"A true conspiracy": Hush-money trial lays out how the "coverup extended into the Trump White House"

Judge Merchan ramps up the pressure on Donald Trump with gag order crackdown

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 1, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump stands with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who announced that she is stepping down as the White House press secretary, during his rally where he announced his candidacy for a second presidential term at the Amway Center on June 18, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Getty/Joe Raedle)
President Donald Trump stands with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who announced that she is stepping down as the White House press secretary, during his rally where he announced his candidacy for a second presidential term at the Amway Center on June 18, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Getty/Joe Raedle)

Being put on trial in a criminal case is one of the most stressful experiences a person can have. This is especially true if you are former president Donald Trump, a man who has rarely if ever been held accountable for his decades of horrible and lawless behavior. Trump’s stress and anxiety are made even more acute because he is facing not just one serious criminal trial but four of them – and the possibility (however unlikely) of being sentenced to prison for the rest of his natural life.

As a range of legal experts have observed, the first two weeks of the hush-money trial have gone very badly for the defense. In his testimony last week, David Pecker, former publisher of The National Enquirer, painted a clear picture of knowingly, at Donald Trump’s direction, participating in a scheme to hide information from the public about the ex-president’s relationships with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

The Washington Post offered this profile of Donald Trump’s emotional and psychological state at present:

Two weeks in, the first criminal trial of a former president has been personally taxing for Trump and disruptive to his campaign. Despite efforts to schedule dinners where donors, friends and world leaders join him, Trump’s moods are worse on trial days, according to several people close to him. The former president is accustomed to near-daily rounds of golf, “constant stimulation” and cheers when he enters and exits a room at Mar-a-Lago, they said. Instead, he is now reporting four days a week for mundane court arguments and long stretches without permission to check his phone.

“The phrase around here is ‘the process is the punishment,’” said one person close to Trump, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Trump also claims he is upset that his criminal trial in Manhattan keeps him away from his wife, Melania. On Friday, Trump told reporters, “I want to start by wishing my wife, Melania, a very happy birthday....It would be nice to be with her — but I’m in a courthouse for a rigged trial.” The irony of such a complaint is apparently lost on the corrupt ex-president.

On Tuesday, Judge Merchan put even more pressure on Trump, warning him that he could be put in jail if he continues to violate the court's gag order prohibiting threatening and other such speech and behavior against witnesses and other people involved in the hush-money trial. The judge ordered Trump to take down his social media posts targeting people affiliated with trial and pay the court a fine of $9,000, $1,000 for each violation. 

So while it is true that Donald Trump may be embattled right now, those Americans — especially members of the news media — who support real democracy, the rule of law, and want to see him finally punished for his many obvious crimes, should be very reserved and careful with premature celebrations. Trump has decades of experience successfully evading the law. And of course, there is no way of predicting with any high level of certainty what 12 jurors will do when they finally decide if the former president is innocent or guilty of his alleged crimes.

"We’re watching an all-hands-on-deck moment for the anti-democracy establishment to delay and obfuscate all of these trials until they can be cast aside along with a broken democracy."

In an attempt to make better sense of the second week of Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, its implications for the 2024 election, and what may happen next, I recently spoke with a range of experts: 

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for the Atlantic. He is also co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

The Trump trial so far has proven the naysayers like Jed Shugerman wrong. This is not a weak case or a political blunder. The prosecution's opening argument, followed by the devastating testimony of David Pecker, shows that this was a true conspiracy involving Trump and many others to shut down startling revelations about Trump's despicable behavior after the "Access Hollywood" tape. For the public to find out that Trump had slept with a porn star while his wife was pregnant, or had an extended sexual affair with yet another woman, would have likely been fatal to his campaign. The elaborate scheme of hush money and more to silence the women involved, which included falsifying business records, is a clear violation of New York law and a clear and direct attempt to tamper with the 2016 election.

That is not all, since we now learn that the coverup extended into the Trump White House and implicated then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. So, Sanders, under fire for corruption as governor of Arkansas, is even worse than we thought. This trial is moving along, and the belief among many that it would turn on the testimony of a discredited Michael Cohen has already been erased. Pecker, plus tapes and documents will be enough to do the trick. And with the Supreme Court showing with the immunity case that it is more intent on protecting Trump than following the Constitution and the law, it is even more important that this New York trial is moving expeditiously toward a conclusion.

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David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist, and former elected official. His new book is "Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American".

I’m seeing what it looks like to have a powerful person with a record of evading accountability finally facing some measure of accountability. And America is seeing that as well.

And when at the federal level, that accountability continues to be delayed, fraying any sense that there is a rule of law left for powerful political figures.

America finally witnessing that accountability at any level is important.

Without it, the incentive among politicians to skirt the law just keeps growing.  And in many states, we’re reaching a crisis level of lawlessness for that exact reason.

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I never really thought through what to expect. (My philosophy is that we’re better off focusing our energy on the action steps WE can take to save democracy, rather than watching trials from miles away, where we control nothing and which in the end probably has minimal political impact.)

All that being said, I’ve been surprised by how sharp some of the damaging testimony against Trump has been. And I’ve been surprised by how unprepared Trump seems to be, physically and personally, for the rigors of a trial. It definitely is a stark contrast to the image he likes to paint of himself.

Nate Powell is a graphic novelist and the first cartoonist to win the National Book Award. Powell has also won four Eisner Awards. 

It’s a strange, warping feeling: my expectations of seeing any real consequences— even with a possible conviction, or multiple convictions across multiple trials— are completely eroded, yet I can feel that expectation still in gear, idling in the driveway, just in case. The possibility itself has finally approached, and with it a series of ongoing pressure tests. I stay updated every few hours, though, and I think that reveals the hope I still possess— hope that the wheels of accountability will actually function as they should. I dread that we’re watching an all-hands-on-deck moment for the anti-democracy establishment to delay and obfuscate all of these trials until they can be cast aside along with a broken democracy, while paying lip service to the system operating as intended. From a personal angle, the events are so entirely out of my control that I’ve been able to stay informed without falling into a doomscroll cycle. I do recognize a baseline functionality that I’ve developed over the last decade— and what separates that from normalization.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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