Why is Donald Trump on trial for $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels?

<span>Donald Trump arrives in Atlanta, Georgia, on 10 April 2024.</span><span>Illustration: Alyssa Pointer/Guardian Design</span>
Donald Trump arrives in Atlanta, Georgia, on 10 April 2024.Illustration: Alyssa Pointer/Guardian Design

Back when candidate Donald Trump was just starting to fill stadiums across the US with loyal crowds of supporters, he held a fateful meeting that would set the course for the first criminal trial of a former US president, which kicks off Monday.

At that August 2015 meeting, Trump spoke with David Pecker, then-CEO of American Media, the parent company of tabloid the National Enquirer. Pecker told Trump he could be the “eyes and ears” for Trump’s presidential campaign, on the lookout for any salacious stories people were telling about him. Prosecutors would later call this strategy a “catch and kill” scheme.

Related: Trump’s latest attempt to delay criminal trial in hush-money case fails

As Trump’s campaign began to grow, Pecker learned about an adult film actor who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, the year after he married Melania, and was willing to go public with her story.

With the help of his former fixer Michael Cohen, Trump would allegedly pay Stormy Daniels $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about her story. After Trump became president, prosecutors say, he started reimbursing Cohen for the payment, which he would record in his financial records as legal fees to Cohen.

These payments could land Trump in prison. Prosecutors allege that Trump broke the law by falsifying these business records to hide illegal hush-money payments and protect Trump’s chances during the presidential election.

The former president faces 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. Trump pleaded not guilty to all counts last April. The charges carry a maximum of four years in prison.

“This charge, it can be said, is the bread and butter of our white-collar work,” Alvin Bragg said in April 2023 after he announced the charges. The district attorney said that his office has charged hundreds of people who have violated federal bank-secrecy, sex-crime and tax-evasion laws by charging them with falsifying business records.

Trump’s case “is one with allegations like so many of our white-collar cases, allegations that someone lied again and again to protect their interests and evade the laws to which we are all held accountable,” Bragg said.

Jury selection for the trial in Manhattan starts Monday. Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing the case, said he expects the trial to last about six weeks.

The trial will be Trump’s third over the last year. Trump was fined $450m for inflating the value of his assets on financial statements in his New York fraud trial, and he was fined another $83.3m for defamation against the writer E Jean Carroll. Both were civil trials that did not put Trump, who is appealing both cases, at risk for prison time.

Bragg’s case is the first of four criminal cases against him to go to court. Trump faces a criminal case in Florida over alleged mishandling of classified documents, a case in Washington DC over the January 6 insurrection and a third in Georgia over attempts to overthrow the 2020 election. It is unclear when the Florida and Georgia cases will go to a trial, while the supreme court is considering arguments of presidential immunity in his DC case.

Prosecutors with the Manhattan DA’s office spent years circling Trump while investigating the hush-money payments. The DA’s office first subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents related to the Daniels payment in 2019. The investigation continued when Bragg became district attorney in 2022.

Though the investigation appeared to be drifting after years of simmering under the surface, investigators started presenting evidence in January 2023 to a grand jury that ultimately indicted Trump in March 2023.

A clear narrative about the payments only came to light after the indictment was released. Though the payments had been previously reported, Trump’s role in the process was relatively ambiguous.

During the trial, prosecutors will try to convince the jury that Trump was trying to influence the election. Lawyers will have to prove that Trump was trying to conceal criminal activity when he reimbursed Cohen in 2017. Their strategy focuses on the $130,000 in payments Trump made to Daniels, through Cohen.

In court documents, prosecutors note “with pressure mounting and the election approaching”, Trump appeared desperate to keep Daniels quiet. Cohen paid her on 26 October 2016, just 11 days before election day.

Trump denied the affair with Daniels, but he confirmed in 2018 that he and Cohen had made the payment “to stop the false and extortionist accusations”. Up until that point, Trump had denied the payments.

In the court filings, prosecutors also point to two other alleged incidents of hush-money payments, both carried out by American Media, the National Enquirer’s parent company, rather than Trump himself.

The first was a former Trump Tower doorman, who was trying to sell a story that Trump had had a child out of wedlock with a housekeeper. The second was a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she started an affair with Trump in 2006.

American Media facilitated payments of $30,000 to the doorman and $150,000 to McDougal. The doorman, whose story was ultimately discredited, and McDougal agreed that American Media would have exclusive rights to their stories in exchange for the payment, essentially giving the company the power to quash them.

Although Trump and his associates had conversations about reimbursing American Media for the payment to McDougal, the company backed out of a reimbursement deal.

Soon after Trump won the election, he had a private meeting with Pecker in Trump Tower. He invited Pecker to the inauguration and to the White House in summer 2017 in appreciation for his help during the campaign.

Though prosecutors have not released their official list of witnesses they will call to the stand during the trial, many of the case’s key figures testified in front of the grand jury last year, including Pecker and Cohen. Both are expected to testify along with Daniels, McDougal and those who were in Trump’s inner circle at the time.

To deal with this trial, Trump seems to be taking on a strategy similar to his previous trials, particularly his New York fraud trial, which ended in January. The former president has been furthering his persecution narrative, trying to paint himself as a victim of the court.

His lawyers filed multiple appeals last week to stop or further delay the trial, all long-shot attempts. They argued that prosecutors should not be allowed to present evidence that related to his duties as president and that the case should be moved outside of Manhattan. Both appeals were rejected.

Trump got particularly worked up over the subject of another appeal, which focuses on the daughter of Merchan, who worked for a company that helped with digital campaign work for Democratic candidates. Trump’s lawyers argued that Merchan should recuse himself from the case because of his daughter’s work. The appeals court is still deciding on the appeal, but Merchan said he will not recuse himself.

On social media, Trump went on a rant against the judge and his daughter, calling the judge a “super Trump hater”.

The Truth Social rants are reminiscent of how Trump behaved in his fraud trial last year, directing rants at the judge, Arthur Engoron, and Engoron’s law clerk. During the fraud trial, Trump posted a picture of the law clerk with Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, calling her “Schumer’s girlfriend”. Trump was ultimately fined a total of $15,000 for violating a gag order during the fraud trial.

Merchan has already issued Trump a hefty gag order, barring him from speaking out publicly against any members of the court staff, witnesses, jurors, prosecutors or their families. Merchan expanded the gag order after Trump attacked his daughter on Truth Social.

“It is no longer just a mere possibility or a reasonable likelihood that there exists a threat to integrity of the judicial proceedings,” Merchan wrote in the order. “The threat is very real. Admonitions are not enough, nor is reliance on self-restraint.”

The gag order allows Trump to criticize Merchan, though Trump has suggested he is not deterred by the gag order. On 6 April, Trump on Truth Social called Merchan a “Partisan Hack” who “wants to put me in the clink for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH”.

“I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela – It will be my GREAT HONOR,” Trump wrote.