The porn star, doorman and disgraced lawyer turned star witness: Who’s who in Trump’s hush money case?

From an adult film actress and a Playboy model to a supermarket tabloid publisher – by way of a lawyer-turned-felon – the cast of characters in the first-ever criminal trial of a former president could not have been more colorful. Ariana Baio reports

Friday 24 May 2024 19:00 BST
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(Getty/AP/iStock)

On Monday 15 April, Donald Trump made history as the first current or former president ever to be criminally prosecuted in America, as he went on trial in Manhattan on charges of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments made to an adult film star before the 2016 presidential election.

The trial commenced more than a year on from the landmark day when Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg brought a historic 34-count indictment against him, years after his office began investigating the former president’s financial statements.

Though the former president is charged with falsifying business records, Mr Bragg alleges that this was only part of a wider “catch-and-kill” scheme that Mr Trump engaged in to suppress negative stories as he campaigned – successfully – for the White House in 2016.

The historic trial is now drawing to a close after five weeks of absorbing testimony from several key players.

Among them was former publisher of The National Enquirer David Pecker, who agreed to help the then-presidential candidate suppress negative stories, adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose alleged affair is central to the case, and estranged ex-Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who made the $130,000 payoff to Ms Daniels before turning on his old boss.

Here The Independent breaks down who’s who in the trial:

Donald Trump

The former president turned criminal defendant

Former president Donald Trump
Former president Donald Trump (Getty)

Donald Trump, 77, is accused of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments that were made by his then-lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen to adult film actor Stormy Daniels in 2016.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Trump directed Cohen to pay Ms Daniels $130,000 just 12 days before the 2016 presidential election to silence her about their alleged sexual affair.

After successfully becoming president, Mr Trump allegedly reimbursed Cohen but misrepresented the payments as part of a non-existent retainer for Cohen’s legal services.

The Manhattan district attorney claims the payments were part of a larger scheme that Mr Trump engaged in to conceal his criminal activity, including attempts to violate federal election laws. Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Michael Cohen

The ‘fixer’ turned star witness

Trump’s one-time attorney, Michael Cohen
Trump’s one-time attorney, Michael Cohen (Getty)

Michael Cohen, 57, was Mr Trump’s attorney from 2006 until 2018. He is often referred to as the former president’s “fixer” for his role in the catch-and-kill scheme.

Fast forward to today and he is the Manhattan district attorney’s star witness in the case.

In 2018, Cohen admitted to participating in the scheme with Mr Trump and David Pecker, the former CEO of AMI, in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election to quash negative stories about Mr Trump and effectively influence the outcome of the election.

Cohen claims that, at the direction of Mr Trump, he paid Ms Daniels $130,000 to stop her from going public with a potentially damning story about an alleged extramarital affair. He then misrepresented those payments in reimbursement requests and on tax documents.

In 2018, Cohen struck a plea deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to various crimes in connection to the scheme including tax evasion, making false statements to a federally insured bank, and campaign finance violations. He served three years in prison.

For admitting wrongdoing – and implicating Mr Trump in it – the former president has turned his back on Cohen, now referring to him as a “liar” and “rat”.

Cohen’s credibility remains questionable after a judge suggested the former lawyer committed perjury while testifying during Mr Trump’s civil fraud trial, a point on which the defense fiercely attacked him during his 17 hours on the witness stand.

Stormy Daniels

The adult film star

Adult film star Stormy Daniels
Adult film star Stormy Daniels (Getty)

Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford), 45, is an adult film star who claims to have had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006.

She threatened to go public with the allegations during Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential run, leading Cohen to pay her $130,000 and force her to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in return for her silence.

Ms Daniels remained quiet about the affair – which Mr Trump has denied ever happened – until 2018 when she publicly commented on it, believing the NDA was nullified.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, she went into detail about her one-time sexual encounter with Mr Trump, saying he offered her a role on his TV show The Apprentice afterwards.

Ms Daniels claims that she wanted to publicly share her story years after the affair, but was approached and threatened by a man while in a parking lot with her infant daughter. She claims she took the hush money because she was “terrified” for her life.

Ms Daniels proved to a key witness for prosecutors, delivering some highly entertaining, occasionally graphic but ultimately convicing witness testimony.

David Pecker

The publisher

David Pecker, former CEO of AMI
David Pecker, former CEO of AMI (Getty)

David Pecker, 72, is the former CEO of AMI and publisher of The National Enquirer who agreed to assist Mr Trump and Cohen in carrying out a catch-and-kill scheme ahead of the 2016 presidential election in order to influence Mr Trump’s chances of winning the presidency.

A longtime ally of Mr Trump, Mr Pecker assisted in facilitating payments from AMI to a former Trump Tower doorman and to a second woman who allegedly had an affair with Mr Trump in order to maintain their silence on negative stories.

Mr Pecker was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about Cohen.

Karen McDougal

The other woman

Model and actor Karen McDougal
Model and actor Karen McDougal (Getty)

Karen McDougal, a 53-year-old model and actor best known for appearing in Playboy magazine, claims she had a nine-month-long affair with Mr Trump in 2006.

She was paid $150,000 by AMI for the exclusive rights to her story before the 2016 presidential election and to feature her on two magazine covers and publish over 100 articles she authored.

Cohen considered buying the exclusive rights to Ms McDougal’s story from AMI, but that deal fell through.

AMI later admitted to prosecutors that it bought the exclusive rights to the story so that Ms McDougal could not share it elsewhere – but had never intended to publish her story. Instead, the so-called “catch-and-kill scheme” involved suppressing her story altogether in a bid to ward off any harm to Mr Trump’s presidential campaign.

Ms McDougal had been mooted as a witness for the district attorney but was ultimately not called.

