Who is Michael Cohen and the other key players in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial?

<span>Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate on 12 April 2024, in Palm Beach, Florida.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate on 12 April 2024, in Palm Beach, Florida.Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s historic criminal trial over claims he illegally reimbursed Michael Cohen for hush-money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels is under way. Here’s a look at some of the people playing key roles in the case.

Related: Trump’s hush-money trial at a glance: gag order hearing and Pecker testimony

Donald Trump, defendant

The Republican nominee for president is the defendant. Prosecutors allege he orchestrated a $130,000 payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, when she threatened to go public with allegations of an affair on the eve of the 2016 election, then conspired with others to cover up the payment. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. He denies he had an affair with Daniels.

Michael Cohen, key witness

Cohen was once one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants and enforcers. He facilitated the payment to Daniels, funnelling $130,000 through a shell company called Essential Consultants LLC. Trump arranged to pay him back in monthly installments of $35,000. Trump allegedly worked with Cohen and Trump Organization officials to conceal the purpose of those payments on business records.

Earlier in 2016, Cohen facilitated a similar payment to a different woman, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who also claimed an affair with Trump. In that case, Cohen arranged for McDougal to be paid $150,000 by the National Enquirer.

Cohen initially said he paid for the scheme with his own money. “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign … reimbursed me for the payment,” he said in 2018. “What I did defensively for my personal client, and my friend, is what attorneys do for their high-profile clients. I would have done it in 2006. I would have done it in 2011. I truly care about him and the family – more than just as an employee and an attorney.”

But in the same year, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes including campaign finance charges. At a plea hearing, he admitted he had facilitated the payments to the women at the direction of Trump. He served a three-year prison sentence, most under home confinement. He was also disbarred in New York in 2019, after pleading guilty to lying to Congress.

Cohen faces serious credibility issues. Last month, a federal judge suggested Cohen may have committed perjury as recently as last October: testifying in a civil case against Trump, Cohen said he hadn’t committed tax evasion even though he pleaded guilty to it in 2018. Trump’s lawyers are expected to make Cohen’s credibility a centerpiece of their case.

Related: Michael Cohen gives wistful Trump trial testimony: ‘I would only answer to him’

Stormy Daniels, key witness

Daniels, an adult film star, says she met Trump in 2006 at a celebrity golf tournament. Daniels was 27, Trump was 60. Daniels has always said the sex was consensual.

Just before the 2016 election, Daniels said she was approached by Cohen and offered $130,000 not to disclose the alleged affair. She accepted the money. “The story was coming out again. I was concerned for my family and their safety,” Daniels told 60 Minutes in 2018.

After the Wall Street Journal broke the story of the payment, Daniels sued Trump to release her from the non-disclosure agreement. She said it was void because it had not been signed by Trump.

Daniels testified in court on Tuesday.

Related: Stormy Daniels testimony was lurid and powerful – but Trump voters don’t care

David Pecker, key witness

Pecker was a key Trump ally and chief executive of American Media Inc (AMI), publisher of the National Enquirer.

Pecker helped Trump by purchasing the rights to potentially damaging stories and then never publishing them, a practice known as “catch and kill”. In 2015, AMI paid $30,000 to Dino Sajudin, a former doorman at Trump Tower, who was trying to sell a story that Trump had allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock.

In June of 2016, AMI paid Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, $150,000 to suppress a story about an affair. AMI bought the story with the understanding Trump would reimburse them, according to the indictment. Cohen would later release a tape of him and Trump discussing repaying Pecker.

In 2016, Dylan Howard, then editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer, alerted Pecker that Daniels had potentially damaging information about Trump, according to the indictment. Pecker advised Howard to reach out to Cohen, who negotiated the deal with Daniels’ lawyer.

In court, Pecker was the prosecution’s first witness – laying out the details of the “catch and kill” scheme with the protection of his own non-prosecution agreement, as Trump looked on.

