Stormy Daniels Takes the Stand (2024)

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jonah bromwich

It’s 6:41 AM. I’m feeling a little stressed because I’m running late. It’s the fourth week of Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial. It’s a white collar trial. Most of the witnesses we’ve heard from have been, I think, typical white collar witnesses in terms of their professions.

We’ve got a former publisher, a lawyer, accountants. The witness today, a little less typical, Stormy Daniels, p*rn star in a New York criminal courtroom in front of a jury more accustomed to the types of witnesses they’ve already seen. There’s a lot that could go wrong.

michael barbaro

From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

Today, what happened when Stormy Daniels took the stand for eight hours in the first criminal trial of Donald J. Trump. As before, my colleague Jonah Bromwich was inside the courtroom.

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It’s Friday, May 10th.

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So it’s now day 14 of this trial. And I think it’s worth having you briefly, and in broad strokes, catch listeners up on the biggest developments that have occurred since you were last on, which was the day that opening arguments were made by both the defense and the prosecution. So just give us that brief recap.

jonah bromwich

Sure. It’s all been the prosecution’s case so far. And prosecutors have a saying, which is that the evidence is coming in great. And I think for this prosecution, which is trying to show that Trump falsified business records to cover up a sex scandal, to ease his way into the White House in 2016, the evidence has been coming in pretty well. It’s come in well through David Pecker, former publisher of The National Enquirer, who testified that he entered into a secret plot with Trump and Michael Cohen, his fixer at the time, to suppress negative stories about Trump, the candidate.

michael barbaro

Right.

jonah bromwich

It came in pretty well through Keith Davidson, who was a lawyer to Stormy Daniels in 2016 and negotiated the hush money payment. And we’ve seen all these little bits and pieces of evidence that tell the story that prosecutors want to tell. And the case makes sense so far. We can’t tell what the jury is thinking, as we always say.

But we can tell that there’s a narrative that’s coherent and that matches up with the prosecution’s opening statement. Then we come to Tuesday. And that day really marks the first time that the prosecution’s strategy seems a little bit risky because that’s the day that Stormy Daniels gets called to the witness stand.

michael barbaro

OK, well, just explain why the prosecution putting Stormy Daniels on the stand would be so risky. And I guess it makes sense to answer that in the context of why the prosecution is calling her as a witness at all.

jonah bromwich

Well, you can see why it makes sense to have her. The hush money payment was to her. The cover-up of the hush money payment, in some ways, concerns her. And so she’s this character who’s very much at the center of this story. But according to prosecutors, she’s not at the center of the crime. The prosecution is telling a story, and they hope a compelling one. And arguably, that story starts with Stormy Daniels. It starts in 2006, when Stormy Daniels says that she and Trump had sex, which is something that Trump has always denied.

michael barbaro

Right.

jonah bromwich

So if prosecutors were to not call Stormy Daniels to the stand, you would have this big hole in the case. It would be like, effect, effect, effect. But where is the cause? Where is the person who set off this chain reaction? But Stormy Daniels is a p*rn star. She’s there to testify about sex. Sex and p*rnography are things that the jurors were not asked about during jury selection. And those are subjects that bring up all kinds of different complex reactions in people.

And so, when the prosecutors bring Stormy Daniels to the courtroom, it’s very difficult to know how the jurors will take it, particularly given that she’s about to describe a sexual episode that she says she had with the former president. Will the jurors think that makes sense, as they sit here and try to decide a falsifying business records case, or will they ask themselves, why are we hearing this?

michael barbaro

So the reason why this is the first time that the prosecution’s strategy is, for journalists like you, a little bit confusing, is because it’s the first time that the prosecution seems to be taking a genuine risk in what they’re putting before these jurors. Everything else has been kind of cut and dry and a little bit more mechanical. This is just a wild card.

jonah bromwich

This is like live ammunition, to some extent. Everything else is settled and controlled. And they know what’s going to happen. With Stormy Daniels, that’s not the case.

michael barbaro

OK, so walk us through the testimony. When the prosecution brings her to the stand, what actually happens?

jonah bromwich

It starts, as every witness does, with what’s called direct examination, which is a fancy word for saying prosecutors question Stormy Daniels. And they have her tell her story. First, they have her tell the jury about her education and where she grew up and her professional experience. And because of Stormy Daniels’s biography, that quickly goes into stripping, and then goes into making adult films.

