Hope Hicks offers dramatic testimony in Trump trial: Five takeaways



Former President Trump’s trial closed out the week in dramatic style as former aide Hope Hicks took the stand.

Hicks, who served as press secretary in the early, ramshackle days of Trump’s first campaign for the presidency, went on to become his White House communications director.

It appears the two have been estranged since it emerged — as part of the investigation into Jan. 6, 2021, by a House select committee — that Hicks was critical of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Her Friday testimony in New York, where Trump is the first former president to face a criminal trial, was followed with rapt attention by jurors.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The charges relate to a $130,000 hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the final stages of the 2016 campaign.

The money was paid to Daniels to stop her from going public with the allegation that she had sex with Trump roughly a decade earlier.

The former president’s then-attorney and fixer Michael Cohen made the payment but was later reimbursed through Trump’s businesses.

Prosecutors contend the reimbursements were falsely listed as legal expenses to disguise their true purpose and to conceal their motivation: protecting Trump’s White House hopes.

Trump denies he ever had sex with Daniels and also denies he did anything illegal.

Here are the main takeaways from Friday’s proceedings

Hicks relives the chaos of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape

The shadow of what is known as the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which Trump was heard boasting about being able to grab women by the genitals, is hanging over the trial.

The tape emerged roughly one month before Election Day, in a blockbuster story from The Washington Post. The crudeness of Trump’s remarks was, at the time, widely expected to sink his chances of defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Clearly, those predictions were wrong. But prosecutors here are making the argument that the tape was so damaging for Trump that he could not countenance the risk of further lurid revelations, especially from an adult film actress.

On the stand, Hicks recounted receiving a prepublication email from the reporter who had the “Access Hollywood” story, David Fahrenthold. The email included a transcript of what Trump could be heard saying to TV host Billy Bush, but not the tape itself.

Hicks almost immediately emailed senior colleagues on the Trump campaign, noting that her instinct was to “Deny, deny deny.”

Hicks, not having heard the tape, was not sure the transcript was genuine.

She went on to tell the court about Trump’s contention that the words did not sound like something that he would say, but also that they were not that unusual by the standards of two men talking lasciviously about women.

The media coverage once the story broke told a different story, with Hicks recalling how “it was all Trump all the time for the next 36 hours.”

The tape is not the be-all and end-all of this case. But Hicks’s testimony on the matter was compelling because of its vivid description of the human drama and huge political stakes involved.

Hicks provides some hope for her old boss

Hicks acknowledged from the start that she was “very nervous” to be testifying and, according to reporters in the courtroom, seemed ill at ease at times.

She was obligated to testify in the case, pursuant to a subpoena.

Despite apparently no longer being in contact with Trump, one part of her testimony was helpful to her former boss.

This time the topic was a Wall Street Journal story, mere days before the election, delving into payments made to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she too had an affair with Trump. (Trump denies this.)

Hicks, while being questioned by prosecutors, said that Trump was worried how the story “would be viewed by his wife,” Melania.

Later, when the defense questioned Hicks, she expanded on the point, saying that Trump “really, really respects” what Melania has to say; “I think he was just concerned of what her perception of this would be.”

This is a very significant issue in the case.

The offense with which Trump is charged is usually a misdemeanor but it can be a felony, as alleged here, if it is committed in furtherance of another crime.

Prosecutors say that the payment to Daniels was made for campaign purposes, so it amounts to election interference.

But if jurors are persuaded that the money was actually paid to spare Trump personal embarrassment, the election interference element of the case falls apart.

A dozen years ago, former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards walked away scot-free after a jury basically accepted his argument that payments made to a woman with whom he had an affair — and had fathered a child — were made for personal rather than electoral reasons.

Donald Trump, Pulitzer Prize-worthy

One of the lighter moments on Friday came when Hicks recalled conversations she overheard Trump have with former magazine magnate David Pecker.

Pecker, who has already testified in this case, is the former CEO of American Media Inc., the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer among other titles.

Pecker noted in his testimony that during the 2016 campaign the National Enquirer had not just run stories favorable to Trump. It had also published negative pieces about his GOP rivals, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ben Carson.

According to Hicks, Trump would call to congratulate Pecker on some of these stories, which were in effect hit pieces.

Hicks said that Trump was “congratulating him on the great reporting” and would proclaim some of the stories “Pulitzer worthy.”

Sadly for Trump and Pecker, the chances of Pulitzers being awarded for stories such as the fanciful suggestion that Cruz’s father was somehow linked to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy were always scant.

Trump pays up for gag order violations

It wasn’t all Hicks on Friday.

Proceedings began, as they have on several other days, on the topic of the gag order imposed upon Trump by Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the case.

A court official confirmed to the media that Trump has paid a $9,000 fine that was levied by Merchan, representing nine breaches at $1,000 each. At the time he imposed the fine, Merchan lamented that he could not order a more meaningful financial penalty on Trump, who claims to be a billionaire.

Merchan on Friday also corrected an assertion Trump made to the assembled media the previous day, suggesting that the gag order prevented him from testifying.

The order has no bearing on whether Trump testifies or not, which is a decision that lies in the former president’s hands.

Trial becomes the hottest media ticket in town

The public interest in the case is intense. Among the media, the fascination may be even sharper.

Friday saw two prominent cable news anchors, Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC and Anderson Cooper of CNN, in the courtroom.

The New York Times reported that O’Donnell, a vigorous Trump critic, had also been present on Thursday and that Trump had “scowled at him at the end of the day.”

On Friday, the Times added, Trump said “a brisk ‘hello’” to Cooper in the morning.

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