand but are expected to in the coming weeks.

The jury on Monday heard from two witnesses, including a former Trump Organization controller who provided a mechanical but vital recitation of how the company reimbursed payments that were allegedly meant to suppress embarrassing stories from surfacing and then logged them as legal expenses in a manner that Manhattan prosecutors say broke the law.

The testimony from Jeffrey McConney yielded an important building block for prosecutors trying to pull back the curtain on what they say was a corporate records cover-up of transactions designed to protect Trump’s presidential bid during a pivotal stretch of the race. It focused on a $130,000 payment from Cohen to Daniels and the subsequent reimbursement Cohen received.

McConney and another witness testified that the reimbursement checks were drawn from Trump’s personal account. Yet even as jurors witnessed the checks and other documentary evidence, prosecutors did not elicit testimony Monday showing that Trump himself dictated that the payments would be logged as legal expenses, a designation that prosecutors contend was intentionally deceptive.

McConney acknowledged during cross-examination that Trump never asked him to log the reimbursements as legal expenses or discussed the matter with him at all. Another witness, Deborah Tarasoff, a Trump Organization accounts payable supervisor, said under questioning that she did not get permission to cut the checks in question from Trump himself.

“You never had any reason to believe that President Trump was hiding anything or anything like that?” Trump attorney Todd Blanche asked.

”Correct,” Tarasoff replied.

The testimony followed a stern warning from Judge Juan M. Merchan that additional violations of a gag 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 Monday marks the second time since the trial began last month that Trump has been sanctioned for violating the gag 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,” 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.

Yet even as Merchan warned of jail time in his most pointed and direct admonition, he also made clear his reservations about a step that he described as a “last resort.”

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” 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 criticized the speed at which the jury was picked and claimed, without evidence, that it was stacked with Democrats.

Prosecutors are continuing to build toward their star witness, Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments. He is expected to undergo a bruising cross-examination from defense attorneys seeking to undermine his credibility with jurors.

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Tucker reported from Washington.

Michael R. Sisak, Jennifer Peltz, Eric Tucker And Jake Offenhartz, The Associated Press


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