And I thought the prosecutor who questioned her, Susan Hoffinger, had this nice touch in talking about that, because not only did she ask Daniels about acting in adult films. But she asked her about writing and directing them, too, emphasizing the more professional aspects of that work and giving a little more credit to the witness, as if to say, well, you may think this or you may think that. But this is a person with dignity who took what she did seriously. Got it.

michael barbaro

What’s your first impression of Daniels as a witness?

jonah bromwich

It’s very clear that she’s nervous. She’s speaking fast. She’s laughing to herself and making small jokes. But the tension in the room is so serious from the beginning, from the moment she enters, that those jokes aren’t landing. So it just feels, like, really heavy and still and almost oppressive in there. So Daniels talking quickly, seeming nervous, giving more answers than are being asked of her by the prosecution, even before we get to the sexual encounter that she’s about to describe, all of that presents a really discomfiting impression, I would say.

michael barbaro

And how does this move towards the encounter that Daniels ultimately has?

jonah bromwich

It starts at a golf tournament in 2006, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Daniels meets Trump there. There are other celebrities there, too. They chatted very briefly. And then she received a dinner invitation from him. She thought it over, she says. And she goes to have dinner with Trump, not at a restaurant, by the way. But she’s invited to join him in the hotel suite.

So she gets to the hotel suite. And his bodyguard is there. And the hotel door is cracked open. And the bodyguard greets her and says she looks nice, this and that. And she goes in. And there’s Donald Trump, just as expected. But what’s not expected, she says, is that he’s not wearing what you would wear to a dinner with a stranger, but instead, she says, silk or satin pajamas. She asked him to change, she says. And he obliges.

He goes, and he puts on a dress shirt and dress pants. And they sit down at the hotel suite’s dining room table. And they have a kind of bizarre dinner. Trump is asking her very personal questions about p*rnography and safe sex. And she testifies that she teased him about vain and pompous he is. And then at some point, she goes to the bathroom. And she sees that he has got his toiletries in there, his Old Spice, his gold tweezers.

michael barbaro

Very specific details.

jonah bromwich

Yeah, we’re getting a ton of detail in this scene. And the reason we’re getting those is because prosecutors are trying to elicit those details to establish that this is a credible person, that this thing did happen, despite what Donald Trump and his lawyers say. And the reason you can know it happened, prosecutors seem to be saying, is because, look at all these details she can still summon up.

michael barbaro

Right.

jonah bromwich

She comes out of the bathroom. And she says that Donald Trump is on the hotel bed. And what stands out to me there is what she describes as a very intense physical reaction. She says that she blacked out. And she quickly clarifies, she doesn’t mean from drugs or alcohol. She means that, she says, that the intensity of this experience was such that, suddenly, she can’t remember every detail. The prosecution asks a question that cuts directly to the sex. Essentially, did you start having sex with him? And Daniels says that she did. And she continues to provide more details than even, I think, the prosecution wanted.

michael barbaro

And I think we don’t want to go chapter and verse through this claimed sexual encounter. But I wonder what details stand out and which details feel important, given the prosecution’s strategy here.

jonah bromwich

All the details stand out because it’s a story about having had sex with a former president. And the more salacious and more private the details feel, the more you’re going to remember them. So we’ll remember that Stormy Daniels said what position they had sex in. We’ll remember that she said he didn’t use a condom. Whether that’s important to the prosecution’s case, now, that’s a much harder question to answer, as we’ve been saying.

