Stormy Daniels, Echoing Trump’s Style, Pushes Back at Lawyer’s Attacks

Michael Cohen, once a lawyer and fixer for Donald Trump, while testifying about then President Trump to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 27, 2019. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)
Michael Cohen, once a lawyer and fixer for Donald Trump, while testifying about then President Trump to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 27, 2019. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Donald Trump, the onetime president, and Stormy Daniels, the longtime porn actor, despise one another. But when Daniels returned to the witness stand at Trump’s criminal trial Thursday, his lawyers made them sound a lot alike.

He wrote more than a dozen self-aggrandizing books; she wrote a tell-all memoir. He mocked her appearance on social media; she fired back with a scatological insult. He peddled a $59.99 Bible; she hawked a $40 “Stormy, saint of indictments” candle, that carried 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 attain fame and riches. But the more the defense assailed her self-promoting merchandise and online screeds, the more Daniels resembled the man she was testifying against: a master of marketing, a savant of social-media scorn.

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“Not unlike Mr. Trump,” she said on the stand, though unlike him, she did it without the power and platform of the presidency.

Daniels’ appearance plunged the proceeding into turmoil as the defense pleaded with the judge to declare a mistrial in the first criminal trial of an American president. Daniels’ graphic account of a sexual encounter with Trump, they argued, had inflicted irreparable damage on the defense.

But the judge, Juan M. Merchan, rejected the request and rebuked defense lawyers, noting that their decision to deny that the tryst had even occurred had opened the door for much of her explicit testimony. Daniels offered jurors a first-person account of the encounter with Trump, helping prosecutors bolster belief in an incident that underpins the case.

Her appearance also laid the groundwork for the prosecution’s star witness, Michael D. Cohen, who is expected to take the stand Monday, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, bought Daniels’ silence in the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, the payoff that led to the charges against Trump, who is accused of falsifying records to cover up the scandal.

Over nearly eight hours of searing testimony across two days, Daniels recounted 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, facing combative questions from his lawyers about subtle shifts in her story, she swung between defiance and vulnerability.

After a shaky performance on the stand earlier in the week, Daniels on Thursday conceded almost nothing. She had been frazzled. Now she was nimble as she volleyed with her questioner.

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

Daniels responded with a forceful “no.”

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

Daniels, wearing a dark green dress and a long black cardigan, showed sensitivity at odds with the defense’s gold-digging portrayal. When a prosecutor asked her a final question — whether her experience speaking out about Trump had been positive or negative — she choked up.

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

Trump’s lawyers conveyed incredulity, noting that Daniels had denied the fling at various points. They unearthed inconsistencies, most notably Daniels’ insistence that she had wanted her story out in the world and had little interest in money. Necheles, spotlighting Daniels’ effort to sell the story to the media as well as to Trump, suggested that in fact Daniels had shaken him down.

“That’s what you were asking in 2016, was for money, to be able to tell your story?” Necheles asked pointedly, adding, “That was your choice right?”

Daniels resisted, saying she “accepted an offer” from Cohen in the waning days of the 2016 campaign because she was “running out of time.”

But Necheles noted that she could have told her story for free. She pointed to evidence that Daniels had flirted with doing so but had abandoned discussions with a reporter from Slate magazine.

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

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

In lurid detail — so much so that the judge scolded her Tuesday — Daniels painted the scene. She told jurors about Trump’s underwear, the sexual position they assumed and his flirtatious chitchat likening her to his daughter: “She is smart and blond and beautiful, and people underestimate her as well.”

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

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

Citing her distance from the records, Trump’s lawyers sought a mistrial for the second time this week, arguing Daniels’ testimony was irrelevant and prejudicial. “It almost defies belief that we’re here about a records case,” his lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, argued. The defense also asked to alter a gag order to let Trump dispute Daniels’ testimony.

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

“That, in my mind, allows the people to do what they can to rehabilitate her and to corroborate her story,” he said.

After Daniels left the stand, prosecutors called witnesses more directly related to the records. They questioned Rebecca Manochio, a junior bookkeeper at the Trump Organization, who described mailing Cohen’s checks, his reimbursements 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 White House years. She sat at a desk right 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 records — recording the payments as ordinary “legal expenses” — and Westerhout confirmed the meeting was scheduled.

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

That testimony, somewhat anticlimactic after two days of a porn actor’s stories of sex and scandal, could nonetheless corroborate components of Cohen’s story. And ultimately, the verdict could hang on his words — as well as the question of whether the jurors blame the prosecution or Trump for subjecting them to hours of squirm-inducing testimony.

For most of Thursday, Daniels appeared calm and controlled as she quibbled over the most trivial of facts. She never broke down, even when Necheles, with a hostile tone, accused her of capitalizing on her brush with Trump’s fame.

When Necheles displayed on the courtroom screens an advertisement for her strip club tour entitled “Make America Horny Again,” Daniels said that she had hated that tagline.

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

And when Necheles accused Daniels of extortion, remarking “You were threatening to try 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 expenses, 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 aimed at the anti-Trump resistance — she said she had yet to turn a profit.

“It covers my travel and my expenses and my security,” she explained as Trump leaned forward and stared at the screen that displayed the exhibits of her entrepreneurial efforts.

Daniels noted that she was hardly unique. Trump is himself a branding virtuoso and an evangelist for unbridled capitalism. He once wrote a book called “How to Get Rich.”

Confronted with her schoolyard insults aimed at the former president, she again cast him as the instigator.

He had belittled her appearance, calling her “horseface.” She mocked him as an “orange turd.”

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

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