Stormy Daniels overshadows Donald Trump in hush money trial

The woman’s testimony took center stage in the third week of hearings. Michael Cohen, the lawyer who arranged the payment, is expected to testify on Monday

María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo
Donald Trump Stormy Daniels
Donald Trump addresses reporters in the hallway of the Manhattan courthouse on Friday.TODD HEISLER / POOL (EFE)

The testimony of Stormy Daniels — the adult film actress and screenwriter who in 2016 received $130,000 in exchange for keeping quiet about her alleged affair with Donald Trump — has been the highlight of the first criminal trial against Donald Trump, the first ever against a former president of the United States. Although the presumptive Republican presidential candidate is not on trial for his private life — but rather whether he falsified business records — the expectation surrounding the presence of Daniels, sitting just a short distance from Trump, put the focus on the most salacious details of the story.

But nothing could be further from the truth, even if Judge Juan Merchan asked Daniels to omit the details because there was no need for such explicitness. However lurid the information — Daniels spoke of Trump’s corpulence; the fact that he did not use a condom and her dizziness and confusion when she left the room —, her comments provided a retrospective image of Trump. The Republican, who is hoping to be elected in November, sees himself as a sure winner — his favorite insult is calling someone a “loser” — but today find himself in court, facing 34 criminal counts and a gag order, while being overshadowed by Daniels.

The past three weeks of the trial have presented different images of Trump as if in a kaleidoscope: Trump as a media tycoon in 2006, when he met Daniels in a hotel in Nevada, an allegation he has always denied; Trump the presidential candidate who in 2016, in the final stretch of the campaign, decided to silence Daniels so that the scandal would not hurt his chances of winning, and, finally, Trump, the president who from the White House issued the checks — from his personal account — to reimburse his lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, for the money he had paid Daniels, plus interest and a bonus: $420,000 in total, a payment recorded by the Trump Organization as “legal expenses.” That accounting irregularity is the crux of the 34 counts against Trump, not whether he cheated on his wife, Melania. Cohen, who later turned against Trump and was sentenced to three years in prison in 2018 for violating campaign finance law, is expected to testify on Monday. The Stormy Daniels case is a derivative of the case against Cohen.

“If that story was untrue, I would have written it to be a lot better,” Daniels responded Thursday to Trump’s lawyers, when she was asked if her account of her sexual encounter with Trump was one of the “phony stories” that she concocted as an adult film scriptwriter. But it’s hard to imagine that there could be a better, more convoluted story. It’s a tale of a “pompous” and “arrogant” tycoon — in Daniels’ own words — who uses his popularity as the host of the reality TV show The Apprentice (where he delivered the infamous phrase “You’re fired!”) to make the leap into politics and ends up winning the White House. The story centers on a famous and successful businessman who cajoles Daniels despite the age difference between them: he was 60 years old at the time, while she was just 27. Not forgetting the physical corpulence and the power of a man determined to achieve his goals. It’s a story with all the elements of a B-movie, but today it is being watched in prime time.

Trump's metamorphosis

The legal cases against Trump — the Manhattan trial is the first of four investigations — also sheds light on the metamorphosis of the former president. In the Stormy Daniels case, the magnate’s political adventure begins; in the election subversion cases in Washington and Georgia, Trump is seen as a president capable of instigating an insurrection, the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to reverse the result of the 2020 elections; and finally in the Mar-a-Lago papers case, there is Trump the sore loser, who leaves the White House with piles of classified documents to prevent the normal transfer of functions to the incoming administration.

In reporting on last week’s hearing, the U.S. media has forced puns in references to Stormy Daniels, the stage name of Stephanie Clifford. Showing little imagination, nearly all the headlines have described the trial as “stormy” to greater or lesser effect. That word was also used to describe the defense’s fierce attack. But in her nearly eight hours of testimony, spread over two days, Daniels did not waver, despite the insistence from Trump’s lawyers that she had made up the affair to make money.

Stormy Daniels leaves the Manhattan courthouse on Thursday.
Stormy Daniels leaves the Manhattan courthouse on Thursday.JUSTIN LANE (EFE)

Last week, Judge Merchan warned the defense about the excessive gestures, snorting and audible, potentially intimidating comments Trump made while Daniels was on the stand. The judge — who has already sentenced Trump to pay $10,000 for violating the gag order — warned the former president that he could be imprisoned if he continues to criticize witnesses and judges. In anticipation of such an eventuality, the infamous Rikers Island prison, New York’s Guantánamo Bay, is taking all necessary measures to guarantee Trump’s placement in an individual cell.

If Trump is convicted in the hush money trial, he could face up to four years in prison. But given he has no criminal record, he may be placed on probation. A conviction would not prevent Trump from running for election, but since this is a state case, he would not be able to pardon himself if he is found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Trump’s defense has managed to score important goals in the other cases against the former president, with the trial over the classified Mar-a-Lago papers indefinitely postponed. And in the Stormy Daniels case, Trump has made the most of the trial, turning his courtroom appearance into improvised rallies, where he talks to reporters for up to seven minutes. In this way, he has been able to continue campaigning, even if it is from a hallway, and insist that he is the victim of a political witch hunt launched by his Democratic rivals to hurt his chances in the race for the White House.

Among the witnesses who have taken the stand, the testimony of David Pecker, former CEO of the company that publishes the National Enquirer tabloid, was the most revealing. His testimony revealed a plot, concocted with Trump and Cohen, to buy embarrassing stories about the Republican in order to silence them. Pecker and Trump’s communications are key to understanding the former president’s intention in paying hush money to Daniels and another model, Karen McDougal.

Prosecutors argue that Trump orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election by keeping voters in the dark. According to the prosecution, Trump unlawfully influenced the 2016 elections that he ended up winning, against all odds. Now that voters know how the Republican candidate spends his money, and according to polls, continue to support him, Trump may have an easier time winning this year’s election.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS