Stormy Daniels delivers shocking testimony about Trump, but trial hinges on business records

By Michael R. Sisak, Jake Offenhartz, Jennifer Peltz And Colleen Long, The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s defense attorney on Thursday accused Stormy Daniels of slowly altering the details of an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, trying to convince jurors that a key prosecution witness in the former president’s hush money criminal trial cannot be believed.

“You have made all of this up, right?” lawyer Susan Necheles asked.

“No,” Daniels shot back.

As the jury looked on, the two women traded barbs over what Necheles said were inconsistencies in Daniels’ description of the encounter with Trump in a Nevada hotel suite. He denies the whole story.

But despite all the talk over what may have happened in that hotel room, despite the discomfiting testimony by the adult film actor that she consented to sex in part because of a “power imbalance,” the case against Trump doesn’t rise or fall on whether her account is true or even believable. It’s a trial about money changing hands — business transactions — and whether those payments were made to illegally influence the 2016 election.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying internal Trump Organization business records. The charges stem from paperwork such as invoices and checks that were deemed legal expenses in company records. Prosecutors say those payments largely were reimbursements to Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet.

The testimony over the past three weeks has seesawed between bookkeepers and bankers relaying the nuts and bolts of check-paying procedures and wire transfers to unflattering, seamy stories about Trump and the tabloid world machinations meant to keep them secret.

This criminal case could be the only one against the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to go to trial before voters decide in November whether to send him back to the White House. Trump has pleaded not guilty and casts himself as the victim of a politically tainted justice system working to deny him another term.

Meanwhile, as the threat of jail looms over Trump following his repeated gag order violations, his attorneys are fighting Judge Juan M. Merchan’s order and seeking a fast decision in an appeals court. If the court refuses to lift the gag order, Trump’s lawyers want permission to take their appeal to the state’s high court.

At the same time, they also asked Merchan to modify the order so Trump could publicly respond to Daniels’ testimony and made a second request for a mistrial based on what they argued was her “extremely prejudicial testimony” that has “has nothing to do with the false business records” charges. Merchan rejected both.

“My concern is not just with protecting Ms. Daniels or a witness who has already testified. My concern is with protecting the integrity of these proceedings as a whole,” Merchan said in refusing to change the gag order.

Turning away the mistrial request, Merchan said Trump’s lawyers had opened to door to detailed testimony about the alleged sexual encounter when they asserted in their opening statement that no sex had occurred. “Your denial puts the jury in the position of choosing who they believe.”

“The more specificity Ms. Daniels can provide about the encounter, the more the jury can weigh about whether the encounter did occur and if so, whether they choose to credit Ms. Daniels’ story,” Merchan said.

Trump fumed outside the courtroom at the end of the day.

“I’m innocent,” he said. “I’m being held in this court with a corrupt judge who’s totally conflicted.”

At the time of the payment to Daniels, Trump and his campaign were reeling from the October 2016 publication of the never-before-seen 2005 “Access Hollywood” footage in which he boasted about grabbing women without their permission.

Prosecutors have argued that the political firestorm over the “Access Hollywood” tape hastened Cohen’s payment to keep Daniels from going public with her claims that could further hurt Trump in the eyes of female voters.

The tape rattled the Republican National Committee leadership, and “there were conversations about how it would be possible to replace him as the candidate if it came to that,” according to testimony from Madeleine Westerhout, a Trump aide who was working at the RNC when the recording leaked.

Daniels was on the stand for 7 1/2 hours over two days. During questioning from prosecutors, she relayed in graphic detail what she said happened during their encounter, after the two met at a celebrity golf outing at Lake Tahoe where sponsors included the adult film studio where she worked.

Trump scowled and shook his head through much of Daniels’ description, including how she found him sitting on the hotel bed in his underwear after she returned from the bathroom and that he did not use a condom. The judge told Trump’s lawyers on Tuesday that he could hear him “cursing audibly.”

Trump’s lawyers sought to paint Daniels as a liar and extortionist who’s trying to take down Trump after drawing money and fame from her claims. And they say hush money payments made on his behalf were an effort to protect his reputation and family — not his campaign — by shielding them from embarrassing stories about his personal life.

On Thursday, Necheles grilled Daniels on her description of the encounter in which she described fear and discomfort even as she consented to sex. She testified earlier this week that while she wasn’t physically menaced, she felt a “power imbalance” as Trump, in his hotel bedroom, stood between her and the door and propositioned her.

As for whether she felt compelled to have sex with him, she reiterated Thursday that he didn’t drug her or physically threaten her. But, she said, “My own insecurities, in that moment, kept me from saying no.”

Necheles suggested that her work in porn meant her story about being shocked and frightened by Trump’s alleged sexual advances was not believable.

“You’ve acted and had sex in over 200 porn movies, right?” Necheles asked. “And there are naked men and women having sex, including yourself, in those movies, right?”

Necheles continued, “But according to you, seeing a man sitting on a bed in a T-shirt and boxers was so upsetting that you got lightheaded.”

The experience with Trump was different from porn for a number of reasons, Daniels explained, including the fact that Trump was more than twice her age and larger than she and that she was not expecting to find him undressed when she emerged from the bathroom.

“I came out of the bathroom and saw an older man in his underwear that I wasn’t expecting to see there,” she said.

Necheles pressed her on why she accepted the payout to keep quiet instead of going public.

“Why didn’t you do that?” she asked, wondering why Daniels didn’t hold a news conference as she had planned.

“Because we were running out of time,” Daniels said.

Did she mean, Necheles asked, that she was running out of time to use the claim to make money?

“To get the story out,” Daniels countered. The negotiations were happening in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign.

She testified that she never spoke with Trump about payment, and said she had no knowledge of whether Trump was aware of or involved in the transaction.

“You have no personal knowledge about his involvement in that transaction or what he did or didn’t do,” Necheles asked.

“Not directly, no,” Daniels responded.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger later asked Daniels, “Have you been telling lies about Mr. Trump or the truth about Mr. Trump?”

“The truth,” said Daniels, who also said that although she has made money since her story emerged, she also has had to spend a lot to hire security, move homes and take other precautions, and she still owes Trump hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.

“On balance, has publicly telling the truth about Mr. Trump been a net positive or net negative in your life?” Hoffinger asked.

“Negative,” Daniels replied quietly.

Michael R. Sisak, Jake Offenhartz, Jennifer Peltz And Colleen Long, The Associated Press

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