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All the Key Players in the Trump Trial

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty, Supreme Court

Once a jury is finally seated for Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, all eyes will turn to the key players. and witnesses. Here’s who they are.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

The first former president to be charged with a crime, Trump appeared in a Manhattan courtroom last year and pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors allege that in 2016 he personally played a role in Cohen paying Daniels $130,000 to silence her allegation that she and Trump had an affair years earlier. (He has consistently denied her allegation.) Trump is accused of breaking the law by categorizing the reimbursements to Cohen as a legal retainer; prosecutors say Cohen performed no legal services. Trump is charged for each of the records prosecutors say were bogus: checks made out to Cohen, invoices from Cohen, and accounting entries in Trump’s books.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

Although once a loyal enforcer for Trump, Cohen now calls him “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man.” A key witness for the prosecution, he alleges that during the 2016 election, Trump directed him to facilitate a $130,000 payment through a shell company to Daniels in order to suppress her story that she and Trump had sex a decade earlier. He claims that Trump later reimbursed him for the payment, disguising the expense in business records as a retainer for legal services. (Cohen has also said that he played a role in the National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, paying to “catch and kill” model Karen McDougal’s story of her own affair with Trump.)

Cohen’s credibility is expected to come under fire because of his own legal history: In 2018, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. That same year, he was also sentenced to three years in federal prison for tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations in connection to the payments made to Daniels and McDougal.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

Stephanie Clifford took the stage name Stormy Daniels when she began working as a stripper and kept that name when she transitioned into adult films. In 2006, according to Daniels, she met Trump in Lake Tahoe, where he was hosting a celebrity golf tournament. She alleges that he invited her to dinner in his hotel suite and, after some conversation and Daniels spanking Trump with a copy of Forbes, the two had sex.

In January 2018, after The Wall Street Journal broke the story that Cohen had paid off Daniels, she sued Trump to get out of their nondisclosure agreement. Soon after, she went on 60 Minutes, during which she detailed having sex with Trump and said she only signed the NDA out of concern for her and her family’s safety. Daniels will be allowed to testify after Judge Merchan rejected an attempt from Trump’s legal team to block her testimony.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

McDougal is a model and former Playboy Playmate of the Year who has claimed to have had a monthslong affair with Trump back in 2006, when he was newly married to his wife, Melania Trump. In 2016, McDougal was paid $150,000 by American Media, Inc. in exchange for the rights to her story about the affair and for her to stay silent on the subject in the media. AMI never published her story about Trump — a move known as a “catch and kill.” McDougal went on to sue AMI in order to be freed from her contract. She and the company would later reach a settlement, allowing her to speak about her experience with Trump. She is expected to testify during the trial.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

David Pecker is the former head of American Media, Inc., the publisher of the infamous National Enquirer. A longtime friend of Trump’s, he frequently used the Enquirer to run unflattering stories about Trump’s rivals, including Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz.

Also during Pecker’s time at AMI, the company often utilized the practice of “catch and kill” — when a publication buys the rights to a potentially damaging story and suppresses the information by declining to publish it. Pecker did this to McDougal and a former doorman at Trump Tower who prosecutors allege was trying to sell a story about a supposed love child of Trump’s. Pecker also communicated with Cohen regarding Daniels’s story. He is expected to testify.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

In 2021, voters elected Democrat Alvin Bragg to be the Manhattan district attorney — the first Black person to serve in the role. Last April, Bragg announced that his office had filed felony charges against the former president, becoming the first prosecutor in the nation to indict Trump. To do so, though, Bragg used a novel legal theory to upgrade what is usually a misdemeanor (falsifying business records) to a felony by arguing that the records were changed in order to cover up another crime: in this case, violations of the state’s campaign-finance laws. Bragg’s office alleges Trump tried to hide relevant information about his alleged affair from the voting public prior to the election.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Redux

Judge Merchan is presiding over the historic trial, though it’s not his first time dealing with Trump figures. He oversaw the trial of former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg for financial fraud and tax evasion, sentencing him to five months in prison. He is also presiding over the pending trial of Steve Bannon, who is charged with fraud for allegedly bilking donors for a border-wall scheme.

Merchan immigrated to the United States with his family from Colombia when he was 6 years old, growing up in Jackson Heights. After working as a prosecutor in both the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office, he was appointed as a Family Court judge in 2006 and to the State Supreme Court three years later.

As he has done with other judges, Trump has attacked Merchan on social media, hurling insults and claiming that he is “corrupt.” Things escalated after Trump targeted Merchan’s daughter, suggesting that the judge is biased owing to his daughter’s work as a Democratic strategist. Merchan revised the gag order he placed on Trump to bar him from talking about his and Bragg’s families in addition to court staff and potential witnesses.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Merchan did not discuss specifics about the case but said that he and his staff want to be sure that they “dispense justice.”

“There’s no agenda here,” he said. “We want to follow the law. We want justice to be done.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

One of Trump’s closest aides as president, Hope Hicks first began working for Ivanka in the Trump Organization in 2014 before she became the Trump campaign’s press secretary in 2015. Hicks is expected to testify at the trial as a witness for the prosecution because she communicated with various figures involved in silencing Daniels, including Daniels’s then-lawyer, Keith Davidson, as well as Pecker and Dylan Howard, two AMI executives. The communications started the day after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, which is believed to have sparked the plan to pay Daniels.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

In 2023, Trump tapped attorney Todd Blanche to lead his defense in the Manhattan case. A veteran federal prosecutor experienced in white-collar cases, Blanche left his job as a partner at the prominent law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft to defend Trump. He previously represented Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Igor Fruman, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s, in separate federal cases.

If defending Trump in Manhattan weren’t enough, Blanche is also taking the lead for Trump’s defense in the federal government’s classified-documents case in Florida and is co-counsel for the January 6–related case in Washington, D.C.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

After defending the Trump Organization against tax-fraud charges filed by Bragg’s office in 2022, Susan Necheles is working alongside Blanche to defend Trump himself. A veteran defense attorney, she has represented no shortage of notorious clients throughout her career: Pedro Espada Jr., the New York State Senate majority leader found guilty of embezzlement; Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s heiress in the NXIVM sex-cult case; and Venero Mangano, an underboss for the Genovese crime family known as Benny Eggs.

This post has been updated.


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