Jurors in Trump Trial Hear Witness Tie the President to the Payment

After two weeks of enthralling jurors with stories of sex and scandal, prosecutors delved into the documents at the heart of Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial on Monday, a pivotal turn in the case that came on the same day the judge held Mr. Trump in contempt and threatened to jail him.

After the judge rebuked Mr. Trump for violating a gag order and mounting “a direct attack on the rule of law,” the prosecutors provided jurors with their first look at the 34 records they say he falsified to cover up an infamous payment.

Mr. Trump made the payment to his longtime fixer, Michael D. Cohen, reimbursing him for a $130,000 hush-money payoff to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, prosecutors say. Before Mr. Trump repaid Mr. Cohen, prosecutors say, he orchestrated a scheme to falsify the records.

Mr. Trump, the first American president to face prosecution, is on trial for 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, one for each document: 11 checks to Mr. Cohen, 11 invoices from Mr. Cohen and 12 entries in Mr. Trump’s general ledger. The invoices and ledger entries claimed that Mr. Cohen had been repaid for “legal expenses” that arose from a “retainer agreement.”

But prosecutors say the purported expenses and retainer agreement were works of fiction. And they used veterans of Mr. Trump’s accounting department against him, calling on the Trump Organization’s former controller, Jeffrey McConney, and its accounts payable supervisor, Deborah Tarasoff, to walk jurors through the records.

While Mr. McConney testified that he did not know the true nature of the payments to Mr. Cohen, he bolstered the prosecution’s contention that the records were fishy.

When a prosecutor, Matthew Colangelo, asked Mr. McConney whether he ever saw a retainer agreement, he responded “I did not.” And when asked if he sent the invoice to the company’s legal department — as was common at the Trump Organization — he offered a telling one-word acknowledgment: “No.”

Mr. McConney also told jurors that much of the money for Mr. Cohen had come from Mr. Trump’s personal bank account. The company sent nine of the checks to the White House for Mr. Trump to sign, Mr. McConney explained.

His testimony marked a turning point in the prosecution’s case as it pivots from lurid details about buying and burying sex scandals — during the 2016 presidential campaign, Ms. Daniels was shopping her story of a tryst with Mr. Trump — to the records that the former president is accused of falsifying.

Both phases of the case, the captivating sleaze and the stultifying records, are essential to proving the charges. New York law requires prosecutors to show that Mr. Trump falsified the records to conceal another crime, in this case, what the prosecution says was a conspiracy to influence the election by concealing damaging stories from voters.

Mr. McConney took the stand after the judge held Mr. Trump in contempt of court for a second time and threatened to jail him if he continued to break the gag order that bars him from attacking jurors.

In a remarkable moment, the judge, Juan M. Merchan, addressed Mr. Trump personally from the bench, saying that if there were further violations, he might place the former president behind bars.

Justice Merchan acknowledged that jailing Mr. Trump was “the last thing” he wanted, but explained that his responsibility was to “protect the dignity of the justice system.”

The judge said that he understood “the magnitude of such a decision” and that jailing Mr. Trump would be a last resort. He noted: “You are the former president of the United States, and possibly the next president as well.”

As the judge delivered his admonition and imposed a $1,000 fine, Mr. Trump stared straight at him, blinking but not reacting, and when the remarks were over, the former president shook his head.

The violation for which he was punished Monday stemmed from an incident on April 22, when Mr. Trump made disparaging remarks about jurors during a telephone interview with a far-right media outlet, Real America’s Voice. The jury, he said, had been picked “so fast” and was “mostly all Democrat,” adding, “It’s a very unfair situation.”

Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which brought the case, argued that with that remark and others Mr. Trump had committed four new violations of the order. But Justice Merchan concluded that only the incident in which Mr. Trump attacked the jury amounted to a violation.

“Defendant not only called into question the integrity, and therefore the legitimacy of these proceedings, but again raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones,” Justice Merchan wrote in his order.

The order came less than a week after Justice Merchan had issued a separate decision fining Mr. Trump $9,000 for nine earlier violations. In that ruling, the judge had warned Mr. Trump that continued disobedience could land him in jail.

On Monday, he issued a more explicit and sterner warning, all but pleading with the former president to stop attacking the jury.

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” Justice Merchan said, adding quickly, “But at the end of the day, I have a job to do.”

Tension in the room eased once Mr. McConney took the stand, though his testimony was critical.

Prosecutors say that Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, hashed out a plan to falsify records to disguise the purpose of the reimbursement.

And when the issue made its way to Mr. McConney, he said, Mr. Weisselberg ordered him to pay Mr. Cohen, who ultimately received $420,000 in 11 checks. That covered the hush money, plus a bonus and additional funds, prosecutors say.

Mr. Colangelo, the prosecutor, walked Mr. McConney through each of Mr. Cohen’s monthly invoices sent to the Trump Organization. The first came via email in February 2017, and Mr. Cohen was direct: “Pursuant to the retainer agreement kindly remit payment,” he wrote Mr. McConney.

Mr. Weisselberg chimed in to approve, emailing Mr. McConney to say that he could release the money for Mr. Cohen, “per agreement with Don and Eric.” That was a reference to Mr. Trump’s adult sons, who took over the company when their father became president.

Mr. McConney then instructed Ms. Tarasoff, to pay and to note the charge in Mr. Trump’s ledger as “legal expenses” that pertained to a “retainer,” the very statements that prosecutors say are false.

He explained that the company’s accounting software had a variety of descriptions for payments, and, “We were paying a lawyer, so I said to put it — posted it to legal expenses.”

Ms. Tarasoff took the stand herself on Monday afternoon to answer questions about the process; her testimony was granular yet essential. With Ms. Tarasoff, prosecutors introduced the checks, which Mr. Trump signed with a black Sharpie.

When cross-examining Mr. McConney and Ms. Tarasoff, Mr. Trump’s lawyers sought to emphasize that the Trump Organization employees were in the dark about the reason for the repayments to Mr. Cohen.

“You don’t know one way or the other, from your vantage point, whether Mr. Cohen did legal work for President Trump in 2017, do you?” Emil Bove, a defense lawyer, asked Mr. McConney. Mr. McConney acknowledged that he did not.

But Mr. Colangelo appeared to think Mr. McConney’s ignorance was an asset for the prosecution, not the defense, suggesting that his bosses were operating in secret.

“Have you learned there were matters that Mr. Weisselberg kept you in the dark about?” he asked Mr. McConney, when he got a chance to question him again. Mr. McConney said he had.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers also repeatedly sought to put distance between the former president and the actions described during testimony. Mr. Bove got Mr. McConney, for example, to say that he never discussed the accounting software with Mr. Trump.

And while questioning Ms. Tarasoff, another of Mr. Trump’s lawyers noted that she didn’t receive direct permission from Mr. Trump to draft the checks he signed, but rather from her Mr. McConney, who had been her boss.

Month after month, Mr. Cohen submitted his invoices and was paid. But one month, the payment seemed slow to arrive, and he followed up with Mr. McConney.

“I’ll check the status tomorrow,” Mr. McConney replied. “DJT needs to sign check.”

Kate Christobek and Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.

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