Who’s who in the Donald Trump hush money criminal trial: Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen and others

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NEW YORK — The key characters in Donald Trump’s hush money case — including Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, Michael Cohen, David Pecker, and Allen Weisselberg — all have interesting stories to tell about their roles in the infamous scheme.

Prosecutors allege the notorious hush money plan started with an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump, Cohen, and David Pecker, where they arranged to bury negative stories about Trump to secure his win in the 2016 election that ultimately included paying off porn star Daniels, Playboy model Karen McDougal, and a Trump Tower doorman.

The hush money recipients didn’t stay silent for long, and Trump is the only participant prosecutors have placed at the initial meeting who still denies wrongdoing. He hasn’t denied the payments to Cohen that serve as the basis for the charges but claims he wasn’t in the loop about the hush money.

Michael Cohen

Cohen is expected to feature as the DA’s star witness at trial and walk jurors through how he covertly carried out the hush money scheme.

After he was sentenced to three years for violating campaign finance laws, lying to Congress, and tax evasion, he began voluntarily cooperating against Trump in the Manhattan district attorney’s probe, meeting more than a dozen times with investigators over several years.

When the feds raided Cohen’s residences in April 2018, Trump tried to stop him from flipping, telling his fixer on a phone call to “stay strong,” according to court records. Around a week later, Trump publicly encouraged Cohen on Twitter not to “flip,” writing, “Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if . . . it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see [Cohen] doing that . . . .”

In August 2018, Cohen admitted in Manhattan Federal Court that in 2016 “in coordination with, and at the direction of” Trump and David Pecker, chairman of American Media, Inc., the former owner of The National Enquirer, he worked to silence women who claimed they’d had extramarital liaisons with Trump “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”

Cohen, 57, says he paid the porn star’s lawyer through a shell corporation and received reimbursement the following year through a series of monthly checks processed by the Trump Organization and signed by Trump — partially doled out by a trust created after he was elected and partly from his personal bank account — that were falsely classified as payment for legal fees.

The former fixer is expected to face a grilling for the ages on cross-examination with Trump’s defense team, who say he’s a liar who can’t be trusted.

Stormy Daniels

The porn star’s account of Trump’s hush money payment of $130,000 in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election after their alleged tryst ten years earlier in a Lake Tahoe hotel room, a year after he married his wife, Melania, is central to the case.

She’s expected to be a key witness at the trial.

Daniels, 45, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was thrust into the political spotlight in 2018 when news of the payments went public.

The Louisiana native sued Trump for defamation in the same year, based on a tweet Trump wrote suggesting Daniels had lied about being threatened not to go public about the affair with the president. The two have tangled in civil court a number of times.

The attorney who repped Daniels in litigation with Trump, Michael Avenatti, also featured as a bit player in the hush money saga. Starting as a liberal resistance hero and Trump-world villain — even flirting with a presidential run — Avenatti was later convicted of stealing from the client who made him famous and other crimes. He is currently serving a 14-year sentence.

When she testified at Avenatti’s January 2022 trial for stealing advance proceeds from her memoir “Full Disclosure,” Daniels pushed back on descriptions of her rendezvous with Trump at the charity golf tournament as an “affair.”

“Because it was not romantic,” she said. “I don’t consider getting cornered coming out of a bathroom to be an affair.”

The adult film star and author’s book made quite the splash, in which she likened the then-president’s penis to a “toadstool” with “Yeti pubes” and the “mushroom character in Mario Kart.”

Karen McDougal

The former Playboy model has said she had a nine-month relationship with Trump in 2006 and 2007, before his presidency.

She wrote in a personal diary later obtained by the New Yorker that Trump introduced her to his family, brought her to his private room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and showed her his wife’s separate bedroom in Trump Tower.

They had sex “many dozen times,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2018.

McDougal, now 53, met Trump when he was filming an episode of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” She said she ended the relationship because she felt guilty about Trump’s wife and young son. She spoke out after Daniels.

David Pecker

Pecker, a longtime ally of the ex-president, is expected to testify at the trial.

The feds revealed that they’d offered a nonprosecution deal to American Media, Inc. after Cohen’s conviction in exchange for the company’s admission that it paid off McDougal to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations” about Trump “before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence that election.”

Pecker, 72, is expected to testify that he agreed to act as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” during a 2015 meeting at Trump Tower with Trump and Cohen by identifying damaging stories to “catch and kill” and publishing stories that could harm his competitors’ chances.

Allen Weisselberg

Allen Weisselberg is not expected to take the stand at the trial. Neither side is expected to call him as a witness, and he has resisted efforts by prosecutors to get him to flip.

But Trump’s twice-convicted former finance chief — who last week was sent to jail for a second time in as many years for perjuring himself in the company’s civil fraud case, having previously done time for committing tax fraud at Trump’s company — is alleged to have played an important role in the hush money scheme.

