California lawyer who negotiated two women’s hush money deals testifies at Trump trial

The October 2016 release of an Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was heard boasting about sexually assaulting women, left his campaign in peril and accelerated communications, ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports

Keith Davidson, a California lawyer who represented both Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels in their six-figure nondisclosure agreements to keep quiet during the 2016 campaign about their alleged sexual affairs with Donald Trump, testified in the former president’s criminal trial on Tuesday.

In the summer of 2016, Mr Davidson represented former Playboy centerfold model Ms McDougal in selling the exclusive rights to her story to American Media, Inc., which owned the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid and other publications.

“Ms McDougal alleged that she had had a romantic affair with Donald Trump some years prior,” Davidson told the jury.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked if the affair was sexual, to which Mr Davidson responded: “That’s what she expressed."

Between June and August 2016, in a series of text messages shown in court, Mr Davidson dealt primarily with AMI chief content officer Dylan Howard.

“I have a blockbuster Trump story,” Mr Davidson texted Mr Howard to start their conversation on June 7.

“Talk first thing. I will get you more than ANYONE. You know why,” Mr Howard replied.

Mr Howard’s boss, David Pecker, the former AMI CEO, testified over four days last week about a plan hatched in 2015 to scout for and suppress embarrassing stories about Trump.

“I knew that Dylan’s boss, David Pecker, and Mr Trump were longtime friends,” Mr Davidson said, “and they [AMI] endorsed Mr Trump’s candidacy.”

Mr Howard expressed curiosity in a text chain with Mr Davidson, asking “Did he cheat on Melania?”

“Do you know if the affair was during his marriage to Melania?”

“I really cannot say yet. Sorry,” Mr Davidson replied, trying to boost interest in her story.

Trump married his third wife, former first lady Melania Trump, in January 2005. She gave birth to their son, Barron, in March 2006.

Ms McDougal, expected to be a prosecution witness, has said her affair with Trump began in the summer of 2006 and lasted ten months until she ended it in April 2007.

Mr Howard flew to California to vet Ms McDougal in person. Mr Davidson’s initial ask was $1 million plus $75,000 annually for two years of work as a fitness correspondent.

“We really weren’t in the same ballpark,” the lawyer said, adding that AMI was uninterested because Ms McDougal “lacked documentary evidence of the interaction” with Trump.

Mr Davidson was simultaneously negotiating with ABC News, which had dangled a possible appearance for McDougal on the network’s prime time show, Dancing with the Stars.

“I was trying to play two entities off of each other,” Mr Davidson testified. “To create a sense of urgency.”

After two months, AMI and Mr Davidson agreed on a price - $150,000 - and signed the deal on August 6.

Mr Davidson said Ms McDougal had three goals: rejuvenate her career, make money, avoid telling the story, and “becoming the Scarlet letter of the other woman.”

The lawyer said he believed AMI had engaged in the “catch and kill” - to buy the rights and censor the story - because it wanted to build Ms McDougal into a brand and the “unspoken understanding” between Mr Pecker and Trump to protect his campaign.

In 2016, Mr Davidson also ended up representing pornographic film actress and director Stormy Daniels in an effort to sell her story about a one-night stand with Trump at a golf resort in Nevada in 2006.

An agreement with AMI, initiated by Ms Daniels’ manager, had stalled when Mr Davidson got involved. He needed to close the deal with Trump Organisation attorney Michael Cohen.

Mr Davidson said: “Michael Cohen stepped into AMI’s shoes.”

No cameras are allowed inside the Manhattan courtroom where Trump's hush money trial is underway. Credit: CNN

Mr Davidson and Mr Cohen had worked collaboratively five years earlier, when the Daniels-Trump story first surfaced on an obscure blog, and they succeeded in getting the blog to take it down.

“My interaction with him,” Mr Davidson said of Mr Cohen, “was not pleasant or constructive, and I didn’t particularly like dealing with him.”

The October 2016 release of an Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was heard boasting about sexually assaulting women, left his campaign in peril and accelerated communications.

The men agreed on a $130,000 non-disclosure agreement.

Mr Davidson drafted it using the pseudonyms “Peggy Petersen” for Ms Daniels and “David Dennison” for Trump.

Mr Davidson said “P” was for plaintiff, “D” was for defendant, and David Dennison was the name of someone on his high school hockey team.

“He’s very upset,” Mr Davidson said.

Trump was seated with his eyes closed for most of Mr Davidson’s testimony. Ms Daniels is also expected to testify.

Earlier, the jury heard Mr Cohen’s former personal banker describe how First Republic Bank facilitated the hush money payment to Ms Daniels two weeks before Election Day.

Gary Farro, a former senior client advisor at the defunct bank, explained how the bank activated an account for Mr Cohen, for Essential Consultants, LLC, received a $131,000 transfer from the home equity line of credit Cohen shared with his wife, Laura, into the account, and then wired $130,000 from the account to Davidson’s attorney-client trust account at City National Bank in Beverly Hills, California – all in 24 hours.

“Everything was urgent with Michael Cohen,” Farro said.

Under “purpose” on the wire request form, a bank employee had written “retainer,” as Mr Cohen had claimed, and Mr Cohen signed the form affirming the information was “true, complete, and accurate.”

Mr Farro said Mr Cohen had falsely told him the LLC account would be used for real estate transactions, and the bank’s due diligence “absolutely” would have been different had he admitted the account would be used to benefit a political candidate or pay a pornographic film professional.

“We would certainly ask additional questions,” Mr Farro testified. “It is an industry we do not work with.”

Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 by Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen. Credit: AP

The trial, which will resume on Thursday with Mr Davidson on the witness stand, is now in its third week.

Trump faces 34 felony charges for falsifying business records to disguise his reimbursements to Cohen for the Daniels payout as normal legal expenses. He has denied all allegations and affairs with both women.

“This is a case that should never have been brought,” Trump told reporters in the courthouse hallway upon his arrival on Tuesday. “It's a disgrace to the New York State and City court system.”

Trump continues to complain that his required attendance is interfering with his current presidential run.

He said: "I’d much rather be in Georgia. I'd much rather be in Florida. I'd much rather be in states that are in play, states that, you know, I'd like to be able to campaign.”

Judge Juan Merchan decided Tuesday that Trump may attend the high school graduation of his son, Barron, on May 17, and the trial will take a day off.

Mr Merchan also held Trump in contempt of court and fined him $9,000, or $1,000 each, for nine specific violations of the court’s gag order prohibiting denigrating comments about expected trial witnesses.

Three of the problematic posts on Trump's Truth Social platform and two on Trump's campaign website occurred after the trial jury selection had begun.

Trump complied with a court order to take them down.

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