Trump hush money trial: Top takeaways as Hope Hicks testifies

Former press secretary reveals behind the scenes impact of scandals in final weeks of Trump’s 2016 campaign

Oliver O'Connell
New York
,Alex Woodward
Friday 03 May 2024 23:37 BST
Related video: Trump and Cohen discuss hush money ‘catch and kill’ plot

Prosecutors for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office closed out the week at Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial with testimony from a major witness — former Trump aide Hope Hicks.

As one of the closest advisers to the former president, Ms Hicks was present at key moments during the 2016 campaign and for the first year of Mr Trump’s administration.

As press secretary to the king of self-promotion, she worked closely with him as election day neared in 2016 just as the Access Hollywood tape and Karen McDougal affair allegations rocked the campaign.

In approximately three hours of testimony, she gave jurors firsthand insight into Trumpworld during a tumultuous few weeks on the campaign trail — giving a strong suggestion that her former boss was involved in payment to Stormy Daniels.

Here are the key takeaways from the day in court:

Trump walks back Thursday’s claim gag order stops him from testifying

On Thursday as he left the courtroom and delivered his usual diatribe to the assembled media, Mr Trump claimed that because of the gag order imposed by Judge Juan Merchan, he was prohibited from testifying in his own defence.

That was totally untrue.

On Friday morning, on the way into court, he walked back that statement when asked whether the gag order would stop him from testifying.

“No. It won’t stop me from testifying. The gag order is not for testifying. It stops me from talking about people and responding when they say things about me,” the former president said, presumably having been corrected by his legal team overnight.

Once in the courtroom, Judge Merchan began by clarifying the extent of the gag order for Mr Trump in person.

Merchan, diplomatically, said there “may be a misunderstanding regarding the order restriction extrajudicial statements”.

“I want to stress Mr Trump that you have an absolute right to testify in trial,” he said. “That is a constitutional right that cannot be denied … in any way. … It is a fundamental right that cannot be infringed upon.”

The gag order restricting extrajudicial statements “does not prevent you from testifying in any way … or limit or minimise what you say” from the witness stand, the judge added that it “does not apply to statements made from the witness stand”.

Donald Trump in court for his criminal trial on 3 May 2024
Donald Trump in court for his criminal trial on 3 May 2024 (Getty Images)

Hope Hicks takes the stand

In a trial full of highly anticipated witnesses and with no published list of in what order they will appear — to protect them from being attacked online by the defendant — the appearance of Ms Hicks made narrative sense given the way the prosecution was laying out its case.

Ms Hicks was allegedly part of at least 10 telephone conversations with Mr Trump and Cohen regarding the hush money payments and alleged reimbursements.

Admitting with a laugh that she was “really nervous”, Ms Hicks began by explaining how she started working with the Trump family straight out of college and then the Trump Organization full-time in October 2014, transitioning over to the 2016 presidential campaign team.

“Everybody who works there in some sense reports to Mr Trump … It’s a big successful company but it’s really run like a small family business in some ways,” she testified, explaining that by June 2015 she was speaking with the then-candidate every day and eventually became his press secretary — reporting directly to him and travelling alongside him.

Hope Hicks, a former top aide to ex-President Donald Trump, testifies during his criminal trial before Justice Juan Merchan on 3 May 2024
Hope Hicks, a former top aide to ex-President Donald Trump, testifies during his criminal trial before Justice Juan Merchan on 3 May 2024 (REUTERS)

Hicks recalls impact of Access Hollywood tape on campaign

Ms Hicks testified that she found out about the infamous Access Hollywood tape of Mr Trump making remarks about allegedly sexually assaulting women on the afternoon of 7 October 2016 — just a month before the election.

She received an email from The Washington Post asking for comment while in her office on the 14th floor of Trump Tower and quickly forwarded the email to other campaign leadership, marking it urgent.

“I was concerned. Very concerned,” she told the court. “I was concerned about the contents of the email, concerned about the lack of time to respond, concerned that we had a transcript and not a tape. There was a lot at play.”

Ms Hicks recalled huddling with other campaign staff and Mr Trump while they worked out a response and that the then-candidate was upset.

She recalled being “a little stunned” and realised that it was a “damaging development” that would dominate the news cycle for days. An apology video statement from Mr Trump did little to quell the storm.

