"Imbalance of power": Expert says Stormy Daniels' damning testimony may be "very damaging" to Trump

But there is "some danger that an intense cross examination of her will make her look" bad, law professor says

By Marina Villeneuve

Staff Reporter

Published May 7, 2024 2:40PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Prosecutors called adult film star and director Stormy Daniels to the witness stand Tuesday in Donald Trump’s ongoing criminal trial in Manhattan to deliver testimony that a legal expert said could be “very damaging” to the former president and 2024 Republican candidate.

Daniels detailed how at the age of 27, she met then-60-year-old Trump at a Lake Tahoe resort in July 2006. Prosecutors showed a well-known photo of the two at that resort, where Trump attended a charity golf event. Daniels said at the tournament she met Trump, who invited her to his hotel suite.

Prosecutors questioned Daniels at length about the sexual encounter in Trump's Lake Tahoe hotel suite that led to a $130,000 pay-off to Daniels in the days before the 2016 election – a payment that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges was part of a criminal scheme to violate election and tax laws and preserve Trump’s presidential bid.

“He was very interested in how I went from being a porn star to writing and directing,” Daniels said of Trump, according to MSNBC host Katie Phang.

She continued: “It was at that point he got really quiet and that I should go on his show, I assume, Celebrity Apprentice, ‘The Apprentice.’”

She said she told Trump: “There’s no way they’d ever let me on TV, there’s no way NBC would ever let an adult film actress on television.”

John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia Law School, said the ongoing trial centers on the nitty-gritty of allegedly falsified business records, and that Trump’s defense team is taking every opportunity to malign the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses – particularly Daniels.

But prosecutors looking to paint a complete picture of the alleged scheme – and the salacious encounter at the heart of it – may want to make clear that known micro-manager Trump knew more about Daniels, and interacted with her more than he has said publicly. 

“It's possible that they want to show that there was some communication in this chain to show that Donald Trump knew who she was and it wasn't a total surprise,” Coffee said.

Trump has denied any sexual interaction with Daniels, accused her of an “extortion plot” and said “she knows nothing about me.” 

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, with prosecutors saying that audio recordings, internal business records and witness testimony prove he was scheming to kill damaging stories about extramarital trysts – including with Daniels – ahead of his 2016 campaign. 

Prosecutors are elevating the business records charges to felonies because they allege Trump caused the scheme to conceal an underlying crime. Bragg alleged that Trump tried to “conceal criminal activity, including attempts to violate state and federal election laws." New York’s election conspiracy statute says it’s a misdemeanor to “conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means.”

Trump denies those charges, as well as the affairs. Each count is punishable by up to four years behind bars. 

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Coffee said Daniels likely will not offer first-hand knowledge of the dry but crucial financial machinations behind the alleged scheme’s payments and internal record-keeping – details that witnesses for the prosecution, including former Trump financial employees, have begun to delve into this week. 

Nor is Daniels expected to offer insight into whether the Trump hush-money scheme was perpetrated to influence the 2016 election.

“My guess is there is one sentence or two that they'd like to get in front of the jury, because she herself is not a necessary witness,” Coffee said.

According to Coffee, Daniels’ testimony could also shed light on why Daniels had the encounter with Trump – and allow jurors to empathize with her.

Coffee said Daniels and Trump’s tryst could have reflected a casting couch arrangement, predicated on a hope of appearing on his reality television show.

“I'm not saying that's decisive,” Coffee said. “I'm just saying it might make you look a little bit more understandable.”

In her testimony, Daniels said she saw Trump the next night following the hotel encounter at a nightclub. She said that he would call her on average “once a week, sometimes 2-3 times a week, sometimes not for three weeks.”

He called “with an update or a non-update if he didn’t have one, for Apprentice,” Daniels said.

Prosecutors showed jurors phone logs from Daniels’ phone, as well as Trump’s assistant.

Daniels said she once met with Trump at Trump Tower in 2007. 

And she said the last time she saw him was in summer 2007, when she met with Trump in L.A. “because of the Apprentice.”

She said she told him she was on her period when he tried to make sexual advances.

Daniels said Trump called her afterwards: “Yes, a few more times, one time he said he could not put me on [The Apprentice] and was overruled by someone higher up. He tried to call one more time and I did not answer.”

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For years, Trump, his supporters and his lawyers have denied the substance of Daniels’ claims and tried to poke holes in her accounts. They have argued Trump was the victim of scheming by others, particularly Cohen and Daniels.

Trump’s lawyers in the ongoing trial referenced “extortion” in their cross-questioning of Daniels’ lawyer Keith Davidson. Davidson also represented model Karen McDougal, who has claimed she had a ten-month affair with Trump. Prosecutors say Trump schemed to pay off Daniels, McDougal and a doorman who falsely claimed Trump had an affair with a housekeeper.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified that Cohen told him to pay McDougal $150,000 to buy and kill the story and that "the boss" would reimburse him. Davidson outlined his role in arranging the hush money. Pecker said that he ultimately called off a deal to sell McDougal's story to Trump.

