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News / Nation & World

Hope Hicks, ex-Trump adviser, recounts political firestorm in 2016 over ‘Access Hollywood’ tape

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JAKE OFFENHARTZ, PHILIP MARCELO and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, Associated Press
Published: May 3, 2024, 11:00am

NEW YORK (AP) — Former White House official and Donald Trump adviser Hope Hicks took the stand Friday at the former president’s hush money trial and recounted how his 2016 campaign became embroiled in a political firestorm over a recording in which he boasted about grabbing women without their permission.

Hicks, once one of Trump’s closest confidants, was subpoenaed by prosecutors, who are trying to show that the uproar over the infamous leaked “Access Hollywood” tape hastened Trump’s then-lawyer to pay off a porn actor to bury a negative story that could imperil his 2016 presidential bid.

Hicks’ testimony provided jurors with a glimpse into the chaotic fallout in the Trump campaign over the tape’s release just days before a crucial debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton. Hicks described being stunned and huddling with other Trump advisers after learning about the tape’s existence from a Washington Post reporter.

“I had a good sense to believe this was going to be a massive story and that it was going to dominate the news cycle for the next several days,” Hicks testified. “This was a damaging development.”

She added: “This was just pulling us backwards in a way that was going to be hard to overcome.”

In the aftermath of the tape’s release, she asked Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen to chase down a rumor of another potentially damaging tape. Hicks said she wanted to be proactive in seeking out the supposed tape because she didn’t want anyone to be “blindsided.” There ended up not being one.

Four days before the 2016 election, Hicks said she received a request for comment from a Wall Street Journal reporter for a forthcoming story about American Media Inc. buying the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story that she had an affair with Trump years earlier. Trump denies the allegations.

Hicks recalled reaching out to Jared Kushner in hopes he could use his connections to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Journal’s parent company, to help delay the story. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told her that he likely would not be able to reach Murdoch in time, Hicks testified.

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Trump showed no emotion as he watched Hicks take the witness stand, where she acknowledged after stepping up to the microphone that she was “really nervous.” Referring to her former boss as “Mr. Trump,” she told the court she last communicated with him in the summer or fall of 2022.

While no longer in Trump’s inner circle, Hicks spoke about the former president in glowing terms as the prosecutor began questioning her about her background. Hicks complimented Trump multiple times in the first few minutes of her testimony, describing him as a “very good multitasker, a very hard worker.”

Prosecutors have spent the week using detailed testimony about meetings, email exchanges, business transactions and bank accounts to build on the foundation of their case accusing Trump of a scheme to illegally influence the election. They are setting the stage for pivotal testimony from Cohen, who paid Daniels $130,000 for her silence before he went to prison for the hush money scheme.

Trump’s defense has worked to poke holes in the credibility of prosecution witnesses and to show that Trump was trying to protect his reputation and family — not his campaign — by keeping the women quiet. The defense also suggested while questioning an attorney who represented two women in hush money negotiations that Trump was, in fact, the victim of extortion. Trump has denied the claims of extramarital sexual encounters.

Hicks’ proximity to Trump over the years has made her a figure of interest to congressional and criminal investigators alike, who have sought her testimony on multiple occasions on topics ranging from Russia election interference to Trump’s election loss and the subsequent Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Her testimony came a day after prosecutors played a recording of a meeting between Trump and Cohen shortly before the 2016 election in which they discussed a plan to pay off an ex-Playboy model who claimed to have an affair with Trump.

Cohen is heard telling Trump about a plan to purchase the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story from the National Enquirer so that it would never come out. The tabloid had previously bought McDougal’s story to bury it on Trump’s behalf.

In the recording, Cohen revealed that he had spoken to then-Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg about “how to set the whole thing up with funding.”

Trump can be heard responding: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

Trump suggested the payment be made with cash, prompting Cohen to object by repeatedly saying “no.” Trump then says “check” before the recording cuts off.

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 Trump Organization records. Prosecutors say they were really reimbursements to Cohen for the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels.

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