Weisselberg, 76, received immunity to testify in the feds’ case against Cohen, who, in his 2019 testimony before Congress, said was the one who determined how he got paid back after Trump won the presidency.

“I obviously wanted the money in one shot. I would have preferred it that way,” Cohen testified. “But in order to be able to put it onto the books, Allen Weisselberg made the decision that it should be paid over the 12 months so that it would look like a retainer.”

Hope Hicks

Hicks, Trump’s campaign press secretary and then top aide to the ex-president, testified before the grand jury before Trump’s spring 2023 indictment and may take the stand at the trial.

Hicks, 35, in 2019, claimed before the House Judiciary Committee that she was directed to make a public statement denying Trump had once had a relationship with McDougal. She said she was never present for a conversation between Cohen and Trump about Daniels or any hush money recipient and that she didn’t know how Cohen had gotten a statement from Daniels denying a tryst or whether Trump knew that Cohen had paid off Daniels.

Hicks also said she never asked Trump if it was true that he hadn’t been involved with McDougal.

“This was not something that I would have direct knowledge of, so I took his word,” Hicks said.

Justice Juan Merchan

Merchan will preside over the six-week case in his 15th-floor courtroom at 100 Centre St. A frequent target of Trump, the no-nonsense Manhattan Supreme Court judge in the leadup to trial has issued a gag order preventing the presidential candidate from publicly attacking trial participants, which he later expanded to include his own relatives after Trump targeted his daughter online.

Trump’s lawyers are still trying to get Merchan off the case, having failed last year. They claim his daughter’s job at a political firm that advises Democrats meant he had a conflict, which a judicial ethics advisory panel previously determined he did not.

Born in Colombia, Merchan, 61, received his bachelor’s degree from Baruch College and went to law school at Hofstra University. He’s no stranger to high-profile cases: Merchan is presiding over the DA’s fraud case against right-wing strategist and Trump adviser Steve Bannon and previously handled the 2022 tax fraud case against the former president’s company, the Trump Organization.

He also presides over Manhattan’s mental health court, which provides treatment options to defendants whose mental illness factored in their cases.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg

The DA has similarly been subjected to Trump’s disparaging online comments since bringing an indictment against Trump and, like Merchan, has been targeted with death threats by his supporters. Merchan’s gag order also encompasses the DA’s family.

After more than a year of speculation about whether the new DA would bring the first-ever criminal case against a sitting or former U.S. president, Bragg, 50, secured an indictment against Trump on March 30. The indictment alleges that Trump falsified New York business records to disguise a scheme to hide damaging information from the voting public. Trump denies all allegations.

A Harlem native and Manhattan’s first Black DA, the former deputy Attorney General of New York has 20 years of experience in law enforcement, including stints in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office and City Hall.

Team Trump

Veteran criminal defense attorneys Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles will lead Trump’s defense at trial.

Trump hired Blanche, a longtime defense attorney and former Manhattan federal prosecutor, after he was indicted in the spring of 2023. He also represented Paul Manafort in the Manhattan DA’s case against him for mortgage fraud and other crimes, which the former Trump campaign chairman dodged after an appeals court found it violated New York’s double jeopardy law because it included crimes Trump pardoned him of before leaving office.

Necheles was among the team who repped Trump’s company at its criminal tax fraud trial and is a respected trial attorney with extensive experience in the courtroom.

Team Bragg

The prosecutors handling the case are Susan Hoffinger, Matthew Colangelo, Joshua Steinglass, Christopher Conroy, Rebecca Mangold, and Katherine Ellis.

Hoffinger and Steinglass secured the Trump Organization’s criminal conviction and Weisselberg’s for tax fraud. Steinglass has been at the DA’s office for over 20 years and is one of Bragg’s most experienced trial attorneys in violent cases. Hoffinger leads the DA’s Investigation Division and previously ran her own firm for 20 years as a defense attorney, representing dozens of clients charged with crimes similar to those against Trump.

Bragg’s senior counsel, Colangelo, oversees some of the DA’s most sensitive white-collar probes. He came to the office in 2022 from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was third in command as acting associate attorney general. Trump has repeatedly attacked Colangelo online and in public remarks, claiming his past work for the DOJ is evidence he’s a Biden plant.

Conroy, a longtime prosecutor and senior adviser in the Investigation Division, has extensive experience in the courtroom — from murder cases, Ponzi schemes, insider thefts, and boiler room stock frauds.

Ellis joined the Manhattan DA’s office in 2018 and is a former legal analyst for Goldman Sachs, who’s handled major white-collar fraud cases. Mangold joined the office in 2022 after nine years in private practice representing defendants in high-stakes white-collar cases.