Recordings suggest Trump knew of hush money deals that protected 2016 campaign

Credit: AP

A pair of recordings the prosecution in Donald Trump’s hush money trial played for the jury on Thursday indicated the former president knew about both 2016 deals to silence two women who say Trump engaged in extramarital affairs with them a decade earlier.

Adult film star and director Stormy Daniels says she had a one-night stand with Trump at a golf resort in Nevada in July 2006, a year-and-a-half after Trump married his third wife, former first lady Melania Trump.

Former Playboy model Karen McDougal says she had a 10-month affair with Trump starting in the summer of 2006.

The first recording preserved the 16th October 2017 phone call between former Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen and Daniels’ California-based lawyer, Keith Davidson, reviewing the $130,000 paid to Daniels by Cohen through a shell company in October 2016.

"I can’t even tell you how many times he said to me 'I hate the fact that we did it,' and my comment to him was, 'But every person that we’ve spoken to tells you it was the right move," Cohen was heard saying on the recording he secretly made.

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In the second recording, secretly made by Cohen as he was speaking with Trump on the 6th of September 2016, Cohen can be heard reviewing the $150,000 paid to McDougal in August 2016 by American Media, Inc. to “catch and kill” her story, along with a plan to reimburse AMI.

“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” Cohen was heard saying in a reference to former AMI CEO David Pecker, who testified extensively last week about his efforts to collude with Trump to protect him during his first White House campaign.

Cohen mentions Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg as the conversation turns to financing.

“What financing?” Trump said.

“We’ll have to pay,” Cohen said.

“Pay with cash,” Trump said.

“No, no, no, no, no, I got it,” Cohen said.

“Check,” Trump said.

Davidson, who gave the jury an overview of both hush money deals Tuesday, on testified on Thursday he had never met Trump or been in the same room with him until taking the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court.

"I have had no personal interactions with Donald Trump,” Davidson told the jury during his cross-examination by Trump's defence attorney Emil Bove.

During his direct examination by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass, Davidson said he pocketed $10,000 as a fee for brokering Daniel’s nondisclosure agreement.

Daniels’ suppressed story did not derail Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

On election night, Davidson said, he texted a bit of “gallows humour” to Dylan Howard, AMI’s chief content officer.

“What have we done?” Davidson wrote to Howard.

“Oh my God.” Howard replied.

Davidson explained to the jury: “Our activities may in some way have assisted the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.”

When the secret McDougal deal became public in a Wall Street Journal article on the 4th November 2016, four days before Election Day, Davidson got a call from Cohen.

“He was very upset that the article had been published,” Davidson said. “He was very upset about the timing. He stated that his boss was very upset.”

Davidson said he continued to speak regularly with Cohen after the election and commiserated with him in mid-December 2016 about Cohen not being offered a job in the Trump White House.

Former President Donald Trump carries boxes of pizza upon arriving at a New York City fire house to meet with firefighters on Thursday. Credit: AP

“Can you believe I’m not going to Washington? I saved that guy’s a** so many times,” Cohen said, according to Davidson. “That f***ing guy is not even paying me the $130,000 back.”

In the key Cohen-Davidson phone call recording played for the jury, Cohen was heard asking Davidson for advice: perhaps he should write a book or “go completely rogue?”

“If you were me, what would you do?” Cohen asked Davidson. “Nobody is thinking about Michael.”

On 18th January 2018, when the Wall Street Journal broke the Daniels hush money story, Davidson issued a denial of a sexual or romantic relationship on her behalf.

“My involvement with Donald Trump was limited to a few public appearances and nothing more,” her statement said. “Rumors that I received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false.”

In court, Davidson defended the statement’s veracity as a tactic in a “cat and mouse” game with journalists.

“I don’t think that anyone could allege that any interaction with her and Mr. Trump was romantic,” he testified.

After an avalanche of continuing press inquiries, Davidson issued another statement of denial for Daniels on 30th January 2018.

“I am not denying this affair, because I was paid hush money,” the statement said. “I am denying this affair because it never happened.”

