"Really devastating": Experts say Hope Hicks' testimony was the beginning of the end for Trump

Hicks testified that the former president was happy that Stormy Daniels' story did not come out before the election

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published May 6, 2024 10:03AM (EDT)

Hope Hicks, the former White House communication director, is seen during a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee about their investigation of President Trump and the Robert Mueller report on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
Hope Hicks, the former White House communication director, is seen during a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee about their investigation of President Trump and the Robert Mueller report on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Hope Hicks was gushing in her praise of Donald Trump, the man she followed from the Trump Organization to the White House as part of his inner circle, describing the former president as a “hard worker” who ran his multi-billion dollar enterprise like a small family business.

It may have caused some eyes to roll, but Hicks’ commitment to the Trump brand is also what made her emotional testimony last week in the Republican candidate’s criminal trial all the more damning: here was a loyal aide – one who has never been the target of a late-night Truth Social rant – backing up the prosecution’s argument that a hush payment to an adult film star, unreported in campaign finance documents, was meant to influence the 2016 election.

“It’s really devastating,” as criminal defense attorney David Oscar Markus said on CNN over the weekend. “She's an ally of Trump and is seen as someone who still is loyal to Trump in many ways. So when she's up there and crying, it's really tough on the Trump team and it's much different than [Michael] Cohen who has an axe to grind, who will be coming up."

The defense team's argument is that Cohen is a disgruntled former employee out to smear a boss who never gave him a plum White House gig. It was Cohen, the argument goes, that took it upon himself to pay $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels for the right to bury her story: that she slept with a married Trump just a few months after his wife, Melania, gave birth.

But prosecutors say not only was Trump aware of the payment – they’ve introduced a recording of him discussing it with Cohen – but of the plot to cover it up by falsifying business records. Cohen himself was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the alleged scheme, in which the cost of buying Daniels’ silence was listed as “legal expenses” in Trump Organization paperwork; if the intent was to help Trump’s presidential campaign, the payment should have been reported as a campaign expense and made public knowledge, prosecutors say.

In her testimony Friday, Hicks described a Trump campaign in “crisis,” rocked by the October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which the candidate boasts of sexual assault, and a general feeling that it might not survive another scandal before the November election. It was after the “Access Hollywood” tape, and before voters headed to the polls, that the decision was made to pay off Daniels.

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Hicks said she was first made aware of that payment in 2018, after the Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of an agreement with Daniels. At the time, she testified, the president told her that “Michael [Cohen] had paid this woman to protect him from a false allegation, and that Michael felt like it was his job to protect him and that’s what he was doing and he did it out of the kindness of his heart.”

But that doesn’t sound like Michael Cohen, Hicks admitted under questioning. “I’d say that would be out of character for Michael,” she said, adding: “I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person or selfless person.” (David Pecker, former publisher of the National Enquirer, earlier testified that he had entered into a “catch-and-kill” arrangement with Trump and Cohen to buy up potentially damaging stories.)

Hicks’ testimony did help Trump’s defense in one sense: she said Trump was indeed concerned about his wife, Melania, learning about another allegation that he cheated on her with Playboy model Karen McDougal But she also made clear that was not his stated concern in 2018, when Daniels’ claim went public; then, she testified, Trump told her it was being talked about now because “it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election.”

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CNN legal analyst Norm Eisen said that Hicks’ testimony, speaking to Trump’s own political concerns, will make it difficult if not impossible to maintain the argument that he acted only to spare his wife from learning about affairs that he denies ever having.

"As a matter of law, if the prosecution can show that Trump had a mixed motive – but he would not have made these payments but for the campaign – legally, the judge is going to instruct the jury that's enough to establish the intent to commit a crime,” Eisen said.

Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who worked for special counsel Robert Mueller, argued that Hicks’ testimony was more than just damaging to Trump’s defense; he said it could be game over.

"You can really see the end of this coming up fast and furious with the [district attorney] just closing it out on the actual reimbursement scheme, which is something that cannot really be denied credibly by Donald Trump's team," Weissmann said on MSNBC.

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Donald Trump Hope Hicks Michael Cohen