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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stormy Daniels tells a story of sex with Trump as he listens in disgust

Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress who said she had an affair with President Donald Trump before he was elected, is interviewed at Politics and Prose in Washington, Dec. 3, 2018. Daniels has said that Trump suggested she might appear on his reality TV show as an inducement for having sex with him. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)

By Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich, Maggie Haberman, Michael Rothfield and Jonathan Sawn

When Donald Trump met Stormy Daniels, their fling seemed fleeting: He was a 60-year-old married mogul at the peak of reality television fame, and she was 27, not half his age, a Louisiana native raised in poverty and headed to pornographic stardom.

But that chance encounter in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, some two decades ago set off a chain of events that has brought the nation the first criminal trial of an American president.

On Tuesday, Daniels took the stand at that trial, bringing the former president face to face with the porn actor at the center of his case.

The charges stem from her story of a sexual encounter with Trump during that 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, a story she was shopping a decade later, in the closing days of the presidential campaign. Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000 in hush money before Election Day, and the former president is accused of falsifying business records to cover up his reimbursements of Cohen.

Daniels’ fast-paced testimony lasted hours, during which she described a sexual encounter with Trump, 77, that he has long denied. She unspooled salacious details, so much so that the judge balked at some of the testimony, implying it was gratuitously vulgar, and the defense sought a mistrial.

The incident occurred, she said, after the future president invited her to dinner inside his palatial Lake Tahoe hotel suite. He answered the door wearing silk pajamas. When he was rude, she playfully spanked him with a rolled-up magazine. And when she asked about his wife, he told her not to worry, that they didn’t even sleep in the same room — testimony that prompted Trump to shake his head in disgust and mutter “bullshit” to his lawyers.

Daniels then recounted the sex itself in explicit detail. It happened, she said, after she returned from the bathroom where she had freshened her lipstick and found Trump in his boxer shorts and T-shirt. She tried to leave and he blocked her path, though not, she said, in a threatening manner. The sex was brief, she said, and although she never said no, there was a notable “power imbalance.”

“I was staring up at the ceiling, wondering how I got there,” she told the jury, adding that Trump did not wear a condom.

The testimony was an astonishing moment in American political history: a porn actor, across from a former and potentially future president, telling the world what she was once paid to keep quiet about.

Daniels, 45, has told her story widely — to prosecutors, reporters, her friends and more — but never to jurors, and not with Trump in the room. Her appearance on the stand, which appeared to unnerve Trump and inflame the media frenzy enveloping the trial, aired his dirty laundry, under oath, in mortifying detail.

In this context, Daniels’ story is not just a sordid kiss-and-tell tale; it spotlights what prosecutors say was Trump’s criminality. He is accused of engineering the false business records scheme to cover up all traces of their tryst: the hush money, the repayment to Cohen and, yes, the sex.

While the defense cast the testimony as a superfluous smear campaign, Daniels provided prosecutors with some useful details, establishing the fundamental details of the tryst. And she testified that she would have told the same story in 2016, had she not taken the hush money from Trump’s fixer.

But her testimony, at times, seemed problematic for prosecutors who had called her. Daniels testified that she had not been motivated by money, which could draw skepticism from jurors, who have heard that she accepted the $130,000.

“My motivation wasn’t money,” she said. “It was motivated out of fear, not money.”

The jury also saw the judge, Juan Merchan, scold Daniels at least twice, instructing her to stick to the questions asked of her. At one point, he even issued his own objection, interrupting her testimony as she began to describe the sexual position she and Trump were in.

Merchan, generally a stoic presence with a tight grip over his courtroom, showed rare exasperation as the testimony veered in a scurrilous direction and the trial took on a circuslike atmosphere.

He also asked Daniels to slow down. She was a rapid-fire talker, prone to interspersing her testimony with laughter and lengthy asides.

Outside the jury’s presence, the judge acknowledged that “there were some things better left unsaid” and suggested that Daniels might have credibility issues.

Yet he rejected the defense’s bid for a mistrial, instead inviting Trump’s lawyers to mount an aggressive questioning of Daniels.

“The more times this story has changed, the more fodder for cross-examination,” he said.

Daniels joined the trial at a pivotal moment. After two weeks of detailing stories of sex and scandal, prosecutors had a brief interlude Monday to focus on the financial transactions at the center of the case.

In that questioning, prosecutors asked two veterans of the Trump Organization’s accounting department to show jurors the 34 records at the heart of the case. It was the first time the jurors saw the purportedly false documents involving Trump’s reimbursement to Cohen for the hush money: 11 invoices from Cohen, 11 checks to Cohen and 12 entries in Trump’s ledger, which portrayed the payments as normal legal expenses. In the weeks ahead, Cohen is expected to take the stand and connect the dots between the salacious details and the substantive documents.

On Tuesday, however, Daniels’ testimony returned jurors to the smuttier elements of the case.

She began by recounting her difficult childhood in Baton Rouge. Her parents split up when she was young, she said.

She wanted to be a veterinarian, and was editor of her high school newspaper. Eventually, she began stripping, she says, because she earned more doing that than she did shoveling manure at a horse stable.

By the time she met Trump at the golf tournament in 2006, she was a player in the pornographic film business. She was an actress, and would ultimately find her footing as a director and producer.

Asked to identify Trump in the courtroom, she called him out as the man in a navy jacket. Daniels, dressed in all black and wearing glasses, reduced the singular former president to just another man in the courtroom.

She spent much of her testimony describing that first encounter in Lake Tahoe. When she met Trump, she knew he was a golfer and the host of the “The Apprentice,” the reality show that revived Trump’s celebrity for a new generation. In a memorable line, Daniels said she also knew that he was “as old or older than my father.”

Later that day, she said, Trump’s aide approached and invited her to dinner. She says he took her number, but that her initial reaction was “eff no,” abbreviating an expletive.

But her publicist encouraged her: “What could possibly go wrong?”

She then transported jurors inside his hotel room, painting the sprawling suite in minute detail, capturing every aspect down to the color of the tiles.

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