USAnalysis

Donald Trump trial: Stormy Daniels testimony pure gold for talkshow comedy turns

One of the many peculiarities of former US president’s hush money trial is that it lurches from lurid tabloid headlines to fine details of invoices and accounting practices

Former adult entertainment star Stormy Daniels leaves Manhattan Criminal Court after testifying at former US president Donald Trump's trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty

Almost 70 years have passed since Frank Sinatra sang about Stormy Weather, but it felt like an appropriate soundtrack when the trial of New York versus Donald Trump resumed on Thursday in Manhattan. Not since the first day of the trial had the queue for public seats been as long, as the public arrived hours before the doors opened to witness the second day of testimony by former adult entertainer Stormy Daniels.

On Tuesday, Daniels had accepted the prosecution’s invitation to transport the courtroom to an evening back in 2006 when, she alleges, she had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump hours after they met during a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe.

One of the many peculiarities of this trial is that it lurches from lurid shock-tabloid headlines to the fine details of invoices and accounting practices.

The Daniels testimony offered vivid substance to the prosecution’s claim that Trump’s campaign team had, almost a decade later and with his knowledge, plotted to have those very details buried lest they damage his standing just weeks away from the 2016 presidential election.

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Nothing was left out in the telling, from the invitation to dinner to arriving at Trump’s suite to find host wearing satin pyjamas, which prompted her, Daniels said, to ask whether Hugh Hefner knew Trump had borrowed his pyjamas: she asked him to change into different clothes.

Former US president Donald Trump arrives for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments, at Manhattan Criminal Court, New York city, on Friday. Photograph: Curtis Means/Getty

She testified that they decided to talk for a while before going to dinner, and she said Trump asked her how she dealt with the issue of sexually transmitted diseases in the adult entertainment industry, and she confirmed she was regularly tested.

She recalled Trump telling her she reminded him of his daughter, Ivanka. She said he told her that he and his wife Melania slept in separate rooms.

The prosecution will doubtlessly argue in summation that the graphic detail was required to demonstrate just why the Trump campaign team would have wished to suppress the story

When she returned from the bathroom she found Trump on the bed, at this stage wearing just boxers and a T-shirt, a development she described as a “jump scare” – sufficiently disorientating to leave her feeling as though the room was spinning.

Although she made it clear the subsequent sexual encounter was consensual, she described it as akin to a blackout. “I was not drunk, I was not drugged, I just don’t remember,” she said, describing how she “was staring up at the ceiling and didn’t know how I got there”.

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Afterwards, she said, she was shaking as she got dressed. They never did make dinner: as she left, she said she remembered that Trump said: “Let’s get together again, honeybunch.”

Stormy Daniels being cross-examined by Donald Trump's defence at Manhattan Criminal Court this week. Illustration: Elizabeth Williams/AP

Trump was 60 years old then, and Daniels 27. Had Trump been told then that their next rendezvous would be in a courtroom in Manhattan, in the year 2024, when he had already won and lost presidential elections and would be campaigning for a second term, there is a chance that even he himself would have been lost for words.

It was reported by journalists present that the former president muttered “That’s bull**t’” at one stage during Daniels’s testimony, after which his lead counsel Todd Blanche pushed for a mistrial, arguing that the salacious detail of the testimony had rung a bell which could not be unheard.

It certainly provided a series of mental images for jurors and public alike which, once seen, could not be unseen. The prosecution will doubtlessly argue in summation that the graphic detail was required to demonstrate just why the Trump campaign team would have wished to suppress the story. Furthermore, they will suggest that the defendant’s remark relating to his wife suggests that the payment of “hush money” to Daniels was not, as the defence claims, motivated by a wish to protect his marriage, but rather to make sure potential voters did not learn about it.

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But Trump’s defence can argue that Daniels’s story – which their client in any case denies – relates to a meeting that occurred a full decade before he ran for president. Connecting the motivations of the hush money payment to the details of what Daniels claimed he told her that evening is, they will argue, questionable at best.

It was all first-rate, low-rung gossip for the public, and pure gold for the late-night talkshow comedy turns. But what it will add to the prosecution’s overall case is debatable.

Donald Trump's attorney Susan Necheles returns to court after a break in the trial of former president Donald Trump for allegedly covering up hush money payments, at Manhattan Criminal Court, New York City, on Friday. Photograph: Victor J Blue/Getty

Daniels proved a dauntless witness. The Trump team had Susan Necheles question Daniels with a line that sought to portray her as out to “shake down” a billionaire businessman now seeking the highest office in the land. She offered a plain “Yes’ when asked if she now hates the businessman, and stoutly rejected the allegation she had tried to extort him. The exchange sought to muddy waters that were already murky to begin with. It was a far cry from the dry detail about invoices and accounting with which the week began, and once again highlighted both the peculiarity of the case and the potential for the jury to forget precisely who is on trial – and for what.

The critical task for the prosecution is to prove that Donald Trump was actively involved in the payment of $130,000 to Daniels

It arguably does not matter whether or not the veracity of Daniels’s story is either proven or debunked in the courtroom. It simply fleshed out – with bells and whistles – the story she had threatened to make public before the 2016 election. But the persistent push for a mistrial by Trump’s defensive team could be interpreted as a reflection of the former president’s growing concern at the way this trial is progressing.

The critical task for the prosecution is to prove that Donald Trump was actively involved in the payment of $130,000 to Daniels, and in the subsequent falsification of the documents which disguised the payments. They have yet to prove this. It will almost certainly fall to Michael Cohen, the former lawyer and fixer now estranged from Trump, to make that case for the prosecution.

After the high drama of the Daniels testimony, the next witness called by the prosecution was Madeleine Westerhout. She was the director of Oval Office operations for Trump until she stepped down in 2019 after it emerged she had shared details about the Trump family at an off-the-record dinner with journalists.

In her testimony, she recalled setting up a White House meeting in February 2017 between Michael Cohen and Donald Trump. But in cross-examination on Friday, she allowed that in the White House, Trump might sign hundreds of documents in a day and sometimes signed cheques without reviewing them, often while on the phone and while meeting people.

Cohen is expected to testify on Monday, and will be the final witness for the prosecution. Ultimately, it will be for the jury to decipher where the truth lies in what both legal teams are spinning as a tangled web of misremembering and evasion and the many sides of a constantly spinning coin.