The National Enquirer's owner ended up agreeing in a non-prosecution agreement to pay a $185,000 fine to the FEC for making an illegal campaign contribution. 

Coffee said prosecutors’ decision to call Daniels could fit right into the defense strategy of pointing to the witnesses’ baggage and credibility issues. Prosecutors themselves have drawn out contradicting or unflattering details about witnesses, as a potential way to deflate defense attacks.

“There is some danger that an intense cross examination of her will make her look like a sordid evil woman,” Coffee said.

One point of contention prosecutors have pointed to: In 2018, Daniels signed statements that denied any affair and denied that she received “hush money” from Trump. 

Daniels later said that Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen “made it sound like [she] had no choice” but to sign those statements.

On Tuesday, Daniels recounted how a man threatened her in 2011 in a Las Vegas parking lot with her daughter and warned her to stay quiet about her tryst with Trump.

Trump’s team has warned jurors that prosecutors would point to Trump’s ongoing interactions with Daniels.

In his opening, Blanche tried to paint those interactions as limited to a potential reality television show appearance: he said Trump “had a series of communications with Daniels” at a time when The Apprentice “was always looking for new opportunities.”

“But ultimately, it did not work out,” Blanche said. 

“You will hear that in the weeks and months leading up to the 2016 election, she saw her chance to make a lot of money: $130,000,” Blanche said. “And it worked. She got an NDA, and Michael Cohen paid her that money. He did that in exchange for her silence. Which, of course, didn’t work.”

Blanche said her testimony would be purely “salacious” and that she wouldn’t provide evidence about the checks and invoices at the heart of prosecutors’ allegations.

Trump’s lawyers asked the judge Tuesday to prevent Daniels from talking in graphic detail about the sexual encounter with Trump. The New York Times reported that the judge “has been sustaining a lot” of those objections and called the level of detail unnecessary. His lawyers asked the judge for a mistrial but were denied.


Still, her testimony painted a picture of a woman reluctant to interact with Trump: she testified about feeling an “imbalance of power" and that she didn’t say no or “anything at all.”

Daniels said that Trump blocked her access to the bathroom door at one point.

She recounted Trump saying: “‘Oh it was great, let’s get together again honey bunch.’ And I just wanted to leave.”

Daniels said she told Trump – a noted germaphobe – how often she was tested for STDs. She also told jurors that she worked at a “condom-mandatory” adult film company. 

Daniels testified that Trump told her not to worry about Melania, who he had married in 2005.

In her testimony, former Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks said Trump was indeed concerned about former first lady Melania Trump’s reaction to stories about extramarital affairs.

Blanche in his opening statements said Trump “fought back… to protect his family, his reputation and his brand. And that is not a crime.”

Daniels, for her part, said she didn’t care about the money offered through the NDA. She said each violation of her NDA would cost her a million dollars.

Daniels unsuccessfully sued Trump for defamation in 2018, when a federal judge found the First Amendment protected Trump’s tweets. Last year, Daniels lost her appeal. 

Also in 2018, Trump’s lawyers said he would not enforce her NDA – which she signed in the days leading up to the 2016 election. Her lawyer said Trump never signed the agreement.


“There is nothing illegal about entering into a non-disclosure agreement,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said in his opening statements. “Period.”

Blanche has said Cohen – a disbarred former lawyer convicted of tax fraud and perjury – was “obsessed with President Trump” and wants to see him behind bars.

The Trump camp’s description of the payments to Daniels have shifted over the years, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denying in March 2018 that Trump knew of any payments.

In May 2018, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in an interview with Fox News said Trump reimbursed Cohen. 

Trump then said Cohen was reimbursed through a monthly legal retainer – an argument put forth by his defense lawyers in the ongoing criminal trial.

In 2018, Cohen told The New York Times that he paid Daniels with his own money and that neither the Trump Organization nor campaign reimbursed him. Watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint claiming the payment was an “in-kind contribution” to Trump’s campaign, but the FEC failed to support their general counsel’s recommendation to investigate amid partisan deadlock

Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to election finance violations, and said the Trump Organization reimbursed him.

In a 2018 interview, Trump said the payments “didn’t come out of the campaign; they came from me."

In her testimony Friday, Hicks said Trump told her that Cohen had paid Daniels to protect Trump “out of the kindness of his own heart.”

But when questioned by a prosecutor if that act was consistent with her interactions with Cohen, she said: “I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person, or selfless person. He’s the kind of person who seeks credit.”

On Monday, former Trump Organization controller Jeff McConney testified that he was told Trump was reimbursing Cohen for an unknown reason. McConney said former Trump chief financial officer Allan Weisselberg told him the payments should be “grossed up” to help cover Cohen’s state, federal and city taxes. 

McConney also said that nine of 11 checks to Cohen came from Trump's personal account, that Trump signed the checks from the Oval Office, and that the accounting department labeled the payments as “legal expenses.”

By Marina Villeneuve

Marina Villeneuve is a staff reporter for Salon covering Trump's legal battles and other national news focusing on major legal and political narratives.

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