Hope Hicks Testifies In Donald Trump Hush Money Trial; Ex-Confidant Hasn’t Spoken To Former POTUS Since 2022

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“I’m really nervous,” Hope Hicks told a packed Manhattan courtroom as the former White House Communications Director began her much anticipated testimony in Donald Trump‘s hush money trial.

Once one of the former Celebrity Apprentice host’s closest confidantes, Hicks’ testimony has been highly anticipated in this case of the $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels to keep the story of the porn star’s alleged affair with Trump out of the news in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. For lack of a better expression, Hicks is assumed to know where are all the bodies are buried in Trumpland.

This morning Hicks, who appeared in late 2022 via video deposition before House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol, confirmed she has not spoken to her former boss since “the summer, fall of 2022.” As the ex-White House and campaign aide began answering questions from Assistant District Attorney Matthew Coloangela, it was noticeably to those in the courtroom how Hicks mainly avoided eye contact with Trump, who is seated nearby.

However, Trump being Trump, the former POTUS looked right at Hicks when she complimented his skills in messaging in the early days of what many saw as a long shot or even joke campaign in 2015/2016. “We were all just following his lead,” Hicks said.

After a less than dramatic past few days in Trump’s trial, cable news lit up Friday as news of Hicks’ appearance in the cameraless courtroom became known. CNN and MSNBC were full-on with hosts and pundits in studio and texts from reporters in the courtroom literally being read out on-air. Even Fox News, which has been giving the past and present GOP candidate’s legal proceedings less than wall-to-wall coverage the past 11 days, went live and strong on Hicks’ presence.

In the courtroom, after some quick background information and details on the initially ramshackle 2016 campaign, Hicks is now being asked about Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller and Trump’s executive assistant, Rhona Graff., currently jailed Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg and former fixer Michael Cohen.

Earlier in the day, lawyers in Trump’s latest New York found themselves cooling their heels and waiting to find out if the 2024 Republican presidential nominee will be hit with another contempt finding and more penalties by Judge Juan Merchan.

This morning, however, Judge Merchan began by assuring Trump that a gag order against him wouldn’t apply if he decides to take the stand. “I want to stress, Mr. Trump, that you have an absolute right to testify,” the judge said, calling it “a constitutional right that cannot be denied.”

Trump, in the hallway outside the courtroom on Thursday, said,  “I’m not allowed to testify. I’m under a gag order, I guess. I can’t testify.” He reversed himself this morning on his way into the courtroom. When a reporter asked, “Does the gag order stop you from testifying?” Trump responded, “No.”  

Seated between his lawyers this morning Trump faced Merchan as the judge clarified to him that the gag order “only applies to extrajudicial statements — that is, statements made outside of court.”

As the trial nears the end of week three, Merchan has already fined Trump $9,000 and compelled him to pull down several online posts. The judge’s gag order on Trump prohibits public statements about likely witnesses, jurors and other trial participants. In a trial subplot that is happening out of view of jurors, prosecutors on Thursday argued for new sanctions based on another batch of Trump statements —”persistent and escalating rhetoric” designed to intimidate witnesses, Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Chris Conroy said.

Meanwhile, a data analyst for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office returned to the stand this morning to be cross-examined by Trump lawyer Emil Bove. 

The analyst, Douglas Daus, testified on Thursday that he extracted audio from a cell phone owned by lawyer Michael Cohen of a conversation with Cohen’s boss, Trump, about a hush-money payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Prosecutors played that call for jurors on Thursday and used the cellphone data to lay out Cohen’s extensive contacts in the Trump universe. The contacts included a White House spokesperson, Hope Hicks, and a Trump Organization accountant, Allen Weisselberg, who is in jail on Rikers Island after pleading guilty to perjury in a civil case against Trump for inflating his net worth.

Bove today continued questioning Daus about who else had Cohen’s phones before the DA’s office received them, and what data might have been altered or deleted by then. Bove also sought to float doubts about the veracity of the audio in which Cohen and Trump discuss paying McDougal, noting the audio cuts out. 

“And in many ways we’re just going to have to take Michael Cohen’s word for it?” Bove asked. Daus said yes.

Daus, on redirect, told prosecutor Conroy that he saw no evidence of tampering in the data extracted from Cohen’s phones. But he said yes when Bove. followed up by asking him, “Did you see gaps in the handling of this data that created risks for such tampering?”

 It was a line of questioning that suggested Cohen, when his turn to testify comes, will face aggressive and skeptical questioning by Trump lawyers.

Jurors on Thursday watched Bove grill Beverly Hills lawyer Keith Davidson — who represented McDougal and porn actor Stormy Daniels — for his earlier dealings on behalf of clients with celebrity gossip to sell. Davidson worked with Cohen and a tabloid editor, Dylan Howard of the National Enquirer, to arrange payments in 2016 to McDougal and Daniels so that neither would air claims of extramarital sex with the GOP’s White House nominee.

Jurors also heard Cohen and Davidson, in calls secretly recorded by Cohen, talking about the payment to Daniels. Prosecutors and defense lawyers both played audio to bolster their dueling claims: that Trump directed Cohen to make the Daniels payment; or that Cohen acted on his own to gain leverage over his boss.

Davidson’s clients included people with dirt to sell about actors Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan and professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. But as jurors saw, none of those earlier dealings came with the political or historical stakes of the claims being made by McDougal and Daniels. 

“What have we done?” David texted Howard as Election Night results showed Trump winning. 

“Oh my god,” Howard texted back in an exchange shown in screenshots.

By then, Davidson had brokered a $130,000 hush money payment for Daniels from Cohen, with Howard helping the negotiations stay on track. Howard’s boss, American Media CEO David Pecker, wasn’t purchasing the Daniels story in order to bury it as he had done with McDougal’s for $150,000. But Pecker, who testified last week, was a friend of Trump’s with an interest in keeping him scandal-free in his march to the White House.

Davidson told a prosecutor on Thursday that his text to Howard was “gallows humor” and an acknowledgement that “our activities may have in some way assisted the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.”  

Davidson finished his two days of testimony with a grueling cross-examination. Ex-prosecutor Bove all but called Davidson an extortionist, positioning Trump as one of Davidson’s marks instead of a political candidate breaking business and election laws to conceal a sexual scandal and cover up an illegal reimbursement to Cohen. 

It was the kind of aggressive pushback that Trump himself might have applauded, based on his reported unhappiness with lead defense lawyer Todd Blanche. At the contempt hearing on Thursday morning that jurors did not see, Trump looked incredulously at Blanche when the lawyer said “I agree” with Judge Merchan that “nobody forced your client” to talk to reporters in the hallway about Cohen.

“Nobody’s forcing him,” Blanche said. “But he’s running for president: He has to be able to speak.”

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