Third week of testimony in Donald Trump’s hush money trial draws to a close, with Michael Cohen yet to come

The third week of testimony in Donald Trump’s hush money trial draws to a close Friday after jurors heard the dramatic, if not downright seamy, account of porn actor Stormy Daniels, while prosecutors gear up for their most crucial witness: Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney.

Daniels’ story of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump was a crucial building block for prosecutors, who are seeking to show that the Republican and his allies buried unflattering stories in the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential election in an effort to illegally influence the race.

Trump, who denies the sexual encounter ever happened, walked out of the court in a rage Thursday, angrily telling reporters, “I’m innocent.” His attorneys pushed for a mistrial over the level of tawdry details Daniels went into on the witness stand, but Judge Juan M. Merchan denied the request.

Over more than 7½ hours of testimony, Daniels relayed in graphic detail what she says happened after the two met at a celebrity golf outing at Lake Tahoe where sponsors included the adult film studio where she worked. Daniels explained how she felt surprise, fear and discomfort, even as she consented to sex with Trump.

During combative cross-examination, Trump’s lawyers sought to paint Daniels as a liar and extortionist who’s trying to take down the former President after drawing money and fame from her claims. Trump attorney Susan Necheles pressed Daniels on why she accepted the payout to keep quiet instead of going public, and the two women traded barbs over what Necheles said were inconsistencies in Daniels’ story over the years.

“You made all this up, right?” Necheles asked Daniels.

“No,” Daniels shot back.

The defense has sought to show that the hush money payments made on his behalf were an effort to protect his reputation and family — not his campaign — by shielding them from embarrassing stories about his personal life.

After Daniels stepped down from the stand Thursday, Trump’s attorneys pressed the judge to amend the gag order that prevents him from talking about witnesses in the case so he could publicly respond to what she told jurors. The judge denied that request too.

This is all before Trump and jurors are faced with Cohen, who arranged a $130,000 payout to Daniels. It’s not clear when prosecutors will put on the stand their star witness, who pleaded guilty to federal charges and went to prison for his role in the hush money scheme.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying internal Trump Organization business records. The charges stem from paperwork such as invoices and checks that were deemed legal expenses in company records. Prosecutors say those payments largely were reimbursements to Cohen for Daniels’ hush money payment.

Back on the witness stand Friday morning is Madeleine Westerhout, a Trump aide who was working at the Republican National Committee when Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked right before the 2016 election. That tape is important because prosecutors say the political firestorm it caused hastened the payment to Daniels.

Westerhout, who went on to serve as Trump’s personal secretary, told jurors Thursday that the tape rattled RNC leadership so much that “there were conversations about how it would be possible to replace him as the candidate, if it came to that.”

Witnesses in the case have seesawed between bookkeepers and bankers with often dry testimony to Daniels and others with salacious and unflattering stories about Trump and the tabloid world machinations meant to keep them secret. Despite all the drama, in the end, this a trial about money changing hands — business transactions — and whether those payments were made to illegally influence the 2016 election.

This criminal case could be the only one of four against the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to go to trial before voters decide in November whether to send him back to the White House. Trump has pleaded not guilty and casts himself as the victim of a politically tainted justice system working to deny him another term.

Meanwhile, as the threat of jail looms over Trump following repeated gag order violations, his attorneys are fighting the judge’s order and seeking a fast decision in an appeals court. If that court refuses to lift the gag order, Trump’s lawyers want permission to take their appeal to the state’s high court.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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