But what I can tell you is, as she’s describing having had sex with Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is sitting right there, and Eric Trump, his son, is sitting behind him, seeming to turn a different color as he hears this embarrassment of his father being described to a courtroom full of reporters at this trial, it’s hard to even describe the energy in that room. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. And it was just Daniels’s testimony and, seemingly, the former President’s emotions. And you almost felt like you were trapped in there with both of them as this description was happening.

michael barbaro

Well, I think it’s important to try to understand why the prosecution is getting these details, these salacious, carnal, pick your word, graphic details about sex with Donald Trump. What is the value, if other details are clearly making the point that she’s recollecting something?

jonah bromwich

Well, I think, at this point, we can only speculate. But one thing we can say is, this was uncomfortable. This felt bad. And remember, prosecutor’s story is not about the sex. It’s about trying to hide the sex. So if you’re trying to show a jury why it might be worthwhile to hide a story, it might be worth —

michael barbaro

Providing lots of salacious details that a person would want to hide.

jonah bromwich

— exposing them to how bad that story feels and reminding them that if they had been voters and they had heard that story, and, in fact, they asked Daniels this very question, if you hadn’t accepted hush money, if you hadn’t signed that NDA, is this the story you would have told? And she said, yes. And so where I think they’re going with this, but we can’t really be sure yet, is that they’re going to tell the jurors, hey, that story, you can see why he wanted to cover that up, can’t you?

michael barbaro

You mentioned the hush money payments. What testimony does Daniels offer about that? And how does it advance the prosecution’s case of business fraud related to the hush money payments?

jonah bromwich

So little evidence that it’s almost laughable. She says that she received the hush money. But we actually already heard another witness, her lawyer at the time, Keith Davidson, testify that he had received the hush money payment on her behalf. And she testified about feeling as if she had to sell this story because the election was fast approaching, almost as if her leverage was slipping away because she knew this would be bad for Trump.

michael barbaro

That feels important. But just help me understand why it’s important.

jonah bromwich

Well, what the prosecution has been arguing is that Trump covered up this hush money payment in order to conceal a different crime. And that crime, they say, was to promote his election to the presidency by illegal means.

michael barbaro

Right, we’ve talked about this in the past.

jonah bromwich

So when Daniels ties her side of the payment into the election, it just reminds the jurors maybe, oh, right, this is what they’re arguing.

michael barbaro

So how does the prosecution end this very dramatic, and from everything you’re saying, very tense questioning of Stormy Daniels about this encounter?

jonah bromwich

Well, before they can even end, the defense lawyers go and they consult among themselves. And then, with the jury out of the room, one of them stands up. And he says that the defense is moving for a mistrial.

michael barbaro

On what terms?

jonah bromwich

He says that the testimony offered by Daniels that morning is so prejudicial, so damning to Trump in the eyes of the jury, that the trial can no longer be fair. Like, how could these jurors have heard these details and still be fair when they render their verdict? And he says a memorable expression. He says, you can’t un-ring that bell, meaning they heard it. They can’t un-hear it. It’s over. Throw out this trial. It should be done.

michael barbaro

Wow. And what is the response from the judge?

jonah bromwich

So the judge, Juan Merchan, he hears them out. And he really hears them out. But at the end of their arguments, he says, I do think she went a little too far. He says that. He said, there were things that were better left unsaid.

michael barbaro

By Stormy Daniels?

jonah bromwich

By Stormy Daniels. And he acknowledges that she is a difficult witness. But, he says, the remedy for that is not a mistrial, is not stopping the whole thing right now. The remedy for that is cross-examination. If the defense feels that there are issues with her story, issues with her credibility, they can ask her whatever they want. They can try to win the jury back over. If they think this jury has been poisoned by this witness, well, this is their time to provide the antidote. The antidote is cross-examination. And soon enough, cross-examination starts. And it is exactly as intense and combative as we expected.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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So, Jonah, how would you characterize the defense’s overall strategy in this intense cross-examination of Stormy Daniels?

jonah bromwich

People know the word impeach from presidential impeachments. But it has a meaning in law, too. You impeach a witness, and, specifically, their credibility. And that’s what the defense is going for here. They are going to try to make Stormy Daniels look like a liar, a fraud, an extortionist, a money-grubbing opportunist who wanted to take advantage of Trump and sought to do so by any means necessary.

michael barbaro

And what did that impeachment strategy look like in the courtroom?

