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Trump’s Team Paints Stormy Daniels’s Ex-Lawyer as a Shakedown Artist

Less than two weeks before Election Day 2016, a Beverly Hills lawyer’s two-word text message confirmed a transaction that Manhattan prosecutors say might have saved the candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

“Funds received,” it read.

The message was sent by Keith Davidson, who in 2016 represented Stormy Daniels, a porn star who had threatened to go public with a damaging story about Mr. Trump shortly before that year’s presidential election. It was read aloud during Mr. Trump’s criminal trial on Thursday as prosecutors continued their questioning of Mr. Davidson, the first time that jurors have seen direct evidence of the hush-money payment at the case’s center.

A defense lawyer, Emil Bove, in a furious cross-examination after prosecutors were finished, painted a suddenly red-faced Mr. Davidson as a serial extortionist. He accused Mr. Davidson of shaking down the Trump campaign, as Mr. Bove said he had other celebrities, including the reality television star who calls herself Tila Tequila and Charlie Sheen, the actor.

Mr. Davidson said that, after some of those exploits, years before the 2016 election, he familiarized himself with extortion law. Mr. Bove asked whether he had done so in order to better extract money from his targets while avoiding law enforcement.

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

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

The intense questioning from both sides marked another momentous day at Mr. Trump’s criminal trial, which, as the second week of testimony moves along, has doubled as a re-examination not only of the politics of 2016, but of the celebrity-obsessed digital media environment in which Trump rose to prominence.

Mr. Davidson, who had a niche practice representing people with often salacious claims against celebrities, began the day by describing his unpleasant relationship with Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer and personal lawyer, who ultimately paid Ms. Daniels to keep silent. Mr. Trump is charged with 34 felonies for what prosecutors say were his attempts from the White House to disguise reimbursements to Mr. Cohen.

The testimony from Mr. Davidson on Thursday, his second day on the stand, painted a vivid portrait of fevered efforts by the witness, Mr. Cohen and others to keep allegations of extramarital affairs by Mr. Trump out of the public eye.

Those included a January 2018 denial that Ms. Daniels issued after inquiries from The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Daniels said she had not had a “sexual and/or romantic affair” with the president, and on the stand, Mr. Davidson took pains to explain why that was “technically true.” He said that the one-night stand in a Lake Tahoe hotel, which Mr. Trump denies occurred, was not romantic.

A prosecutor, Joshua Steinglass, asked whether Mr. Davidson intended that statement “to be cleverly misleading.”

“I don’t understand the question,” Mr. Davidson said, before adding that he would never use the term “hush money” for the money that was received. He said he preferred “consideration.”

Mr. Davidson painted a portrait of life within a Los Angeles demimonde, complete with meetings in the Marilyn Monroe Suite of the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel — “a classic,” he called it — where Ms. Daniels drafted a second denial of an affair with Mr. Trump. (Mr. Davidson said this one, too, was technically true, as it denied a “relationship,” a word that he felt conveyed an “ongoing interaction.”)

According to Mr. Bove, Mr. Davidson often sought to turn scandal to his and his clients’ financial advantage. Topics of discussion Thursday included sex tapes by figures like Tila Tequila and Hulk Hogan, the wrestler, as well as stints in rehab by the actress Lindsay Lohan and an attempt to shake down Mr. Sheen.

Mr. Davidson repeatedly clashed with Mr. Bove, who accused him of obscuring the truth by failing to supply specifics.

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

“You’re getting truthful answers, sir,” Mr. Davidson shot back, putting a sarcastic spin on the final word.

Mr. Cohen, expected to be a crucial prosecution witness, was also repeatedly denigrated, with Mr. Davidson, for a second day, describing him as aggressive, unpleasant and occasionally unhinged.

Mr. Davidson also testified about Mr. Cohen’s despondency after the 2016 election, when he learned Mr. Trump was not planning to include him in the administration.

“I thought he was going to kill himself,” Mr. Davidson said of Mr. Cohen — who once testified before Congress that he had not sought an administration job.

The unflattering comments about Mr. Cohen could aid the defense. But prosecutors may also be hoping that airing them will take out their sting, immunizing the jury against damaging information, instead of allowing the defense to play the facts up as revelations during cross-examination.

Mr. Trump himself has continually attacked Mr. Cohen in remarks and online posts that have been discussed at two different gag-order hearings, one of which resulted in his being held in contempt of court, fined $9,000 and warned that he could face jail time if he persisted.

On Thursday morning, the trial judge, Juan M. Merchan, heard arguments about four additional statements that prosecutors say violate the order, including remarks in the hallway outside the court, where Mr. Trump has taken to attacking the case and Democrats he feels are behind it. The judge did not immediately rule.

Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president and the first American president prosecuted for a crime, has complained vociferously about the trial, saying it is taking him off the campaign trail and baselessly suggesting that the prosecution was orchestrated by President Biden. His other targets have included the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, whose office brought the case, and Justice Merchan.

Still, Mr. Trump’s demeanor in Justice Merchan’s courtroom has been different from other recent trials, where he has had outbursts and even stormed out. Mr. Trump has been largely subdued, often sitting with his eyes closed at the defense table as testimony unspools. At some points, he has seemed to doze off.

Mr. Trump’s low-key presence — and a scant show of support outside the courthouse — was a striking contrast to rallies the candidate held on Wednesday in Wisconsin and Michigan.

During an event in Freeland, Mich., Mr. Trump repeated claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him by Democrats, and declaring, “We’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election — the most important day of our lives — in 2024.”

In Wisconsin, he also attacked Justice Merchan, calling him “a crooked judge,” and said that the jury came from “a 95 percent or so Democrat area.”

“Other than that,” the former president quipped, “things are wonderful.”

Mr. Trump seemed engaged on Thursday during cross-examination of Mr. Davidson, who has portrayed the former president as the hidden hand arranging the payment to Ms. Daniels.

In his questioning, Mr. Bove, the defense lawyer, pointed out that Mr. Davidson had never met or interacted with Mr. Trump.

“In fact, everything that you know about President Trump came from either TV or Michael Cohen?” he asked. Mr. Davidson said yes.

But prosecutors argue that Mr. Davidson did not have to know the then-candidate to understand the importance of the hush-money payment in his bid for the White House.

Prosecutors asked Mr. Davidson to explain a text exchange right after Election Day in 2016 with Dylan Howard, a top editor at The National Enquirer who had helped broker the deal among Mr. Cohen, Mr. Davidson and Ms. Daniels.

“What have we done?” Mr. Davidson asked the editor.

Michael Gold, Kate Christobek, Michael Rothfeld, Alan Feuer, Wesley Parnell and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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