Friday, May 17, 2024

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Inside Trump’s Hush Money Trial: The Dramatic Moments You Missed

Prosecutors: Trump Organization promised Weisselberg $750K to keep him from testifying.

Donald Trump Hush Money Trial Alvin Bragg
Sketch by Christine Cornell

Former President Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York City over alleged hush money payments continued this week, with a parade of witnesses taking the stand and offering significant testimony. The proceedings provided a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of Trump’s orbit during his historic 2016 campaign and early presidency.

Thursday’s star witness was none other than Stormy Daniels herself, the adult film actress who claims she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Prosecutors allege Trump’s former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about the alleged affair in the final weeks before the 2016 election, money that was later reimbursed to Cohen in payments prosecutors say were fraudulently masked as legal expenses.

On Tuesday, Daniels gave jurors an explicit play-by-play account of her alleged tryst with Trump. She testified that after meeting him at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, she ended up alone with him in his hotel room. “He told me not to worry about his wife,” Daniels claimed, before alleging that he initiated a sexual encounter despite her misgivings.

Stormy Daniels’ Credibility Attacked

Stormy Daniels Donald Trump hush money
Sketch: Jane Rosenberg

Trump’s lawyers vehemently attacked Daniels’ credibility during cross-examination, accusing her of fabricating the story to make money and profit off his fame. “You made all this up, right?” Susan Necheles asked pointedly. Daniels defiantly denied the accusation, declaring, “If that story was untrue, I would have written it to be a lot better.”

During re-direct examination, prosecutors wisely highlighted the personal costs Stormy Daniels has faced for speaking publicly about her alleged sexual encounter with Donald Trump. Daniels revealed she had to move her daughter and hire security personnel, in addition to being ordered to pay substantial legal fees after unsuccessfully suing him for defamation.

When asked directly if going public with her story had been a net positive or negative experience in her life, Daniels bluntly stated, “Negative.”

Former Trump Aide Testified

Former Trump aid Madeleine Westerhout
Sketch by Elizabeth Williams

After Daniels’ heated testimony wrapped up, another witness with White House ties took the stand: Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s former executive assistant. Westerhout, who had a front-row seat to Trump’s daily routines and meetings, testified he was “a very good boss” who closely reviewed documents she brought him to sign each month, including the checks at the center of the falsified records charges. This appeared to undercut a potential Trump defense that he wasn’t closely tracking the reimbursements to Cohen.

Did Allen Weisselberg Get Hush Money Too?

The issue of Allen Weisselberg’s absence from the witness stand prompted prosecutors to reveal that the Trump Organization is holding a $750,000 golden parachute over the head of another potential key witness, former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.

According to prosecutors, the Trump Organization has promised to pay Allen Weisselberg three installments of $250,000 in June, September, and December. However, this lucrative payout hinges on Weisselberg’s refusal to cooperate with law enforcement.

The contract’s terms, read aloud in court, state that Weisselberg must “not verbally or in writing disparage, criticize, denigrate” the company or its executives. Another clause mandates that he “will not communicate with” or “otherwise will not cooperate with” any entity pursuing “adverse claims” against the Trump Organization. It amounts to a clever legal maneuver to incentivize Weisselberg against testifying without being charged with witness tampering.  

Weisselberg was allegedly deeply involved in the hush money cover up, prosecutors say, structuring the repayments disguised as legal fees. The 76-year-old is now serving a five-month sentence for perjury charges committed during Trump’s civil fraud case, having previously spent four months behind bars after pleading guilty to tax fraud charges in 2022.

Prosecutors wanted to show jurors Weisselberg’s buyout contract as an “explanation” for his absence from their witness list so far. The judge, however, questioned why they hadn’t simply issued a subpoena to compel his testimony first before assuming he’d take the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination. Both sides appeared apprehensive at the prospect of Weisselberg’s live testimony, fearing the ex-CFO could go off-script and make damaging revelations that hurt their respective cases. 

Judge Merchan proposed an alternative approach to address Allen Weisselberg’s potential testimony. He suggested they have Weisselberg transported from the Rikers Island jail facility to the courthouse. Then Weisselberg could be compelled to testify in a closed courtroom session without the jury present. This would allow attorneys from both sides to assess Weisselberg’s testimony firsthand before deciding whether to call him as a witness.

Judge Denies Another Trump Mistrial Bid, Upholds Gag Order

Trump’s defense team pushed for a mistrial twice this week, arguing Daniels’ salacious testimony about the alleged sexual encounter—including her claim Trump didn’t use a condom—was so prejudicial that it tainted the jury. They also sought to temporarily lift Trump’s gag order to allow him to publicly rebut and “defend himself” against Daniels.

Both requests were denied by Judge Merchan, who ruled that Daniels’ explicit testimony was fair game after Trump’s team opened the door by outright denying the affair happened and attacking her credibility. Many legal experts have argued that denying the affair was a mistake, as the trial is about the alleged efforts to conceal the payment and not the affair itself. After all, having an affair and hush money payments to conceal them aren’t necessarily illegal. But fraudulently covering both up is. 

As for letting Trump speak out, Merchan cited the former president’s “track record” of attacks on witnesses and said he couldn’t trust Trump to limit his response to just disputing facts. “These were very real, very threatening attacks on potential witnesses,” the judge stated.

Will Donald Trump Testify as Prosecution Case Nears End?

With prosecutors indicating they could rest their case as soon as next week after calling their final witnesses, the spotlight will soon turn to Trump’s defense team and whether the former president himself takes the stand. 

Trump fumed in the courthouse hallways that the “disgraceful” lack of a gag order for Michael Cohen meant “Everybody can say whatever they want” while “I can’t say anything.” Cohen is expected to testify on Monday. 

The sheer theatrics of the trial have been remarkable, from Daniels’ lurid claims about Trump to the revelation of his company’s $750,000 hush money severance package for a potential star witness currently behind bars. With even more bombshells likely as the case comes to conclusion, the closing act of this historic legal drama promises to be equally riveting and unpredictable.