“It was intense. Dominated coverage for I would say 36 hours leading up to the debate. At the time, I got the email … we were anticipating a Category 4 hurricane making landfall somewhere on the east coast and I don’t think anyone remembers where that hurricane made landfall.”

Hope Hicks walks from Marine One prior to boarding Air Force One as she departs Washington with then-President Donald Trump on 23 October 2020
Hope Hicks walks from Marine One prior to boarding Air Force One as she departs Washington with then-President Donald Trump on 23 October 2020 (REUTERS)

Hicks says Trump tried to hide news of Karen McDougal affair from Melania

Even closer to the election, Ms Hicks was contacted by The Wall Street Journal regarding a report that a woman named Karen McDougal has a story about Mr Trump purchased by The National Enquirer, which then never published it. The reporter wanted to know if the campaign knew anything about it.

Ms Hicks told the court she looped in Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to try and buy them some more time through his relationship with the WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch. David Pecker at the Enquirer claimed the payment to Ms McDougal was for fitness columns and magazine covers.

Another denial was prepared and she and Cohen were in constant contact as the story was published.

“Relative to some of the other stories we dealt with … it just didn’t get a lot of traction,” she recalled.

Mr Trump “was concerned about the story” and Melania Trump finding out, Ms Hicks testified.”He was concerned how it would be viewed by his wife, and he wanted me to make sure that the newspapers weren’t delivered to their residence that morning.”

After possibly denting Trump’s defence, Hicks cries on stand

Under questioning by prosecution attorney Matthew Colangelo, Ms Hicks testified that Mr Trump told her that Cohen made the Stormy Daniels hush money payment on his own.

The former president told her: “Michael felt like it was his job to protect him” and that “he did it in the kindness of his own heart and he didn’t tell anyone about it.”

Mr Trump also said it was better to do it when he did rather than have it come out before the election.

Ms Hicks was asked whether the idea that Cohen would’ve made a $130,00 payment out of the kindness of his own heart was consistent with what she knew about him.

“I’d say that would be out of character for Michael,” she replied.

Judge Juan Merchan overruled objections from the defence team to the line of questioning.

Asked to elaborate, Ms Hicks said: “I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person or a selfless person. [He was] the kind of person who seeks credit.”

By implication, the former Trump aide appeared to make the prosecution’s case against her former boss easier — that Cohen would not have acted alone and instead worked on behalf of Mr Trump, and that action was purposefully taken before the election.

As cross-examination by defence lawyer Emil Bove began Ms Hicks started to cry on the witness stand with a break being called so that she might compose herself.

Hope Hicks cried during her testimony at Donald Trump’s first criminal trial
Hope Hicks cried during her testimony at Donald Trump’s first criminal trial (REUTERS)

Cohen was ‘a fixer’ but ‘only because he first broke it’, says Hicks

On her return to the stand, Ms Hicks was very critical of Cohen and characterised him as an outsider in Trumpworld often going rogue.

She testified that he was not part of the campaign, but would try to insert himself in certain moments.

“He wasn’t supposed to be in the campaign in any official capacity,” she told the court.

Further, she added: “He liked to call himself a fixer or Mr Fix It. But it was only because he first broke it.”

Hicks paints favourable view of Trump and his family

In addition to her damning assessment of Cohen — a key witness for the prosecution — Bove also pushed softball questions to build up a better image of the defendant Trump while treating her more like a witness for the defence.

Ms Hicks spoke about her work and relationship with her then-boss and gave the impression that damage control over destructive stories was part of the job.

Moreover, ultimately Mr Trump cared about his family – an echo of lead defence attorney Todd Blanche’s portrait of him as a consummate family man in the opening statements.

Ms Hicks also changed up how she spoke of him, referring to him as the president, as the defence team said they would at the start of the trial.

“President Trump really values Ms Trump’s opinion,” she said of her former boss and his wife. “She doesn’t weigh in all the time but when she does it’s really meaningful to him and he really respects what she has to say.”

She was “concerned about what the perception of this would be”, and Mr Trump “didn’t want anyone in his family to be hurt or embarrassed,” she testified. “He wanted them to be proud of him.”

Ms Hicks’s cross-examination concluded the week.

The trial resumes on Monday 6 May at 9.30am.

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