Hope Hicks shares dramatic accounts of Trump’s reaction to ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, affair claims and more

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks took the stand Friday in Donald Trump’s New York criminal trial, a tense reunion for the former president and a woman who was once one of his closest aides.

“I’m really nervous,” Hicks said as she took the stand as the ninth witness to be called in the case, and led the jury through a dramatic inside account of Trump’s reaction to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that nearly derailed his first presidential bid.

She later broke down in tears at the start of her cross-examination by Trump attorney Emil Bove, when he asked about the Trump family having given her an opportunity to work at their company, leading to a short recess while she composed herself.

Hicks started work at the Trump Organization in 2014 before going to work on Trump’s 2016 campaign and then his administration. Another witness, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, said she was in and out of a key meeting he had with Trump and his then-lawyer Michael Cohen in 2015, where Pecker agreed to help them suppress stories that could hurt Trump’s campaign.

Cohen and Pecker are key figures in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump. Prosecutors say the three men organized a scheme that resulted in Cohen’s paying adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump in 2006. Trump later repaid Cohen in payments the DA says he falsely classified as legal expenses.

Trump pleaded not guilty to all 34 counts of falsifying business records. He has also denied having an affair with Daniels or another woman at the center of the case, former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Hicks said Friday she has not spoken to Trump in almost two years.

She told the jury when she worked on Trump’s campaign as his press secretary beginning in 2015, they would speak multiple times a day. Asked how large their press team was, Hicks said, “It was just me and Mr. Trump” until the later stages of his successful run, and she lauded his communications and branding skills.

“We were all just following his lead,” she said.

Asked if she was in and out of a meeting with Pecker, she said she didn’t remember but that it was “possible.” She said she remembered Trump praising articles the Enquirer had done slamming his then-Republican rivals Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz. She recalled that Trump called an article that tried to link Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination “great reporting.” Pecker testified that the piece was a concoction.

She said the size of the staff had grown by Oct. 2016, which is when she got an email from a Washington Post reporter with an “extremely urgent request” for comment on what subsequently became known as the “Access Hollywood” tape. The 2005 hot mic recording includes audio of Trump making lewd comments about women and saying he can grope them without their consent.

Hicks said she was “very concerned” by the email — both about the contents “and the lack of time to respond.” She said she forwarded the request on to campaign leadership, including Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and Jason Miller. She eventually found them altogether preparing for Trump’s debate with Hillary Clinton.

She said Trump asked her what was going on, and she read the email aloud to him. She said she had a vague recollection of starting to read the transcript of his remarks that the Post reporter had sent, and that Trump then he read the rest of it to himself. “That doesn’t sound like something I would say,” she recalled him saying.

When they began talking about how to respond, Trump suggested the tape was not a big deal and “not anything to get so upset over,” Hicks said, and he called it “pretty standard stuff for two guys” talking.

Hicks said she was “stunned” when she eventually heard the tape and had a sense it would be a “massive story” and a “crisis.”

The campaign put out a short statement from Trump calling the remarks “locker room banter.” He later tweeted a video statement, where he said “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” before going on to attack Clinton.

Hicks said she later reached out to Cohen to ask about another potentially damaging tape. Hicks did not go into detail about that call before the jury but previously told the House Judiciary Committee she’d asked Cohen to reach out to TMZ founder Harvey Levin about the existence of a rumored tape involving Trump and Russian prostitutes.

The claim had been included in the so-called Steele dossier — the salacious, largely unverified collection of Trump’s links to Russia that was assembled by a former British spy. She later said she confirmed such a tape did not exist.

Hicks said another crisis arose just days before Election Day 2016, when the Wall Street Journal asked her for comment about a $150,000 hush money agreement between Enquirer publisher AMI and McDougal. Hicks said she had never heard McDougal’s name before, and reached out to Cohen, who she suspected was lying about not knowing anything about it. She then reached out to Pecker, who said McDougal was being paid for fitness columns and magazine covers and “it was all very legitimate.”

The Journal followed up in a phone call and asked her about allegations that Trump had had a relationship with Daniels as well.

She said she worked with Trump and Cohen on a statement denying the claims. The Journal quoted her as saying, “We have no knowledge of any of this” and that McDougal’s claim of an affair was “totally untrue.”

The story didn’t get much attention from other mainstream media, which she and Cohen celebrated in text messages displayed to the jury.

Hicks said Trump was concerned about the impact the story might have on his wife Melania, and asked that newspapers not be delivered to their residence on the day it came out. “I don’t think he wanted anyone in his family to be hurt or embarrassed by anything that happened during the campaign. He wanted them to be proud of them,” Hicks said.

She said the Daniels allegations came back to life in 2018 when the Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen had paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about her claim of a sexual encounter in 2006. She said Trump later told her that Cohen had done so on his own to protect Trump from false allegations and had not told him about it. Hicks said she thought that would be completely out of character for Cohen.

“I did not know Michael to be an especially charitable or selfless person. He is a kind of person who seeks credit,” she said.

On cross-examination, Hicks said Cohen was not part of Trump’s presidential bid but would annoy staff by trying to insert himself into the campaign. “He liked to call himself a ‘fixer’ or ‘Mr. Fix-it,’ and it was only because he first broke it that he was able to come and fix it,” she said.

As proceedings began on Friday, Judge Juan Merchan addressed an inaccurate claim Trump made outside of court a day earlier.

In remarks outside the courtroom on Thursday, Trump said, “I’m not allowed to testify. I’m under a gag order” that he said he would be appealing. “I’m not allowed to testify because this judge who’s totally conflicted, has me under an unconstitutional gag order,” he reiterated.

Merchan said Friday rebutted Trump’s claims. “It does not prohibit you from taking the stand,” Merchan said. Commonly known as a “gag order,” the judge’s decision is actually called an order “restricting extrajudicial statements” — statements made outside of court.

“As the name of the order indicates, it only applies to extrajudicial statements,” Merchan said. Trump then mouthed, “Thank you.”

Merchan earlier this week found Trump in criminal contempt and fined him $9,000 for violating that order with nine of his social media and campaign posts. Prosecutors argued Thursday he should be held in contempt for additional alleged violations. Merchan has yet to rule on the motion.

Updated: —