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Witnesses in Trump's hush money trial reveal a world of 'extortion'


We begin this hour worth criminal trial in New York City of former President Trump. He's accused of falsifying business records to try to squelch damaging information before the 2016 election. The second week of testimony has just concluded, and it evoked a hidden world of information brokers, tabloids, money exchanged for secrets. NPR's Andrea Bernstein joins us. Andrea, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, great to talk to you.

SIMON: We heard this week from Keith Davidson, the former lawyer for both Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model, and adult film actress Stormy Daniels. He arranged hush money payments for both. What's his business model?

BERNSTEIN: So I think all of us have been talking so much about the transactions behind this trial - $150,000 paid to McDougal by the National Enquirer to keep quiet about an affair, $130,000 paid by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, to Daniels, to buy her silence - that we've become kind of inured to what is actually going on. And this week when Davidson testified, it really came through.

SIMON: And what was that?

BERNSTEIN: So Davidson is a Hollywood lawyer and clients come to him when they have some kind of negative information about a celebrity. And then he goes to work for them. He said he arranged settlements that included consideration for his clients. He rejected the term hush money. But the defense practically called it something else - extortion. Even the prosecution tripped up when Davidson tried to defend a false statement he'd put out by saying it was technically true to deny that Trump had an affair with Daniels because it was an encounter, not a romantic relationship.

So what is striking about all this testimony is how fully someone who wanted to be president of the United States understood this world and how it worked and how he might use it to his advantage.

SIMON: Andrea, how does all of this relate to the prosecution's argument that Donald Trump falsified his business records?

BERNSTEIN: In order for that to be a felony in New York, there has to be an underlying crime - in this case, an alleged conspiracy to illegally influence the outcome of the election. And the first witness in the case, David Pecker, the former National Enquirer publisher, walked us through that. Just making an arrangement with Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen to keep an eye out for information brokers like Davidson and buy up their stories and, quote, "take them off the market," all to help Trump's campaign, he said.

SIMON: Boy, we've heard the name Michael Cohen a lot recently and at this trial. Anything new about him that's emerged in the course of this trial?

BERNSTEIN: I'm not sure if it's intentional, but a real image is emerging of him as someone no one likes. Davidson said he would often make legal threats to bankrupt Stormy Daniels - that is, Cohen would - saying things like he would rain down legal hell upon her, and you don't know who you are effing dealing with - things like that.

And Hope Hicks, who was a senior communications aide in the campaign and at the White House, said yesterday that Trump - by then the president, and the full story of Stormy Daniels had broken - at that time, he told her Cohen had made the $130,000 payment out of the kindness of his heart and didn't tell anyone. And when prosecutors asked if she believed that about Cohen, she said, quote, "it would be out of character for Michael. I didn't know Michael to be an especially charitable or selfless person." Even Cohen's banker testified that Cohen was hard to deal with. At one point, Davidson said, no one wants to talk to Cohen, and even some jurors laughed.

SIMON: How does that testimony set up the next steps in the trial?

BERNSTEIN: So the defense's main strategy is to tear up Cohen's credibility to say he's not to be trusted. He went rogue. All of this negative information gives the jury a kind of a permission to dislike Cohen but to believe him anyway or at least learn how to separate the truth of what he says from everything else. Cohen's testimony is expected in the coming weeks.

SIMON: NPR's Andrea Bernstein, thanks so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Andrea Bernstein
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