jonah bromwich

The defense lawyer who questions Stormy Daniels is a woman named Susan Necheles. She’s defended Trump before. And she’s a bit of a cross-examination specialist. We even saw her during jury selection bring up these past details to confront jurors who had said nasty things about Trump on social media with. And she wants to do the same thing with Daniels. She wants to bring up old interviews and old tweets and things that Daniels has said in the past that don’t match what Daniels is saying from the stand.

michael barbaro

What’s a specific example? And do they land?

jonah bromwich

Some of them land. And some of them don’t. One specific example is that Necheles confronts Daniels with this old tweet, where Daniels says that she’s going to dance down the street if Trump goes to jail. And what she’s trying to show there is that Daniels is out for revenge, that she hates Trump, and that she wants to see him go to jail. And that’s why she’s testifying against him.

michael barbaro

Got it.

jonah bromwich

And Daniels is very interesting during the cross-examination. It’s almost as if she’s a different person. She kind of squares her shoulders. And she sits up a little straighter. And she leans forward. Daniels is ready to fight. But it doesn’t quite land. The tweet actually says, I’ll dance down the street when he’s selected to go to jail.

And Daniels goes off on this digression about how she knows that people don’t get selected to go to jail. That’s not how it works. But she can’t really unseat this argument, that she’s a political enemy of Donald Trump. So that one kind of sticks, I would say. But there are other moves that Necheles tries to pull that don’t stick.

michael barbaro

Like what?

jonah bromwich

So unlike the prosecution, which typically used words like adult, adult film, Necheles seems to be taking every chance she can get to say p*rn, or p*rnography, or p*rn star, to make it sound base or dirty. And so when she starts to ask Daniels about actually being in p*rnography, writing, acting, and directing sex films, she tries to land a punch line, Necheles does. She says, so you have a lot of experience making phony stories about sex appear to be real, right?

michael barbaro

As if to say, perhaps this story you have told about entering Trump’s suite in Lake Tahoe and having sex with him was made up.

jonah bromwich

Just another one of your fictional stories about sex. But Daniels comes back and says, the sex in the films, it’s very much real, just like what happened to me in that room. And so, when you have this kind of combat of a lawyer cross-examining very aggressively and the witness fighting back, you can feel the energy in the room shift as one lands a blow or the other does. But here, Daniels lands one back. And the other issue that I think Susan Necheles runs into is, she tries to draw out disparities from interviews that Daniels gave, particularly to N-TOUCH, very early on once the story was out.

michael barbaro

It’s kind of like a tabloid magazine?

jonah bromwich

But some of the disparities don’t seem to be landing quite like Necheles would want. So she tries to do this complicated thing about where the bodyguard was in the room when Daniels walked into the room, as described in an interview in a magazine. But in that magazine interview, as it turns out, Daniels mentioned that Trump was wearing pajamas. And so, if I’m a juror, I don’t care where the bodyguard is. I’m thinking about, oh, yeah, I remember that Stormy Daniels said now in 2024 that Trump was wearing pajamas.

michael barbaro

I’m curious if, as somebody in the room, you felt that the defense was effective in undermining Stormy Daniels’s credibility? Because what I took from the earlier part of our conversation was that Stormy Daniels is in this courtroom on behalf of the prosecution to tell a story that’s uncomfortable and has the kind of details that Donald Trump would be motivated to try to hide. And therefore, this defense strategy is to say, those details about what Trump might want to hide, you can’t trust them. So does this back and forth effectively hurt Stormy Daniels’s credibility, in your estimation?

jonah bromwich

I don’t think that Stormy Daniels came off as perfectly credible about everything she testified about. There are incidents that were unclear or confusing. There were things she talked about that I found hard to believe, when she, for instance, denied that she had attacked Trump in a tweet or talked about her motivations. But about what prosecutors need, that central story, the story of having had sex with him, we can’t know whether it happened.