Davidson testified that stating there was no “relationship,” which he defined as “an ongoing interaction,” was “technically true.”

He also told the jury he rejected the phrase “hush money” and instead called the Daniels deal to quash her story a “consideration” and a “settlement agreement.”

On cross-examination, Davidson said he had never threatened Cohen or given him an election deadline to consummate the Daniels deal.

“I made no threats to anyone,” Davidson said.

His other clients have included women with claims against actor Charlie Sheen or people with embarrassing information about actress Lindsay Lohan or wrestler Hulk Hogan.

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Bove pressed Davidson on whether his financial agreements with celebrities bordered on extortion.

“I did everything I could to make sure my activities were lawful,” Davidson said.

Trump faces 34 felony charges for falsifying business records to disguise his reimbursements to Cohen for the Daniels payout as normal legal expenses.

Earlier, prosecutors asked Judge Juan Merchan to again sanction Trump for violating the gag order prohibiting him from making denigrating comments about expected witnesses, the jurors, or families of participants in the trial.

Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Chris Conroy cited four more instances since the trial began, saying about Trump, “His statements are corrosive to this process and the fair administration of justice.”

Most troubling to the judge, it appeared, was Trump talking about the seated jury in an April 22 phone interview with right-wing streaming channel Real America’s Voice.

“That jury was picked so fast ... 95% Democrats,” Trump said. “It's a very unfair situation that I can tell you."

Conroy told Merchan: “By talking about the proceeding at all, he places the process in jeopardy.”

When it was his turn to argue, lead Trump defence attorney Todd Blanche told the judge the jury comment was only 15 seconds of a 21-minute interview.

“This trial matters to voters,” Blanche told Merchan. “This is a political persecution. This is a political trial.”

Prosecutors also flagged two public statements by Trump about his former attorney, Michael Cohen.

On the 22nd April, Trump said in the courthouse hallway that Cohen “got caught lying in the last trial”, and he said in a 23rd April interview with a Pennsylvania TV station: “Michael Cohen is a convicted liar, and he’s got no credibility whatsoever.”

Conroy called Trump’s conduct “clearly willing, clearly knowing.”

He said: “The defendant thinks the rules should be different for him.”

A fourth instance occurred during a 25th April Manhattan press event where Trump was asked about the first prosecution witness, supermarket tabloid publisher David Pecker.

His company protected Trump in 2016 from damaging stories, such as the extramarital affairs described by Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, by buying the exclusive rights to the women’s stories only to censor them.

“He’s been very nice,” Trump said on camera while Pecker was still testifying. “David’s been a very nice guy.”

The prosecution is seeking for Trump to be fined $1,000 per instance, as he was for nine violations on Tuesday, but no jail time.

Trump defence attorney Todd Blanche complained the gag order unfairly precludes Trump from responding even to a President Biden quip about Trump encountering “stormy weather” in court.

Blanche argued, “Everyone can say what they want except President Trump.”

“But they’re not the defendant in this case,” Merchan replied. “They’re not subject to the gag order.”

“Completely neutral” is how Blanche described the comment about Pecker. “There’s no threat in what President Trump said,” he said.

Merchan told Blanche, “I’m not terribly concerned about that one.”

But talk like that “affects other witnesses as well,” Merchan said. “And that’s a concern.”

Blanche argued Cohen is “inviting and almost daring” Trump to respond by “mocking him” on X, for example, with several posts displaying photos of Trump wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, or saying on his podcast: “Donald does not know how to tell the truth. He’s lied too many times.”

“This is not a man that needs protection from the gag order,” Blanche said.

Arriving at court on Thursday, Trump called his first criminal case a “bogus trial” and untimely.

“This case could have been brought eight years ago,” Trump told reporters. “They have no case.”

The 77-year-old former president was seated with his eyes closed for long stretches of the court session but denied he was sleeping.

Trump posted to his Truth Social platform on Thursday: “I simply close my beautiful blue eyes, sometimes, listen intensely, and take it ALL in!!!”