Why Stormy Daniels’ testimony could be damning to Donald Trump

A vivid account of sex with the former president tells jurors exactly what he would not want to become public, Alex Woodward reports from the courthouse in Manhattan

Friday 10 May 2024 23:42 BST
A courtroom sketch depicts Stormy Daniels testifying in Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan on 9 May.
A courtroom sketch depicts Stormy Daniels testifying in Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan on 9 May. (AP)

A story that Donald Trump spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to hide is now out in the open, vividly remembered in a courtroom, and documented across dozens of pages of court transcripts.

He is criminally charged with a scheme to cover up a potential sex scandal while his aides scrambled to keep his chances of winning an election alive in the wake of another one.

But the criminal case against the former president in New York is not really about sex, affairs, nondisclosure agreements or tabloid press, after all. It’s about fraud.

It’s about a presidential candidate accused of falsifying business records to conceal reimbursement payments to his lawyer, who suppressed a story about Mr Trump having sex with a porn star – weeks before voters cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential election – by buying her silence.

Understanding exactly what happened with that potential scandal – and all its “messy details,” as both defense attorneys and prosecutors have called them – is key to understanding why Mr Trump would want to cover it up.

In trial testimony over two days in a frigid Manhattan courtroom, Stormy Daniels walked the jury through the moments before, during and after her encounter with Mr Trump in a hotel room in 2006 – including lurid details that defense attorneys and the judge blocked from the court record.

What happened, by her accounting, is not salacious or scandalous, but largely familiar and terrifying: a man’s surprise demand for sex, a stunned reaction, a wave of numbness, and then the shame for going through with it.

The details that filled the courtroom – a description of Mr Trump in his underwear, her feeling as if she “blacked out” – are problematic for all parties in the case, but they explain “precisely what the defendant did not want to become public,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger told the judge on Tuesday.

For prosecutors, her testimony gave jurors crucial context to understand why, exactly, the former president would risk felony prosecution to bury public knowledge of the allegations while he was campaigning for the presidency.

“Those details about what happened in that room – those ‘messy details’ – that is motive, that is Mr Trump’s motive to silence this woman in 2016 less than a month before the election,” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass told the judge on Thursday. “That is why Mr Trump tried so hard to prevent the American people from hearing about this.”

Ms Daniels is not on trial. But defense attorneys treated her as if she was, while their client sat and glared and rolled his eyes and cursed loud enough for the judge to hear just feet away from her during his courtroom reunion this week.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters inside a criminal courthouse in Manhattan on 10 May.
Donald Trump speaks to reporters inside a criminal courthouse in Manhattan on 10 May. (EPA)

To the defense, Ms Daniels is a liar, an extortionist, and a fame-seeking opportunist. Mr Trump’s attorney Susan Necheles frequently punctuated her rapid-fire questions to ask whether she was making things up or changing her story.

Ms Daniels appeared relatively relaxed, leaning on her arm and squinting at Ms Necheles as if what she was saying was nonsense, and frustrating her line of questioning with quick-witted replies and refusals to accept their premise.

“This was your career for over 20 years, writing, acting, and directing sex films,” Ms Necheles told her on Thursday. “You have a lot of experience making phoney stories about sex appear real, right?”

“Wow,” Ms Daniel replied, taking a moment to laugh off the question.

“That’s not how I would put it,” she said. “The sex in those films is very much real – just like in that hotel room.”

Unlike her films, “I didn’t have to write this one,” she said.

“If that story was untrue, I would’ve written it better.”

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When that didn’t work, Ms Necheles’s questions veered into blatant attempts to shame her as an adult film star – including at one point suggesting that working in porn means she would automatically consent to sex – or to frame her as an unreliable crackpot, spending several minutes interrogating her interests in the paranormal.

“You’ve acted and had sex in over 200 porn movies, right? … And there are naked men and naked women having sex in those movies?” she asked. “But according to you, seeing a man sitting on a bed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts was so upsetting you became light-headed and almost fainted?”

“When you’re not expecting a man twice your age, yes,” Ms Daniels fired back.

“You have a lot of experience in memorizing these fictional stories?” Ms Necheles asked at another point.

“I have experience in memorizing dialogue, not how to have sex,” Ms Daniels replied. “Pretty sure we all know how to do that.”

Defense attorney Susan Necheles cross examines Stormy Daniels on 9 May.
Defense attorney Susan Necheles cross examines Stormy Daniels on 9 May. (AP)

Asked why she would celebrate Mr Trump’s indictment, Ms Daniels asked her to clarify.

“There are a lot of indictments.”

Ms Necheles also went nearly line by line through a 13-year-old celebrity magazine interview about the encounter, trying to find case-breaking inconsistencies that instead turned into 15-minute long exchanges about what exactly constitutes “dinner”.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche also accused prosecutors of blowing a “dog whistle for rape” by allowing Ms Daniels to claim that Mr Trump did not wear a condom.

But the judge was shocked that defense attorneys never once objected to any mention of condoms in her testimony. “I agree, that shouldn’t have come out,” he told them without the jury present. “I wish that didn’t come out … For the life of me I don’t know why she didn’t object.”

It is unclear how the jury will interpret these exchanges or her reliability as a key witness in the case. But Ms Daniels appeared to stand her ground against repeatedly failed attempts to impeach her character.

She knows what she does for a living and enjoys it, she admittedly and confidently “hates” Mr Trump and will insult him and his supporters if they come after her, and she acknowledges that she was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees after a defamation lawsuit against him collapsed, but she wants to hold him accountable and believes she has done nothing wrong but tell the truth.

She didn’t even regret meeting Mr Trump that evening in 2006. She said she enjoyed the conversation.

“Your story has completely changed, hasn’t it?” Ms Necheles asked her at the end of her two-day testimony.

“Not at all,” Ms Daniels replied. “You’re trying to make me change, but it hasn’t changed.”

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