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Hope Hicks testifies in Trump trial

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We're starting the show with a look at the third week of former President Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial. It ended on Friday with a high-profile witness, Hope Hicks. For years, Hicks was a trusted member of Trump's inner circle. She told jurors about what happened behind the scenes in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, when the unearthed "Access Hollywood" tape seemed to upend the race about a month before Election Day. That's the tape, many will remember, where Trump was recorded bragging about grabbing women's genitals.

Other key witnesses this week included the lawyer who negotiated the alleged hush money payments for Stormy Daniels and another woman that Trump allegedly had an affair with. And I spoke about this week's testimony with NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo, as well as Tristan Snell, the former New York prosecutor who led the state's case against Trump University. I started by asking Snell why that moment of panic in the Trump campaign when the "Access Hollywood" tape surfaced was so important to the criminal case.

TRISTAN SNELL: The criminal case really hinges on what exactly was the motive or the incentive or the purpose behind the actions that were taken. The documents are going to be pretty clear that, of course, payments were made and that then Cohen was reimbursed for them via falsified invoices. The question is why. Falsifying documents is a misdemeanor. Falsifying documents to cover up another crime as a felony. So it really comes down to why did they do it? The context is king here, and that's why so much hinges on the timing and the overall context of what was going on in October of 2016, just after the "Access Hollywood" tape and on the eve of the election. Showing that panic is really, really key to the prosecution being able to say, this was for politics. This was for the campaign. This was not to hide it from Melania.

DETROW: What did you think the defense was trying to do when they were cross-examining Hope Hicks on Friday?

SNELL: They're really trying to show distance between the story that we know we're going to get from Cohen and what other stories they can try to create or manufacture here regarding what Trump was doing. Namely, they're going to try to show - the defense is going to try to show - that Cohen somehow acted alone, that he had gone rogue, that he had determined himself that this was a good idea for Trump's campaign, that Trump didn't direct him to engage in the payment to Stormy Daniels and that he had basically done this on his - of his own volition and independently of anybody else.

I don't really think that they succeeded in that. The fact that Hicks now is under oath on the record, saying that she didn't really believe Trump telling her that is, I think, very compelling, that Hicks' opinion of Cohen is that he would not have done anything like that just because he felt like it was a good idea. He would have wanted to take credit for it and so forth and so on. I think that Hicks' testimony is going to be a buttress supporting Cohen's upcoming testimony.

DETROW: So that was the most high-profile witness this week coming at the end of the week. Ximena, who were the other key witnesses that we heard from?

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Well, the other main key witness was Keith Davidson, and he was the former lawyer for Stormy Daniels, the adult film star, and Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model. Both received payments from Cohen and the National Enquirer magazine, respectively. And Davidson was the lawyer that negotiated these payments and these contracts in order to sell the rights to their stories so that they wouldn't get out.

On the other half of this coin was the catch-and-kill scheme that was created between the National Enquirer, Cohen and Trump to find these stories and buy those rights so that they wouldn't get out. And so we heard from Davidson about how these payments were negotiated. We looked at some of the contracts, and then we also looked at a lot of text messages between him, leadership at the National Enquirer - and he talked about conversations that he'd even had with Cohen related to these payments.

DETROW: Can you tell us about the what have we done moment that came up in the text messages from election night 2016, when Trump had been elected president?

BUSTILLO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So Davidson says that he didn't do these deals to help Trump win, but he knew that their actions would benefit the campaign. And on election night 2016, he texted Dylan Howard, the editor of the National Enquirer that they were working with, to close this payment deal. And he texted him, what have we done? And that was kind of a bit of an alluding to what have we done to help Trump win? That was a point on election night when it looked like Trump was winning enough delegates to, you know, secure the official role. And Dylan Howard just texted back, oh, my God.

And so there are a couple texts like that that do come out. There was another one where Davidson jokes about waiting for his ambassadorship at the White House, you know, and kind of things like that that indicate that they knew that this would benefit the campaign in one way or another.

DETROW: Tristan, what, to you, were the most important angles that the prosecution focused on with Davidson? And same question with the cross-examination from the defense.

SNELL: I think that the key takeaways from Davidson's testimony were just it was additional foundation-laying for what is to come with Cohen. It's, again, corroborating Cohen's account of all of this. Davidson was in direct contact with Cohen throughout this whole time period. That's really the key takeaway from all of this. We have not seen a lot of fireworks from witnesses like Davidson. I think that the less flashy these witnesses are, the more believable they're going to be. I don't really think that the cross-examination of Davidson really accounted for all that much.

They're trying to make some of these people out to be self-interested, but I don't really think that's going to resonate much with the jury. I think the jury's common sense will kick in to say, look, this is not exactly a savory business that we're finding out about here. Nobody looks terrific in any of these situations. This was all a rather shady set of transactions, and...

DETROW: Yeah.

SNELL: ...Only by getting into this kind of set of witnesses and transactions will we actually get to the truth.

DETROW: Tristan Snell, Ximena Bustillo, thanks to both of you. May the fourth be with you both.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

SNELL: Thank you.

DETROW: You can hear the full conversation and get the latest news from the ongoing New York case by downloading NPR's Trump's Trials podcast. 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.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.