Trump’s lawyer presses Stormy Daniels on day 14 of hush money trial

Defence team questions adult film star over hush money payment at heart of case against former US president.

A courtroom sketch of Donald Trump watching as Stormy Daniels testifies
A courtroom sketch of former US President Donald Trump watching as Stormy Daniels testifies during his criminal trial in New York City on May 7 [Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

Donald Trump’s defence team has finished its cross-examination of adult film star Stormy Daniels, the most high-profile witness to testify so far in the former United States president’s New York criminal trial.

Daniels’s account of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 riveted jurors this week and served as a reminder of the more lurid aspects of the trial, which takes place as Trump, a real estate developer-turned-politician, campaigns for re-election.

On Thursday, Trump lawyer Susan Necheles grilled Daniels on the transaction at the centre of Trump’s hush money trial.

Necheles pressed Daniels on why she accepted a $130,000 payment to keep quiet about her alleged sexual encounter with Trump instead of going public.

“Why didn’t you do that?” Necheles asked, questioning why Daniels did not hold a news conference in 2016, as she had initially planned, to tell reporters about her alleged encounter with Trump.

“Because we were running out of time,” Daniels said.

Necheles asked if she meant that she was running out of time to use the claim to make money. “To get the story out,” Daniels countered.

Trump has denied any sexual relations with Daniels. But the alleged deal to buy her silence happened in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, a critical point in the case because prosecutors have argued that Trump and his allies buried potentially damaging stories to influence the election results.

The former president faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records pertaining to the alleged hush-money payment made to silence Daniels.

Trump, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee in November’s election, denies any wrongdoing.

Daniels’s testimony marked an extraordinary moment in what could be the only criminal case against Trump to go to trial before voters decide whether to send him back to the White House.

He faces three other criminal indictments, including two that relate to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to President Joe Biden. The trial date in one of those cases — over Trump’s handling of classified documents — was postponed indefinitely earlier this week.

Donald Trump awaits the start of a hearing in his hush money trial in New York on May 6
Trump awaits the start of his trial in New York on May 6 [Peter Foley/Pool Photo via AP Photo]

No knowledge of business records

In the New York hush money case, Daniels testified on Thursday that, as she negotiated a nondisclosure agreement with Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen, she was also talking with journalists as a “backup” plan.

Necheles accused her of refusing to share the story with reporters because she wouldn’t be paid for it. “The better alternative was for you to get money, right?” Necheles said.

Daniels said she was most interested in getting her story out and ensuring her family’s safety.

“The better alternative was to get my story protected with a paper trail so that my family didn’t get hurt,” Daniels replied.

Later, Daniels said in court that she never spoke with Trump about the $130,000 hush-money payment she received from Cohen and had no knowledge of whether Trump was aware of or involved in the transaction.

Necheles, Trump’s lawyer, also asked Daniels if she was aware of what Trump had been indicted for, producing an uncomfortable answer that the defence wanted stricken from the record: “There’s a lot of indictments.”

Daniels went on to say that she knew the charges involved business records, but when asked if she knew anything about Trump’s business records, she acknowledged: “I know nothing about his business records. No. Why would I?”

Rebecca Manochio, a junior bookkeeper at the Trump Organization when Trump was president, and Madeleine Westerhout — his personal secretary from 2017 to 2019 and the former director of Oval Office Operations from February to August 2019 — also took the stand on Thursday.

Manochio testified about how cheques were sent to the White House for Trump to sign from his personal account, and Westerhout provided the White House’s perspective on that arrangement.

Westerhout said Trump would receive packages about twice a month — some containing one check and others with a stack about a half-inch thick. The checks were often attached to invoices stating what the payment was for.

Defence pushes for mistrial

Before the lunch break on Thursday, another Trump lawyer, Todd Blanche, announced the defence would renew its motion for a mistrial, on the basis that Daniels’s testimony would prejudice the jury against their client.

After the witnesses and jury were dismissed for the day, the defence team proceeded to do just that, pressing Judge Juan Merchan to void the trial.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, Trump’s lawyers also sought a mistrial, saying Daniels had “inflamed” the jury with unnecessary details about her alleged sexual encounter with the ex-president.

On Thursday, they once again put forth their argument that Daniels’s experiences had nothing to do with a case that was primarily about business records.

But Merchan dismissed their motion a second time, saying it was the defence’s responsibility to issue objections during any testimony they felt was inappropriate.

“There were many times — not once or twice, but many times — when Ms Necheles could’ve objected but didn’t,” Merchan said of Trump’s defence team.

He also underscored that some details were important for establishing Daniels’s credibility.

“The more specificity Ms Daniels can provide about the encounter, the more the jury can weigh about whether the encounter did occur and if so, whether they choose to credit Ms Daniels’s story,” he said.

Trump blasts case as ‘disgrace’

The defence also sought to challenge Judge Merchan’s gag order on Trump as it relates to the adult film star.

They argued that, if Daniels could speak about Trump from the witness stand, he should be able to speak about her.

But Merchan brushed aside the defence’s request, indicating it could intimidate future witnesses.

“My concern is not just with protecting Ms Daniels or a witness who has already testified. My concern is with protecting the integrity of these proceedings as a whole,” Merchan said.

The judge had previously imposed a gag order prohibiting Trump from publicly attacking witnesses, jury members and other figures related to the trial. The former president has already been fined and held in contempt of court 10 times for violating the order.

Speaking to reporters on his way into court on Thursday, Trump called the trial a “Frankenstein case” and questioned its merits.

“It’s not a recognisable crime that any of us have seen,” he said of the charges against him. “This is a prosecutor making it up as he goes along.”

As he left, Trump renewed his criticism of the case, specifically attacking Judge Merchan for failing to declare a mistrial.

“This judge, what he did and what his ruling was — is — a disgrace,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies