May 26th, 2024

Hope Hicks, ex-Trump adviser, recounts fear in 2016 campaign over impact of ‘Access Hollywood’ tape

By Michael R. Sisak, Jake Offenhartz, Philip Marcelo And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press on May 3, 2024.

NEW YORK (AP) – Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was seized with worry about the potential political damage from a tape that showed Trump bragging about grabbing women sexually without their permission, longtime Trump adviser Hope Hicks testified Friday at his hush money trial.

Hicks, a former White House official, was compelled to testify by Manhattan prosecutors, who are hoping her remarks bolster their argument that the uproar over the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape hastened Trump’s then-lawyer to pay off porn actor Stormy Daniels to bury a negative story that could imperil his 2016 presidential bid.

Once one of Trump’s closest confidants, Hicks provided a window into the chaotic fallout over the tape’s release just days before a crucial debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton. It was recorded in 2005 but was not seen by the public until Oct. 7, 2016, about a month before Election Day. Hicks described being stunned and huddling with other Trump advisers after learning about the tape’s existence from the Washington Post reporter who broke the story. Hicks forwarded the reporter’s request to campaign leadership with the recommendation to “deny, deny, deny,” she said.

“I had a good sense to believe this was going to be a massive story and that it was going to dominate the news cycle for the next several days,” Hicks testified. “This was a damaging development.”

She added: “This was just pulling us backwards in a way that was going to be hard to overcome.”

Prosecutors called her to the witness stand to strengthen their case alleging Trump worked to prevent damaging stories about his personal life from becoming public as part of a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has sought to establish that link not just to secure a conviction but also to persuade the public of the significance of the case, which may be the only one of four Trump prosecutions to reach trial this year.

Hicks told jurors that Trump claimed he did not know anything about his then-attorney Michael Cohen paying $130,000 to Daniels to prevent her from going public with claims of a sexual encounter with Trump. But, Hicks said, Trump eventually came to believe that burying Daniels’ story was prudent, saying he thought “it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election.”

At other points, Hicks’ testimony appeared to help the defense’s contention that the former president was trying to protect his reputation and family – not his campaign – by shielding them from embarrassing stories about his personal life. Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the case, which he has slammed as an effort to derail his campaign to reclaim the White House in November.

Under questioning by Trump’s attorney, Hicks told jurors that he was worried about the effect of the “Access Hollywood” tape on his family. And when the Wall Street Journal published a story revealing ex-Playboy Model Karen McDougal’s affair allegations right before the election, Hicks said Trump was concerned about his wife seeing the story and asked Hicks to make sure newspapers weren’t delivered to their residence that morning.

But when asked if Trump was also worried about the story’s impact on the campaign, Hicks responded that everything they spoke about during that time was viewed through the lens of the campaign. Trump would often asking her, “How is it playing?” as a way of gauging how his appearances, speeches and policies were landing with voters, she said.

Hicks’ proximity to Trump over the years has made her a figure of interest to congressional and criminal investigators alike, who have sought her testimony on multiple occasions on topics ranging from Russian election interference to Trump’s election loss and the subsequent Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

She appeared reluctant to be in the courtroom, taking a deep breath as she stepped up to the microphone and acknowledging she was “really nervous.” She later started crying on the witness stand, forcing the court to take a brief break, when Trump lawyer Emil Bove started to ask her to reflect on her time at the Trump Organization before he brought her onto his 2016 campaign.

Referring to her former boss as “Mr. Trump” and later “President Trump” when speaking about their time in the White House, she told the court she last communicated with him in the summer or fall of 2022. While no longer in Trump’s inner circle, Hicks spoke about the former president in glowing terms as the prosecutor began questioning her about her background.

She recounted how the political firestorm that ensued after the release of the tape was so intense that it knocked an actual storm out of the headlines. Before the tape became public, the news was dominated by a Category 4 hurricane that was charging toward the East Coast.

“I don’t think anybody remembers” where that hurricane hit, Hicks told jurors.

Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti and Cuba as a Category 4 storm, made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane on Oct. 8, 2016, the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape was made public.

Prosecutors have spent the week using detailed testimony about meetings, email exchanges, business transactions and bank accounts to build on the foundation of their case charging Trump with 34 counts of falsifying internal Trump Organization business records. They are setting the stage for pivotal testimony from Cohen, who paid Daniels for her silence before he went to prison for the hush money scheme.

Testimony will resume Monday. The trial could last another month or more, with important witnesses who have yet to be called, including Cohen and Daniels.

One of the most pivotal pieces of evidence disclosed to jurors this week was a recording of a meeting between Trump and Cohen before the 2016 election in which they discussed a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from the National Enquirer so that it would never come out. The tabloid had previously bought McDougal’s story to bury it on Trump’s behalf.

At one point, Trump can be heard saying: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

In a victory for Trump just as court was ending for the week, Judge Juan M. Merchan denied a request by prosecutors to ask Trump, should he choose to testify, about being held in contempt of court for gag order violations in the case. Merchan said allowing it would be “so prejudicial it would be very, very difficult for the jury to look past that.”

Trump this week paid his $9,000 fine for violating the gag order that bars him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to the case.

His attorney, Todd Blanche, told the judge Friday they are appealing the finding that Trump violated the gag order. Blanche said that they took particular issue with penalties for what are known as reposts – instances where Trump shared someone else’s post with his followers.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Colleen Long in Washington and Ruth Brown and Michelle Price in New York contributed to this report.

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