Hope Hicks, key witness

Trump’s campaign secretary in 2016 and a White House aide thereafter, Hicks has been closer to Trump than most. In dramatic testimony last week, she described a “crisis” for the 2016 presidential bid around the release of a tape in which Trump talked about grabbing women by the genitals. Like other witnesses she painted a picture of Trump as a man fully in control of his affairs, saying: “We were all just following his lead.” She was also reduced nearly to tears, when asked to describe how she came to work for Trump – who sat in the courtroom, watching.

Keith Davidson, key witness

The lawyer who represented Daniels and McDougal was another key witness. Describing dealings with and regarding McDougal, he said: “One explanation I was given is they were trying to build Karen into a brand and didn’t want to diminish her brand. And the second was an unspoken understanding that there was an affiliation between David Pecker and Donald Trump and that AMI wouldn’t run this story, any story related to Karen, because it would hurt Donald Trump.”

Allen Weisselberg, key figure

Weisselberg, 76, is the former chief financial 0fficer of the Trump Organization. He worked for the company for more than 50 years, and has refused to turn on Trump even as he has been sentenced to prison twice. He played a key role in concealing the purpose of Trump’s payments to Cohen, according to the indictment.

As the election approached in 2016, Trump didn’t want to make the $130,000 payment to Daniels himself, so he allegedly asked Weisselberg and Cohen to figure out a plan. The two men agreed Cohen would be repaid a total of $420,000. Weisselberg arrived at that number so that Cohen could claim the payments as income and come out ahead after taxes. He approved Cohen’s request for reimbursement and the Trump Organization cut Cohen three checks for “legal expenses” from January to March 2017. The remaining nine checks came directly from Trump’s trust, and were signed by Trump and Weisselberg.

Weisselberg is not charged in the hush-money case but he pleaded guilty in 2022 to tax fraud and served 100 days of a five-month prison sentence. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to an additional five months in prison after pleading guilty to perjury during Trump’s civil fraud trial.

Jeffrey McConney, key witness

McConney is the former controller of the Trump Organization who worked at the company from 1987 until 2023. McConney forwarded Cohen’s invoices to the Trump Organization accounting department with instructions to record them as legal expenses, according to the indictment.

McConney testified during the Trump civil fraud trial last year, breaking down in tears and saying he left his longtime job after investigations into Trump’s business dealings.

On Monday, McConney testified under subpoena, detailing Trump’s awareness of and involvement in his hush-money schemes. He was followed to the witness stand by Deborah Tarasoff, from the Trump Organization accounts department. She also testified to Trump’s close interest in payments made – confirming Trump’s signature on some checks to Cohen.

Alvin Bragg, district attorney

Bragg, a Democrat, was elected in 2021 to be the top prosecutor in Manhattan. Before that, he was largely unknown. During his campaign, he touted how many times he had sued Trump, but this trial is the biggest moment in his career. Friends have described Bragg as apolitical, though that hasn’t stopped Trump from attacking him as a political prosecutor.

Bragg has had a rocky relationship with the case. When he took office, a criminal investigation into Trump was under way. Bragg declined to move quickly with that case, which was focused on Trump inflating his financial assets, prompting the prosecutors to resign and make their displeasure known. Bragg ultimately moved forward with the hush-money case.

Juan Merchan, judge

Merchan has been a jurist in New York for nearly two decades. He was appointed to the New York family court in 2006 and has been a criminal trial judge since 2009. He was born in Colombia, grew up in New York City and was a prosecutor before becoming a judge.

He has shown a willingness to move the case quickly, rebuffing efforts by Trump and his lawyers to delay. He expanded a gag order against Trump after the former president repeatedly attacked the judge’s daughter, who has worked for various Democratic candidates. In court, Merchan has had to deal with Trump’s contempt for regular order, issuing repeated fines for contempt.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lawyer

Blanche is a former federal prosecutor who gave up his partnership at a white-collar firm to represent Trump. In addition to the hush-money case, he is helping represent Trump in the two federal criminal cases he faces.

While Blanche is a well-respected lawyer, according to the New York Times, this is only his second trial as a defense lawyer. He has had to deal with a uniquely unruly client – seeing Trump repeatedly fined for contempt and even threatened with incarceration if he cannot control himself in matters surrounding the case.