Hope Hicks

The former Trump aide

Former aide and adviser Hope Hicks
Former aide and adviser Hope Hicks (Getty)

Hope Hicks, 35, is a former aide and adviser to Mr Trump who served as the former president’s press secretary during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Ms Hicks was allegedly part of at least 10 telephone conversations with Mr Trump and Cohen regarding the hush money payments and alleged reimbursements.

She was called as a witness for the district attorney and memorably broke down in tears on the stand, also memorably testifying that Cohen had only ever been a “fixer” of problems that he himself had created.

Juan Merchan

The judge

NY Supreme Court judge Juan Merchan
NY Supreme Court judge Juan Merchan (AP)

Juan Merchan, 61, is the judge presiding over the criminal case against Mr Trump.

He has been an acting justice for the New York State Supreme Court since 2009 and previously worked in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

He previously presided over the 2022 criminal tax fraud trial against the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg, the longtime CFO of the Trump Organization.

Judge Merchan is often on the receiving end of Mr Trump’s attacks and unfounded claims of bias.

After Mr Trump lashed out at Judge Merchan’s daughter on social media, he issued a gag order preventing the former president from making public comments about witnesses, jurors, lawyers, court staff and their families.

He has since found the defendant responsible for 10 breaches of that order and threatened him with jail time.

Judge Merchan also memorably sparred with defense witness Robert Costello, who the the judge accused of having a “contemptuous” attitude to the proceedings and attempting to “stare him down”.

Todd Blanche

The defence attorney

Trump attorney Todd Blanche
Trump attorney Todd Blanche (Getty)

Todd Blanche, 49, is an established former federal prosecutor currently defending Mr Trump in the criminal trial.

Mr Blanche was brought onto Mr Trump’s legal team last year. He previously represented Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in a New York criminal case.

Mr Blanche invoked one of Mr Trump’s favoured tactics in defending the former president: delaying the trial as much as possible. He also attracted attention for his fiery cross-examination of Cohen on the witness stand, whom he accused of lying and insulting him as a “crying little s***” on TikTok.

Susan Necheles

The defence attorney

Defence lawyer Susan Necheles
Defence lawyer Susan Necheles (Getty)

Susan Necheles, 65, is an experienced criminal defence lawyer representing Mr Trump in the trial.

Ms Necheles previously represented several high-profile clients in public corruption and organised crime cases – notably Venero Mangano of the Genovese crime family.

Ms Necheles also defended Mr Trump and the Trump Organization in the civil fraud case and led the cross-examination of Ms Daniels.

Emil Bove

The defence attorney

Emil Bove, a lawyer representing Mr Trump in his Manhattan criminal trial
Emil Bove, a lawyer representing Mr Trump in his Manhattan criminal trial (Getty)

Emil Bove is a skilled lawyer and former federal prosecutor currently defending Mr Trump in the criminal trial.

Mr Bove is a partner at the Blanche Law Firm. He previously worked in the US attorney’s office for the South District of New York as the co-chief of the national security unit.

As a federal prosecutor, he handled the case and trial against the Chelsea bomber and Cesar Sayoc, who mailed pipe bombs to critics of Mr Trump in 2017.

Alvin Bragg

The district attorney prosecuting Trump

Alvin Bragg, Manhattan DA
Alvin Bragg, Manhattan DA (Getty)

Alvin Bragg, 50, is the Manhattan district attorney who brought the criminal indictment against Mr Trump last year.

Though he actually inherited the case from his predecessor, his March 2023 indictment against Mr Trump made him the very first individual to ever bring criminal charges against a current or former president.

Mr Bragg was elected the first Black district attorney in 2021 with an overwhelming majority of the vote. Prior to his current position, he served as a state attorney and federal prosecutor.

Mr Trump has often attacked Mr Bragg, baselessly claiming the indictment he brought forth was politically-motivated, even calling him “Fat Alvin” at a New Jersey presidential campaign rally.

Susan Hoffinger

The prosecutor

A prosecuting attorney, Susan Hoffinger
A prosecuting attorney, Susan Hoffinger (Getty)

Susan Hoffinger is one of the lead prosecutors in the case. She is the executive assistant district attorney and chief of the investigation division of the Manhattan DA’s office.

Ms Hoffinger spent 20 years of her career focusing on criminal prosecution and criminal defence.

She previously prosecuted the Trump Organization in the criminal tax fraud trial.

Matthew Colangelo

The prosecution

Matthew Colangelo
Matthew Colangelo (The Justice Department/YouTube)

Matthew Colangelo is one of the prosecutors with the district attorney’s office.

He is a former Justice Department official who served as acting associate attorney general.

Prior to serving in the Department of Justice, Mr Colangelo worked in the New York attorney general’s office where he investigated the Trump Foundation – the charity organisation the former president established that was later dissolved by a court order.

Joshua Steinglass

The prosecution

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass
Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass (Getty)

Joshua “Josh” Steinglass is an attorney in the Manhattan district attorney’s office with more than 25 years of experience.

Mr Steinglass is a well-known trial lawyer who has previously prosecuted the Trump Organization and the man charged in the killing of Jordan Neely – who died when he was placed in a chokehold on a New York subway.

Anyone else?

Keith Davidson

Keith Davidson, 53, is a lawyer who represented Ms Daniels and Ms McDougal in negotiating deals with AMI to sell their stories of alleged affairs with Mr Trump and obtain NDAs.

Ms Daniels later accused Mr Davidson of colluding with Cohen to keep her silent.

Jeffrey McConney

Jeffrey McConney is a former executive of the Trump Organization who would have sent the reimbursements, mischaracterised as legal expenses, to Ms Tarasoff.

He was found liable in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial and is barred from serving as an officer of a New York company for three years and barred from taking a financial management role at a New York company for life.

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