Former aide tells Trump trial of 2016 campaign 'crisis'

Former president Donald Trump has denounced the case against him as 'election interference at the highest level' (Charly TRIBALLEAU)
Former president Donald Trump has denounced the case against him as 'election interference at the highest level' (Charly TRIBALLEAU)

A former close advisor to Donald Trump testified in court Friday about the "crisis" that engulfed his 2016 presidential campaign after a tape emerged of him bragging about groping women.

Hope Hicks was the first ex-member of Trump's inner circle to take the stand in his historic criminal trial -- in which he stands charged of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to a porn star to avoid another scandal before the 2016 election.

"(I) was a little stunned," Hicks said of the now infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women's genitalia.

"There was consensus among us all that the tape was damaging, this was a crisis," she added.

Hicks was subpoenaed to appear by the prosecution, which has argued that the panic engendered by the tape triggered a Trump campaign effort to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels over her claim of a sexual encounter with the married Trump.

At the trial in New York, Trump is accused of reimbursing his then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment to Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton.

The trial and its revelations have gripped the legal and political establishment as Trump seeks to re-take the White House from President Joe Biden at November polls.

Hicks admitted being nervous when she started to testify, and later burst into tears under cross-examination from Trump's often forceful attorney Emil Bove, prompting the judge to order a break.

Hicks was a key player in the final stages of Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign when hush money payments to Daniels were allegedly made.

"I reported to Mr Trump" during the campaign, Hicks told the court, describing him as "very involved."

- Ultimate insider -

Hicks, then aged 26, joined Trump's longshot campaign in 2015, handpicked from a job at his daughter Ivanka's clothing business, becoming one of his most trusted lieutenants.

He later cut the former model out after her criticism emerged of his conduct when Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to try to overturn his election defeat.

But she reportedly still has cordial relations with the Trump family.

Hicks also told the jury Friday of Trump's response to a Wall Street Journal story claiming he had an affair with a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, whom he then allegedly paid off -- a case echoing the alleged affair with Daniels.

"He was concerned about how it would be viewed by his wife" Melania, Hicks said.

Trump declined to answer reporters' questions about Hicks during a break in proceedings.

Earlier this week, prosecutors urged Judge Juan Merchan to fine Trump for more violations of a gag order imposed to protect trial participants.

Merchan, who threatened Trump with jail time on Tuesday for further gag order violations, heard arguments from both sides Friday.

Unusually, the judge started the day's session by directly addressing Trump, who had claimed that the gag order meant he would not be able to testify freely.

Merchan stressed that Trump had an "absolute right to testify" in court, and that the gag "only applies to extrajudicial statements... outside of court."

Trump responded: "Thank you."

Merchan has already fined Trump $9,000 for violations of his gag order so far.

In addition to the New York case, Trump has been indicted in Washington and Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He also faces charges in Florida of allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House.