What The Stormy Daniels Testimony Can Tell Us — And What It Can't

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When Stormy Daniels took the witness stand Tuesday, dressed comfortably in a drapey black sweater, her hair swept back in a claw clip, she masked whatever nerves she felt with a casual, even bubbly demeanor. Her tone was light as she responded to questions from prosecuting attorney Susan Hoffinger about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with former President Donald Trump, who sat just feet away from her in Judge Juan Merchan’s New York City courtroom. 

Daniels appeared eager to prove herself a helpful witness for the prosecution. But her testimony was a minefield. 

Before she even stepped into the courtroom, Trump’s attorneys implored the judge to put strict limits on what Daniels could say in front of the jury. The former president is accused of falsifying business records in order to conceal a hush money payment to Daniels in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election, to prevent her from telling the world about the alleged sex. 

Prosecutors argued that it was important for jurors to hear some of the details Daniels could provide in order to establish her credibility and to understand why Trump might have been motivated to stop her from going public right before the election. After all, the “Access Hollywood” tape had just come out, drawing fire for what was widely seen as inappropriate, even predatory, behavior towards women, and Trump’s campaign appeared to be in rough shape. 

Daniels’ story, if made public, would undermine Trump’s claim that his comments on the tape merely represented “locker room talk.” Daniels could show how Trump had acted on his darker impulses around women. The jurors’ ultimate takeaways, however, remain to be seen.

In her apparent eagerness to help, Daniels tended toward oversharing, in the eyes of the court. She gave details on what was in Trump’s toiletry bag — drugstore brands like Old Spice and Pert Plus lying next to “gold tweezers” — and how she was impressed by the elaborate furnishings in Trump’s hotel room. (The hotel room itself was “three times” the size of her apartment.) 

The sexual encounter happened, allegedly, at Lake Tahoe. Trump met Daniels on a golf course where he was participating in a celebrity golf tournament and she was promoting her adult film work. Soon after they met, Daniels said that an aide to Trump approached her to ask if she would have dinner with him. Keen to skip a work-related event that evening, and believing that it could make for a great party story, she accepted. 

Daniels said that Trump’s bodyguard at the time, Keith Schiller, arranged for her to come up to Trump’s penthouse hotel room, supposedly to meet Trump before they headed off to dinner. 

But the pair never made it to dinner. Daniels testified that, after some initial awkwardness that was fueled by Trump’s braggadocio instinct — and which was supposedly eased when Daniels smacked Trump on the rump with a magazine that had his face on it — she ended up chatting with him for about two hours. Trump was interested in aspects of the pornography business, she said. He also allegedly said that Daniels reminded him of his daughter Ivanka, characterizing both as smart blondes. 

When Daniels came out of the bathroom — where she’d stumbled across Trump’s toiletries — she said she found him nearly naked on the bed. That’s when she felt pressured to have sex with him, she said. 

Judge Merchan, presiding over the trial, interrupted Daniels multiple times during this testimony to tell her to limit her responses to the question at hand. But it appeared to be difficult for Daniels to see where the line was — especially as she had not been privy to the debate before the judge that morning, which determined that her description should be “very basic” — and Hoffinger seemed to do little to guide her. 

As Daniels shared her story, certain details raised real questions about consent.

Because Trump had spoken about landing her a spot on “The Apprentice,” a move that she believed would advance her career, Daniels said she felt that she had no choice but to acquiesce to Trump’s advances.

Judge Juan Merchan presides over proceedings May 7 as Stormy Daniels, far right, answers questions on direct examination by assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger.
Judge Juan Merchan presides over proceedings May 7 as Stormy Daniels, far right, answers questions on direct examination by assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger. Elizabeth Williams via Associated Press

Daniels described Trump moving between herself and the doorway out of the bedroom, and she knew that his bodyguard was standing somewhere outside. But she emphasized that she did not feel threatened by Trump’s presence. She was perfectly sober, and had no reason to believe she’d been drugged. Yet she said she remembered staring up at the ceiling fan during the encounter and “blacking out.”

“There was an imbalance of power for sure,” Daniels testified. She said Trump did not wear a condom, even though she had indicated she liked working for a company that required condom use. 

Daniels might have said more on the topic of consent, but she was blocked from doing so. The charges, after all, relate to her experience only insofar as to how Trump attempted to cover it up.

It’s worth noting that Daniels has resisted the notion that she was a “victim” in the alleged encounter with Trump. Speaking to “60 Minutes” in mid-2018, she said so explicitly. She also replied “yes” when asked whether it was consensual but “no” when asked whether she actually wanted to do it.

Daniels’ description of the alleged encounter fits into a pattern of accusations about Trump’s behavior with women — that he can be pushy and uninterested in their consent, and his actions can sometimes veer into assault. While Trump has denied the various accusations, it’s clear that prosecutors see the characterization of Trump as someone who does what he wants, regardless of the law, as part and parcel of their case against him. Trump really is the man he claims to be on the “Access Hollywood” tape, according to the prosecution, which would have made silencing Daniels all the more important.

While Trump’s attorneys lodged objections here and there during Daniels’ testimony, in full view of the jury, the judge told them at a point when the jury and witness were out of the room that they should have spoken up more. He denied a request to declare a mistrial over what Trump attorney Todd Blanche labeled “extraordinarily prejudicial” testimony from Daniels. 

And so it remains unclear what jurors took away from Daniels’ story. Did they see her details as evidence of truth telling? Did they appreciate how Daniels’ allegation could have impacted Trump’s struggling campaign in October 2016? Did they feel for her? Or did they think she sounded like an opportunist? 

In the courtroom, security personnel standing in the aisles make it hard to keep a constant eye on the jury. They are attentive. But they have not revealed much to reporters in the public gallery, being perhaps as stone-faced as a person can be while listening to a sex scandal of a former president.