The central players in Trump’s ‘hush money’ criminal trial

Donald Trump will be a mostly passive observer as his fate is determined by 12 ordinary New Yorkers chosen to decide the first ever criminal case brought against a former US president beginning Monday.

Figures from Trump’s past as a real estate tycoon and reality TV star are expected to — under the glare of the world’s media — recount in detail the sordid saga of the billionaire’s alleged extramarital affair and the subsequent backroom attempt to prevent his infidelities from being made public during the 2016 election.

Here are the main characters expected to take leading roles in the proceedings.

Stormy Daniels

the adult film star at the centre of the allegations

Louisiana-born Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, started stripping at 17 and went on to become one of the US’s most successful adult entertainment stars, as well as producer and director.

Daniels has claimed that in 2006, she reluctantly had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump, then a real estate tycoon and reality TV personality, who suggested he could get her on the next season of The Apprentice. Trump, who had married his third wife Melania a year prior, has always denied this took place.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence over the alleged affair. Daniels subsequently broke a non-disclosure agreement and went public about the encounter while Trump was president.

She is expected to testify at trial, after Trump’s team were unsuccessful in their attempts to preclude her from appearing, arguing she would use the event to “monetise” her story.

Michael Cohen

the former trump ‘fixer’ turned state’s witness

A self-described “Manhattan attorney and businessman on the make”, Cohen entered the Trump universe in 2006, having admired the billionaire since his teens, during which he read Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, twice.

He rose to be vice-president at the Trump Organization and soon became Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, aggressively going after his boss’s critics in person and in the media, especially in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Cohen’s payment of $130,000 in hush money to Daniels — which he says he made using cash obtained by refinancing his home, only to be later surreptitiously reimbursed by Trump — is at the heart of the Manhattan case.

In 2018, he pleaded guilty to a plethora of federal charges, including lying to banks, campaign finance violations and tax evasion at his New York taxi medallion company. Cohen, who publicly split with Trump at the same time, was sentenced to three years in prison, and was subsequently found guilty of lying to Congress.

He has since become a vocal Trump critic, writing two books excoriating his former employer, whom he has called a “conman” and an “organised crime don”. He is expected to be the star witness at the trial, during which prosecutors will seek to elicit testimony that he paid off Daniels on Trump’s orders.

Alvin Bragg

the manhattan district attorney who was the first to charge a former president

Born and raised in Harlem, where he still lives, Bragg, a Democrat, attended Harvard and became a federal prosecutor, as well as a senior lawyer at the New York attorney-general’s office, before being elected as Manhattan district attorney in 2021.

He inherited a sprawling network of interrelated investigations into Trump from his predecessor, Cyrus Vance, and chose to go forward with the prosecution of the former president’s businesses over tax fraud, winning a criminal conviction against the real estate companies in 2022.

A few months later, an emboldened Bragg brought criminal charges against the former president himself, in a historic indictment over the hush money payments. He has since been the target of much social media vitriol, being branded a “thug” and a “degenerate” by Trump, and has been subject to at least one confirmed death threat.

Although his deputies handle arguments and filings to the court, Bragg has attended most of the hearings in the case, sitting close to his team and occasionally engaging them in conversation. He has said little outside the courtroom, choosing to make his arguments mostly via legal filings.

Todd Blanche

the lawyer who left a big-name firm to lead trump’s criminal defence

A former paralegal in the Manhattan US attorney’s office who went to law school at night and worked his way up to become a federal prosecutor, Todd Blanche left a career at elite Wall Street firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in April 2023 to represent Donald Trump in the hush money case.

Widely considered to be among the more professional and experienced members of Trump’s legal team, Blanche has shied away from making explosive statements to the press, choosing instead to vigorously defend his client in court, even when doing so has provoked the judge’s ire.

In a hearing last month, Judge Juan Merchan called Blanche’s attempt to imply that a late document dump of potential evidence was a deliberate ploy by prosecutors “really disconcerting” and admonished the lawyer for not being able to back up such a “serious” claim.

He has repeatedly echoed his client’s contention that the case, and its timing, amounts to “election interference” by the DA’s office.

Blanche, who is expected to cross-examine key witnesses like Michael Cohen, has so far been unsuccessful in numerous attempts to get the charges against Trump dropped, on the grounds of bias by the court or presidential immunity, among other arguments.

Juan Merchan

the judge presiding over the first criminal trial OF a former us president

A former state prosecutor who worked for the New York attorney-general before becoming a family court judge, Merchan previously enjoyed a relatively quiet tenure on the Manhattan bench.

But the Colombia-born jurist quickly rose to national prominence when overseeing the tax fraud case trial against the Trump Organization in 2022.

He has thus far maintained a relatively neutral tone when dealing with Trump lawyers, only expressing exasperation when confronted with what he sees as frivolous or repetitive interventions from the former president’s team. Early on in the case, he acknowledged that “Mr Trump is different” to other defendants, and said he was “bending over backwards . . . to make sure he is given every opportunity possible to advance his candidacy”.

Outside of the courtroom, Merchan, who has in the past donated to Democratic candidates, and his daughter, who works for a consultancy that advises Democratic politicians, have been the subject of intense media scrutiny after being publicly attacked as partisans by Trump.

Merchan has thus far declined requests from Trump’s team that he recuse himself from the trial because of an alleged conflict of interest.

Donald Trump

The former president in unprecedented legal trouble

Trump, the former president and current presumptive Republican nominee, will be seated at the defence table four days a week during the trial.

His antics in various civil cases over the past year or so have made headlines, but Trump has been uncharacteristically obsequious in previous appearances in front of Merchan, letting his lawyers do most of the talking.

Outside of the courtroom, he has railed against the judge, the district attorney, and their family members, before a gag order was imposed. At a press conference on Friday, Trump said he would “absolutely” testify in his own defence at trial.

The 77-year-old, who has previously said he would be glad to go to prison for “speaking the open and obvious TRUTH”, is unlikely to face jail time even if convicted, as the charges brought against him are relatively minor.

There is nothing to stop him running for president in any event, but if elected he would be the first felon to enter the White House. Trump would also not be able to pardon himself as president, as he has no authority over New York state convictions. He is still facing three other criminal indictments, but it is unclear whether any of those would go to trial before the November election.

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