May 28th, 2024

Stormy Daniels describes meeting Trump during occasionally graphic testimony in hush money trial

By Michael R. Sisak, Jennifer Peltz, Eric Tucker And Jake Offenhartz, The Associated Press on May 7, 2024.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before departing Manhattan criminal court, Monday, May 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, Pool)

NEW YORK (AP) – Stormy Daniels took the witness stand Tuesday at Donald Trump’s hush money trial, describing for jurors a sexual encounter the porn actor says she had with him in 2006 that resulted in her being paid off to keep silent during the presidential race 10 years later.

Jurors appeared riveted as Daniels offered a detailed and at times graphic account of an encounter Trump has denied. Trump stared straight ahead as Daniels entered the courtroom, later shaking his head and whispering to his lawyers as she testified.

The testimony was by far the most-awaited spectacle in a trial that has toggled between tabloidesque elements and dry record-keeping explanation. A courtroom appearance by a porn actor who says she had an intimate encounter with a former American president adds to the long line of historic firsts in the case, which was already laden with tawdry claims of sex, payoffs and cover-ups. It is unfolding as the presumptive Republican nominee makes another bid for the White House.

Daniels was allowed to testify despite the repeated objections of defense lawyers, who after the lunch break demanded for the first time a mistrial over what they said were prejudicial and irrelevant comments.

“This is the kind of testimony that makes it impossible to come back from,” defense lawyer Todd Blanche said. “How can we come back from this in a way that’s fair to President Trump?”

The judge rejected the defense request.

Daniels’ statements are central to the case because in the final weeks of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign, his then-lawyer and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about what she says was an awkward and unexpected sexual encounter with Trump at a celebrity golf outing in Lake Tahoe in July 2006. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Led by a prosecutor’s questioning, Daniels described how an initial meeting at a golf tournament, where they discussed the adult film industry, progressed to a “brief” sexual encounter that she said Trump initiated after inviting her to dinner and back to his hotel suite.

She said she didn’t feel physically or verbally threatened, though she knew his bodyguard was outside the suite, and there was what she perceived as an imbalance of power: Trump “was bigger and blocking the way.”

After it ended, she said, “It was really hard to get my shoes because my hands were shaking so hard.”

“He said, “˜Oh, it was great. Let’s get together again, honey bunch,'” Daniels continued. “I just wanted to leave.”

In the years since the encounter was disclosed, Daniels has emerged as a vocal Trump antagonist, sharing her story in a book and on television and criticizing the former president with mocking and pejorative jabs. But there was no precedent for Tuesday’s events, when she came face-to-face with Trump and was asked in an austere courtroom setting to describe her experiences to a jury weighing whether to convict a former American president of felony crimes for the first time in history.

She said she met Trump because the adult film studio she worked for at the time sponsored one of the holes on the golf course. They chatted about the adult film industry and her directing abilities when Trump’s group passed through. The celebrity real estate developer remarked that she must be “the smart one” if she was making films, Daniels recalled.

Later, in an area known as the “gift room,” where celebrity golfers collected gift bags and swag, Trump remembered her as “the smart one” and asked her if she wanted to go to dinner, Daniels said.

Daniels testified she accepted Trump’s invite because she wanted to get out of a planned dinner with her company colleagues. She said her then-publicist suggested in a phone call that Trump’s invitation was a good excuse to duck the work dinner and would “make a great story” and perhaps help her career.

“What could possibly go wrong?” she recalled the publicist saying.

After multiple discussions with the judge and Trump’s lawyers out of the earshot of jurors, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger navigated her questioning about the encounter with caution, instructing her to keep her answers brief and free of extra details. Judge Juan M. Merchan repeatedly shot down Daniels’ attempts to describe the encounter more vividly, striking several of her answers from the official court record.

Testimony so far has made clear that at the time of the payment to Daniels, Trump and his campaign were reeling from the Oct. 7, 2016, publication of the never-before-seen 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission.

The candidate spoke with Cohen and Hope Hicks, his campaign’s press secretary, by phone the next day as they sought to limit damage from the tape and keep his alleged affairs out of the press, according to testimony.

Cohen paid Daniels after her lawyer at the time, Keith Davidson, indicated she was willing to make on-the-record statements to the National Enquirer or on television confirming a sexual encounter with Trump. National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard alerted publisher David Pecker and then, at Pecker’s direction, told Cohen that Daniels was agitating to go public with her claims, prosecutors said. Daniels had previously sought to sell her story to another celebrity gossip magazine, Life & Style, in 2011.

Daniels’ testimony was a stark turnabout from Monday, when the jury heard from two witnesses, including a former Trump Organization controller who provided a mechanical but vital recitation of how the company reimbursed payments that were allegedly meant to suppress embarrassing stories from surfacing and then logged them as legal expenses in a manner that Manhattan prosecutors say broke the law.

The testimony from Jeffrey McConney yielded an important building block for prosecutors trying to pull back the curtain on what they say was a corporate records cover-up of transactions designed to protect Trump’s Republican presidential bid during a pivotal stretch of the race. It focused on the $130,000 payment from Cohen to Daniels and the subsequent reimbursement Cohen received.

McConney and another witness testified that the reimbursement checks were drawn from Trump’s personal account.

McConney acknowledged during cross-examination that Trump never asked him to log the reimbursements as legal expenses or discussed the matter with him at all. Another witness, Deborah Tarasoff, a Trump Organization accounts payable supervisor, said under questioning that she did not get permission to cut the checks in question from Trump himself and conceded that she had no reason to believe Trump was hiding anything.

Prosecutors are continuing to build toward their star witness, Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments. He is expected to undergo a bruising cross-examination from defense attorneys seeking to undermine his credibility with jurors.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments. The trial is the first of his four criminal cases to reach a jury.

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

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