But there weren’t that many disparities in these accounts over the years. In terms of things that would make me doubt the story that Daniels was telling, details that don’t add up, those weren’t present. And you don’t have to take my word for that, nor should you. But the judge is in the room. And he says something very, very similar.

michael barbaro

What does he say? And why does he say it?

jonah bromwich

Well, he does it when the defense, again, at the end of the day on Thursday, calls for a mistrial.

michael barbaro

With a similar argument as before?

jonah bromwich

Not only with a similar argument as before, but, like, almost the exact same argument. And I would say that I was astonished to see them do this. But I wasn’t because I’ve covered other trials where Trump is the client. And in those trials, the lawyers, again and again, called for a mistrial.

michael barbaro

And what does Judge Marchan say in response to this second effort to seek a mistrial?

jonah bromwich

Let me say, to this one, he seems a little less patient. He says that after the first mistrial ruling, two days before, he went into his chambers. And he read every decision he had made about the case. He took this moment to reflect on the first decision. And he found that he had, in his own estimation, which is all he has, been fair and not allowed evidence that was prejudicial to Trump into this trial. It could continue. And so he said that again. And then he really almost turned on the defense. And he said that the things that the defense was objecting to were things that the defense had made happen.

michael barbaro

How so?

jonah bromwich

He says that in their opening statement, the defense could have taken issue with many elements of the case, about whether there were falsified business records, about any of the other things that prosecutors are saying happened. But instead, he says, they focused their energy on denying that Trump ever had sex with Daniels.

And so that was essentially an invitation to the prosecution to call Stormy Daniels as a witness and have her say from the stand, yes, I had this sexual encounter. The upshot of it is that the judge not only takes the defense to task. But he also just says that he finds Stormy Daniels’s narrative credible. He doesn’t see it as having changed so much from year to year.

michael barbaro

Interesting. So in thinking back to our original question here, Jonah, about the idea that putting Stormy Daniels on the stand was risky, I wonder if, by the end of this entire journey, you’re reevaluating that idea because it doesn’t sound like it ended up being super risky. It sounded like it ended up working reasonably well for the prosecution.

jonah bromwich

Well, let me just assert that it doesn’t really matter what I think. The jury is going to decide this. There’s 12 people. And we can’t know what they’re thinking. But my impression was that, while she was being questioned by the prosecution for the prosecution’s case, Stormy Daniels was a real liability. She was a difficult witness for them.

And the judge said as much. But when the defense cross-examined her, Stormy Daniels became a better witness, in part because their struggles to discredit her may have actually ended up making her story look more credible and stronger. And the reason that matters is because, remember, we said that prosecutors are trying to fill this hole in their case. Well, now, they have. The jury has met Stormy Daniels. They’ve heard her account. They’ve made of it what they will. And now, the sequence of events that prosecutors are trying to line up as they seek prison time for the former President really makes a lot of sense.

It starts with what Stormy Daniels says with sex in a hotel suite in 2006. It picks up years later, as Donald Trump is trying to win an election and, prosecutors say, suppressing negative stories, including Stormy Daniels’s very negative story. And the story that prosecutors are telling ends with Donald Trump orchestrating the falsification of business records to keep that story concealed.

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michael barbaro

Well, Jonah, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

jonah bromwich

Of course, thanks for having me.

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michael barbaro

The prosecution’s next major witness will be Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who arranged for the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. Cohen is expected to take the stand on Monday.

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We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a defiant response to warnings from the United States that it would stop supplying weapons to Israel if Israel invades the Southern Gaza City of Rafah. So far, Israel has carried out a limited incursion into the city where a million civilians are sheltering, but has threatened a full invasion. In a statement, Netanyahu said, quote, “if we need to stand alone, we will stand alone.”

Meanwhile, high level ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas have been put on hold in part because of anger over Israel’s incursion into Rafah.

A reminder, tomorrow, we’ll be sharing the latest episode of our colleague’s new show, “The Interview” This week on “The Interview,” Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with radio host Charlamagne Tha God about his frustrations with how Americans talk about politics.

charlamagne tha god

If me as a Black man, if I criticize Democrats, then I’m supporting MAGA. But if I criticize, you know, Donald Trump and Republicans, then I’m a Democratic shill. Why can’t I just be a person who deals in nuance?

michael barbaro

Today’s episode was produced by Olivia Natt and Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Lexie Diao, with help from Paige Cowett, contains original music by Will Reid and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

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That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you on Monday.

Stormy Daniels Takes the Stand (2024)

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