May 30th, 2024

Hope Hicks, ex-Trump adviser, recounts fear in Trump’s 2016 campaign over ‘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 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 jurors with a glimpse into the chaotic fallout from the tape’s release just days before a crucial debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton. 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,” Hicks 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 used her testimony 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.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and slammed the case as an effort to hurt his bid to reclaim the White House this November. The defense has sought to show that Trump was trying to protect his reputation and family – not his campaign – by burying embarrassing stories about his personal life.

Under questioning by Trump’s attorney, Hicks told jurors that Trump was worried about the effect of the tape on his family.

“I don’t think he wanted anyone in his family to be hurt or embarrassed by anything happening in the campaign,” 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 Russia 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 when Trump lawyer Emil Bove started to ask her to reflect on her time at the Trump Organization before Trump brought her onto his 2016 campaign.

Referring to her former boss as “Mr. Trump,” 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, the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape was made public.

In the aftermath of the tape’s release, she asked Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen to chase down a rumor of another potentially damaging tape. Hicks said she wanted to be proactive in seeking out the supposed tape because she didn’t want anyone to be “blindsided.” There ended up not being one.

Then, four days before the 2016 election, Hicks said she received a request for comment from a Wall Street Journal reporter for a forthcoming story about American Media Inc. buying the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story that she had an affair with Trump years earlier. Trump denies the allegations.

Hicks recalled reaching out to Jared Kushner in hopes he could use his connections to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Journal’s parent company, to help delay the story. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told her that he likely would not be able to reach Murdoch in time, Hicks testified.

Testimony will resume Monday. The case could last another month or more.

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 $130,000 for her silence before he went to prison for the hush money scheme.

One of the most pivotal pieces of evidence disclosed to jurors this week was a recording of a meeting between Trump and Cohen shortly 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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