Trump hush-money porn star trial: Here’s what’s happened so far

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Former US President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 2, 2024. 
Doug Mills | Afp | Getty Images

For three weeks, Donald Trump has bounced between the campaign trail and Manhattan Supreme Court, where he faces 34 felony counts for falsifying business records, in order to conceal hush-money payments to a porn star during his previous White House run in 2016.

Wednesdays are Trump’s free day from the proceedings, and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee used his most recent midweek respite to galvanize his base in swing states Wisconsin and Michigan with a very clear message: He’s got a “crooked,” “corrupt,” and “totally conflicted” judge in his “fake trial” in New York.

He also bragged to supporters that he’s seen a bump in the polls thanks to the raft of criminal charges against him.

It has to be a harrowing pace for the 77-year-old, though he has denied multiple reports that he’s fallen asleep repeatedly in court, saying that he is “simply” closing his “beautiful blue eyes” and listening “intensely.”

The historic hush-money trial, which still has another three to five weeks to go, marks the first-ever criminal trial of an ex-U.S. president. It is also the first of four separate criminal cases against him.

As the trial enters its fourth week, here are the highlights thus far.

Fined $9,000 for contempt of court

Former US President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom at Manhattan criminal court in New York, US, on Friday, May 3, 2024. 
Jeenah Moon | Reuters

Judge Juan Merchan doesn’t care if Trump speaks out against him in public, like he did to crowds in Waukesha, Wisconsin and Freeland, Michigan on Wednesday.

Merchan has also given the defendant a pretty long leash with respect to airing grievances with the press and on the campaign trail about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, President Joe Biden, and other political foes — so long as the presumptive presidential nominee doesn’t touch the topic of jurors, likely witnesses in his case, and staff and family members of the court and the DA’s office.

The order also does not, despite Trump’s protestation to the contrary, bar him from testifying in his own defense.

Thus far, prosecutors say Trump has breached the fairly narrow gag order fourteen times.

On Tuesday, April 30, the judge held Trump in contempt for repeatedly violating the gag order, warned that he could be put in jail if he again willfully violates court orders, fined Trump the maximum punishment of $1,000 for each of the nine violations, and ordered him to take down the posts from Truth Social and his campaign website.

Prosecutor Chris Conroy called Trump’s statements “corrosive” to the proceedings, but said the government was “not yet seeking jail” because prosecutors “prefer to minimize disruptions.”

The judge has not yet ruled on whether Trump violated the gag order another four times. Separately though, Merchan has, on a few occasions, admonished the former president for intimidating jurors with his conduct in the courtroom, including gesturing and side comments.

Prosecutors dig in

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump shouts during a campaign event in Freeland, Michigan, U.S. May 1, 2024. 
Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

The prosecution’s case hinges on convincing the jury that Trump tried to “corrupt the 2016 election” by making illegal payments — transactions which he subsequently covered up by faking records, in yet another illegal act. The defense contends that Trump was not involved with any of this criminal record-keeping and that he only signed the checks.

The specific payment trail in question relates to money that Trump apparently sent to his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, to reimburse him for paying off porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, ahead of the election. At the time, Daniels wanted to go public with her story of having sex with Trump years earlier while he was married.

To make its case, the government began by calling to the stand the former CEO of National Enquirer publisher American Media.

David Pecker was integral to the alleged “catch and kill” scheme, which was designed to shape the public narrative around Trump during the campaign by containing damaging information about him.

Pecker testified that his publication would “embellish” negative stories about Trump’s political rivals during the 2016 election, in addition to publishing positive stories about Trump.

Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen looks on at court during a break in the former presidents’s fraud trial in New York on October 25, 2023.
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Pecker, who spoke on the stand about his unofficial role as being the “eyes and ears” of the campaign, named Cohen as central to this operation.

American Media paid $150,000 to ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, another woman who wanted to share her story of an extramarital affair with Trump. Pecker, who said that he purchased the story in order to bury it, said that Trump never reimbursed the company.

The Daniels exchange was different, because the exchange of cash touched Cohen and Trump.

The prosecution called in Trump’s longtime personal secretary Rhona Graff, who testified that Trump had the contact information for McDougal and Daniels saved to his phone. Banker Gary Farro described how he worked with Cohen to get $130,000 into a First Republic bank account — money which was ultimately used to pay Daniels through her attorney in exchange for her silence.

Keith Davidson, the former lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, took the stand to describe the negotiations that took place in 2016 for the rights to both of their stories.

In his testimony, Davidson described his dealings both with American Media and with Cohen. Calls recorded between Davidson and Cohen were also played for the jury.

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks leaves the hearing room during a break at a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee June 19, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 
Alex Wong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

And then, on Friday, Hope Hicks took the stand to talk about the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that threatened Trump’s presidential run a few weeks before election Day. Trump is heard in the tape bragging about sexual misconduct toward women.

The former White House communications aide, whose testimony followed that of either other witnesses, said she was “very concerned” when the Washington Post reached out in October 2016 to seek comment.

“Everyone was just absorbing the shock of it,” said Hicks, who later broke down in tears.

She added that the initial strategy was to “deny, deny, deny.”

Davidson, who brokered the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, testified that the tape led to surge of interest in her story of an alleged extramarital affair with Trump.

“Before [the] ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, there was very little interest from what I understand,” Davidson said in court.

As the trial enters week four, Trump is also waiting to see how the U.S. Supreme Court case on presidential immunity pans out.

The judge denied Trump’s request to miss court for a day to hear oral arguments last month about whether the former president is immune from federal prosecution on criminal election interference charges.

CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Brian Schwartz contributed to this report.

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