Longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks breaks down during hush money trial testimony

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s loyal former White House aide Hope Hicks testified at his Manhattan trial Friday, tearing up when questioning turned to what Trump knew about his fixer’s hush money payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Trump’s former White House communications director and campaign spokeswoman, once considered among the former president’s closest confidants, was referencing the only conversation she said she ever had with Trump about the payoff to Daniels.

Hicks said it was in February 2018 after The New York Times reported that Michael Cohen had issued a $130,000 payment to Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election, denying Trump had anything to do with it.

“President Trump (was) saying he spoke to Michael and that Michael had paid this woman to protect him from a false allegation and that, you know, Michael felt like it was his job to protect him and that’s what he was doing. He did it out of the kindness of his own heart.”

“I’d say that would be out of character for Michael,” Hicks said. “I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person or selfless person, um, (he’s) the kind of person who seeks credit.”

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo then asked if Trump ever said anything about timing, prompting Hicks’ answer about Trump saying it would have been worse had it been reported before the election.

“Mr. Trump’s opinion was it was better to be dealing with it now and that it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election,” Hicks testified.

Lawyers for the presumptive Republican frontrunner in this year’s presidential race have contended that payoffs to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal were not inherently criminal — that Trump wanted to protect his reputation and his family.

But the testimony by Hicks bolstered the prosecution’s allegations that Trump was instead motivated by his political ambitions. Moments later, when Trump lawyer Emil Bove began his cross-examination, she broke down into tears, prompting Judge Juan Merchan to abruptly call a brief recess.

In 2019, Hicks told the House Judiciary Committee that she was directed to make a public statement denying he’d once had a relationship with former Playboy model Karen McDougal. She denied knowing about hush money.

Hicks, who was forced to testify under a subpoena and spent less than three hours on the stand, said she spoke with Trump every day that she worked for him but hadn’t seen or spoken to him since the fall or December 2022. She praised him as a “very good multitasker” who was heavily involved in communication strategies.

Trump kept his eyes trained on her as she walked to the witness box and took her seat.

Hicks earlier testified about the bombshell release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, less than a month out from the election, walking the jury through her initial reaction upon learning about it from a Wall Street Journal reporter while in her 14th-floor office at Trump Tower.

On the tape, Trump was heard on a hot mic telling former “Today” host that famous men can “grab” women “by the p—y.”

Trump was in his office on the 25th floor prepping for a debate against Hilary Clinton, Hicks said, joined by Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, and Chris Christie.

Asked by prosecutor Colangelo if Trump was upset, Hicks said, “Yes. Yeah, he was.”

Of her reaction, she described it as “a little stunned.”

“It’s hard to describe,” Hicks said. “It was definitely concerning, um, and I had, you know, a good sense that this was going to be a massive story.”

“This was a damaging development,” she testified later, calling it a “crisis.”

When Hicks first got wind of the video — without yet seeing it — she said “that didn’t sound like something he would say.”

Jurors saw a copy of the Trump campaign’s response: “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”

Trump is in no way limited by what he can say about witnesses at his Manhattan hush money trial if he chooses to take the stand in his own defense, the judge presiding over the case told him Friday — correcting a claim Trump made outside court.

On his way out of court Thursday, Trump claimed Merchan’s gag order — the subject of ongoing debate – prevented him from taking the stand.

“Well, I’m not allowed to testify. I’m under a gag order, I guess. I can’t testify,” Trump said.

Merchan started Friday’s proceedings by saying he needed to “clear up any misunderstandings” about the gag order preventing Trump from publicly remarking on witnesses and jurors.

“I want to stress, Mr. Trump, that you have an absolute right to testify at trial, if that’s what you decide to do,” the judge said, noting his order applies to “statements that are made outside of court, it does not apply to statements made from the witness stand.”

The gag order prevents Trump from making public statements — or directing others to — about jurors, witnesses involved in the case, or relatives of court employees, prosecutors, the judge, and District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

On Tuesday, Trump was held in contempt and hit with $9,000 in sanctions for breaching the order nine times in comments disseminated about the jurors claiming they were biased against him and key witnesses Michael Cohen and David Pecker. Prosecutors want him to face further punishment for four more alleged violations.

Trump, 77, has pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies alleging he repeatedly and fraudulently falsified business records to disguise reimbursement to Cohen for paying Daniels $130,000 in the leadup to the 2016 election to stay silent about her claims of an extramarital one-night-stand with Hilary Clinton’s Republican contender.

Doug Daus, a forensic analyst at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, is expected to continue on the stand Friday.

On Thursday, Daus authenticated digital evidence in the case, including a September 2016 discussion between Trump and Cohen that was secretly taped by Trump’s then-fixer depicting the two men talking about the deal with McDougal, which the defense has adamantly sought to distance Trump from.

On the tape, Cohen tells his boss, “I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up,” about the Trump Organization’s longtime, twice-convicted finance chief.

“So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Trump says during the back-and-forth, at one point ordering someone to get him a Coke.

Trump is accused off falsifying business records to disguise reimbursement to Cohen for paying Daniels $130,000 in the leadup to the 2016 election to stay silent.

Prosecutors allege Cohen’s compensation capped a scheme devised at a meeting between Trump, Cohen, and David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media Inc, or AMI, in August 2015 at Trump Tower, where Trump had announced his candidacy a couple of months before.

Pecker, who testified last week as the first witness under an immunity deal with prosecutors, said he agreed to be the campaign’s “eyes and ears” by looking out for stories brewing that could hurt Trump’s chances with voters to notify Cohen of publish puff pieces about Trump in AMI-run publications like the National Enquirer and orchestrate hit jobs against his opponents like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

This week, jurors heard extensive testimony from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who represented McDougal and Daniels in hush money negotiations in 2016. The Los Angeles-based attorney said AMI’s $150,000 payoff to McDougal, finalized in August 2016, came after he tipped off Dylan Howard, the former top editor at the National Enquirer, who got the green light from Pecker to buy and bury the former Playboy model’s story.

The supermarket tabloid also reached a deal with Daniels as she mulled coming forward weeks later amid the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, but backed out due to Pecker’s fears an association with a porn star could hurt AMI’s reputation, the publisher said when he testified.

Davidson told the jury he was forced to deal directly with Trump’s fixer, who would wire him the money through a shell company after taking out a home equity loan. Cohen was convicted of federal campaign finance charges in 2018 and sentenced to three years.