HomePoliticsStormy Daniels, following Trump's style, is resisting the lawyers' attacks

Stormy Daniels, following Trump’s style, is resisting the lawyers’ attacks

NEW YORK – Donald Trump, the former president, and Stormy Daniels, the longtime porn actor, despise each other. But when Daniels returned to the witness stand Thursday at Trump’s criminal trial, his lawyers made them look a lot alike.

He wrote more than a dozen self-aggrandizing books; she wrote a comprehensive memoir. He mocked her appearance on social media; she shot back with a scatological insult. He sold a $59.99 Bible; she had a $40 “Stormy, Saint of Charge” candle, featuring her image draped in a Christ-like robe.

During Thursday’s grueling cross-examination, Trump’s lawyers sought to discredit Daniels as a money-grubbing extortionist who used a passing proximity to Trump to gain fame and fortune. But the more the defense attacked her self-promotional articles and online screeds, the more Daniels resembled the man she testified against: a master of marketing, a scholar of social media disparagement.

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“No different from Mr. Trump,” she said on the stand, although unlike him, she did it without the power and platform of the presidency.

Daniels’ actions threw proceedings into turmoil as the defense begged the judge to declare a mistrial in the first criminal trial of a U.S. president. They said Daniels’ harrowing account of a sexual encounter with Trump had caused irreparable damage to the defense.

But the judge, Juan M. Merchan, denied the request and reprimanded the defense attorneys, noting that their decision to deny that the arrangement had even taken place had opened the door to much of her explicit testimony. Daniels offered jurors a personal account of the meeting with Trump, which could help prosecutors bolster their belief in an incident underlying the case.

Her actions also laid the groundwork for the prosecution’s key witness, Michael D. Cohen, who is expected to take the stand on Monday, according to people with knowledge of the case. Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, bought Daniels’ silence in the latter part of the 2016 presidential campaign, the payoff that led to the indictment of Trump, who is accused of falsifying data to cover up the scandal.

During nearly eight hours of tense testimony spread over two days, Daniels told her story of a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. She described accepting the $130,000 hush money payment during his first presidential campaign. And when she faced combative questions from his lawyers about subtle shifts in her story, she vacillated between defiance and vulnerability.

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After a shaky performance in the stands earlier this week, Daniels conceded virtually nothing on Thursday. She was exhausted. Now she was agile as she went on the attack with her questioner.

Susan Necheles, a lawyer for Trump, confronted Daniels about her account of a one-night stand at a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada: “You made this all up, right?”

Daniels responded with a firm “no.”

When Necheles suggested that the porn actor had experience with “fake sex stories,” Daniels responded that the sex in her films was “very real, just like what happened to me in that room.” And when Necheles suggested that her experience producing films showed she knew how to make fiction, Daniels responded, “I would have written it a lot better.”

Daniels, dressed in a dark green dress and a long black vest, showed a sensitivity that was at odds with the defense’s gold-digging portrait. When a prosecutor asked her one final question — whether her experience speaking about Trump had been positive or negative — she choked up.

“Negative,” Daniels said, barely finishing the word, seemingly on the verge of tears.

Trump’s lawyers expressed disbelief, noting that Daniels had denied the affair at several points. They exposed inconsistencies, most notably Daniels’ insistence that she had wanted her story out in the world and had little interest in money. Necheles, who highlighted Daniels’ efforts to sell the story both to the media and to Trump, suggested that Daniels had in fact shocked him.

“That was what you asked for in 2016, for money, to be able to tell your story?” Necheles asked pointedly, adding, “That was your choice, wasn’t it?”

Daniels pushed back, saying she accepted “an offer” from Cohen in the final days of the 2016 campaign because she “ran out of time.”

But Necheles noted that she could have told her story for free. She pointed to evidence that Daniels had flirted with this but had given up on conversations with a reporter from Slate magazine.

“You could have gone out any day of the week” and held a press conference, Necheles said, “but you chose not to, right?”

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The defense attacked Daniels’ credibility after she spent much of her earlier testimony describing a meeting with Trump in a sprawling hotel suite in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in 2006.

In lurid detail – so much so that the judge scolded her on Tuesday – Daniels painted the scene. She told the judges about Trump’s underwear, the sexual position they were in and his flirty talk comparing her to his daughter: “She’s smart and blonde and beautiful, and people underestimate her too.”

But the testimony, however striking, was a sideshow to the main event of the trial. There is nothing illegal about a married man having sex with a porn actor, nor is it inherently criminal to pay someone for silence.

And Daniels knew nothing about the records that prosecutors say Trump falsified to conceal his reimbursement to Cohen for the $130,000 hush-money deal.

Citing her distance from the documents, Trump’s lawyers filed for a mistrial for the second time this week, arguing that Daniels’ testimony was irrelevant and prejudicial. “It’s hard to believe that we’re here because of a file case,” argued his lead attorney, Todd Blanche. The defense also asked to modify a silence order to allow Trump to challenge Daniels’ testimony.

Merchan denied both requests and chided Trump’s lawyers for missteps during the prosecutor’s investigation of Daniels, saying they did not object often enough. He also suggested that the former president’s insistence on denying any sexual encounter with Daniels had allowed the prosecution to present evidence that it had indeed occurred.

“That, I think, allows people to do what they can to rehabilitate her and corroborate her story,” he said.

After Daniels left the witness stand, prosecutors called witnesses more directly related to the documents. They questioned Rebecca Manochio, a junior accountant at the Trump Organization, who described how he sent Cohen’s checks, his refunds for payments to Daniels, to Washington for Trump to sign during his presidency.

They also called Madeleine Westerhout, one of Trump’s most trusted aides in the early years of the White House. She sat at a desk just outside the Oval Office and coordinated many of his communications, including a crucial meeting with Cohen just weeks into his term. Cohen is expected to testify that they discussed the plan to falsify the documents – with the payments recorded as regular “legal fees” – and Westerhout confirmed the meeting was planned.

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She also confirmed that Trump paid close attention to the checks he signed at the White House.

That testimony, somewhat anticlimactic after two days full of sex and scandal stories from a porn actor, could nevertheless confirm parts of Cohen’s story. And ultimately, the verdict could depend on his words — as well as whether jurors blame the prosecutor or Trump for subjecting them to hours of meandering testimony.

For most of Thursday, Daniels appeared calm and collected as she bickered over the most trivial of facts. She never broke down, even when Necheles hostilely accused her of capitalizing on Trump’s fame.

When Necheles showed an advertisement for her strip club tour titled “Make America Horny Again” on the courtroom screens, Daniels said she hated that slogan.

When the defense played a recording of Daniels’ attorney telling Cohen that she was desperate for money, Daniels denied saying anything of the sort.

And when Necheles accused Daniels of extortion, noting, “You threatened to hurt Trump if he didn’t give you money,” the witness returned to one of her common refrains of the week: “False.”

Daniels said that after paying the costs, including legal fees, she netted less than $100,000 from the hush money. And despite her vast array of online merchandise – including T-shirts and comic books, some of which focused on opposing Trump – she said she had yet to make a profit.

“It covers my travel expenses and my security,” she explained as Trump leaned forward and stared at the screen showing evidence of her entrepreneurial endeavors.

Daniels noted that she was by no means unique. Trump himself is a branding virtuoso and an evangelist for unbridled capitalism. He once wrote a book called “How to Get Rich.”

Confronted with her schoolyard insults against the former president, she once again cast him as an instigator.

He had belittled her appearance and called her “horse face.” She mocked him as an “orange turd.”

“I’m not a human toilet,” she said Thursday, “so if they want to fool me, I can fool them.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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