Trump trial: Key players at the centre of the former president's criminal case

trump-trial:-key-players-at-the-centre-of-the-former-president's-criminal-case

BBC composite image showing Michael Cohen, Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels

By Madeline Halpert & Phil McCausland

BBC News, New York

When Donald Trump sits at the defence table in the wood-panelled Manhattan courtroom over the next several weeks, he will be joined by a cast of characters who could have been drawn from the call sheet of a Hollywood blockbuster. Opening statements in the first criminal trial of a former US president are expected on Monday.

There are a slate of intriguing potential witnesses who could be called to testify, including an adult film actress, a fixer-turned-star-witness, a loyal money-man convicted of tax fraud, a tabloid newspaper publisher and others.

A white-collar defence lawyer who has bet his career on defending Mr Trump is leading the former president’s defence team. Meanwhile, Manhattan’s first black district attorney has assembled a crack team of Manhattan prosecutors who are very familiar with Mr Trump and his organisation.

And the entire case is overseen by a seasoned New York Supreme Court judge who is well aware of Mr Trump’s courtroom troubles and behaviour.

Mr Trump faces 34 charges of falsifying business records to disguise a hush-money payment to a woman with whom he allegedly had an affair. He has pleaded not guilty and denies having the affair. Below are the central players to know in the historic case.

Media caption,

Watch: Our New York correspondent sets out what’s at stake in Trump’s unprecedented trial?

The New York judge

Justice Juan Merchan – the seasoned New York jurist – has previously spent time with Mr Trump in a Manhattan courtroom. He presided over the Trump Organization’s tax fraud case that resulted in a hefty fine and jail time for the company’s chief financial officer, Alan Weisselberg.

That means the judge is well acquainted with Mr Trump’s orbit and his courtroom tactics to delay, deny and deflect. That behaviour will likely draw Justice Merchan’s ire. While he may be soft-spoken, he has earned the reputation of being a no-nonsense jurist. He has already shut down Mr Trump once during jury selection.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump has claimed on social media that “there has virtually never been a more conflicted judge than this one”, and he has attacked Justice Merchan’s daughter – who is employed by a firm that works with Democrats. Mr Trump has since been barred from speaking about the judge’s family.

The Manhattan prosecutors

Alvin Bragg – the Manhattan district attorney – became the first black man to lead the Manhattan District Attorney’s office when he was elected in November 2021. He took over the investigation into Mr Trump and announced that his office would bring felony charges against the former president last April.

Mr Bragg has adopted a novel legal theory that will turn a misdemeanour – falsifying business records – into a felony. He has alleged that Mr Trump changed the business records to cover up a second crime – the violation of New York campaign-finance laws. His office alleges that the Trump campaign sought to hide the affair from voters ahead of the 2016 election.

Legal experts have mixed views about whether the gambit will work, but Mr Bragg has pulled together an experienced team of prosecutors who are very familiar with Mr Trump to make the case.

Joshua Steinglass helped lead the prosecution of the Trump Organization, which led to a conviction, and was then added to this team. Mr Steinglass, who will direct the prosecutors’ efforts at trial, has previously tried high-profile murder and manslaughter cases and other violent crimes.

The prosecution team also includes Susan Hoffinger, the chief of the office’s investigations division who previously worked on the Trump Organization tax case; Christopher Conroy, who has worked on the investigations of Mr Trump the longest; and Rebecca Mangold, a prosecutor who specialises in economic crimes.

The former president’s defence team

Image source, Getty Images

Todd Blanche – Trump’s top trial lawyer – was a former federal prosecutor, registered Democrat and a New York City resident, but he has tossed that all aside. Mr Blanche left a lucrative position as a partner at a Wall Street law firm, became a Republican and moved to Florida to take on the biggest client of his career – Mr Trump.

Once a colleague of Alvin Bragg, the lawyer prosecuting the former president, Mr Blanche will now be sitting on the other side of the courtroom from him. It will only be for the second time. He has only served as a defence attorney in one other criminal case that went to trial.

Susan Necheles – Trump lawyer – has represented Mr Trump in cases since 2021, but she has a long history of defending troubled politicians, real-estate developers and organised-crime figures – such as Venero Mangano, an underboss of the Genovese crime family with the nickname Benny Eggs. She represented the Trump Organization when it was convicted of criminal tax fraud and given a $1.6 million fine in December 2022.

Gedalia Stern, a partner in Ms Necheles law firm, and Emil Bove, a former federal prosecutor, are also on Mr Trump’s defence team.

The potential witnesses

Stormy Daniels – the adult film star – says she met Mr Trump in 2006 at a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada. Ms Daniels – real name Stephanie Clifford – was 27 years old at the time, and a rising star in the adult film industry. She claims that Mr Trump propositioned her, and the two had sex soon after their introduction.

Image source, Getty Images

Mr Trump denies the encounter happened, but Ms Daniels alleges that a $130,000 (£105,000) hush-money payment she received from Michael Cohen – a lawyer for the Trump Organization – just before the 2016 election was to keep her silent about the affair.

Since her allegations became public, she has become a frequent target of Mr Trump and his allies, but she has said that she is committed to testifying against the former president.

Michael Cohen – the fixer – started working as Mr Trump’s personal lawyer in 2006. He pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance crimes in 2018 over making the hush-money payment to Ms Daniels, but he maintains that he sent the money at Mr Trump’s direction.

He alleges that the former president aimed to conceal the scheme and avoid scandal by reimbursing Mr Cohen via a series of payments that were recorded as legal expenses. Mr Trump has called his former confidant a liar, and his legal team has attempted to block Mr Cohen’s testimony.

Media caption,

Watch: How Trump and Cohen’s friendship soured over the years

At one time, Mr Cohen said he would take a bullet for the former president. But he later became a key witness in investigations of Mr Trump – including Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations of the Trump campaign colluding with the Kremlin.

Allen Weisselberg – the convicted money-man – will be a regular feature of the criminal trial, though he is unlikely to testify. The former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Mr Weisselberg allegedly arranged for Mr Trump to reimburse the hush-money payment and helped cover this up.

Mr Weisselberg is no stranger to the former president’s legal troubles. In August 2022, the Trump Organization executive pleaded guilty to tax fraud, the falsification of records and other crimes. The charges were brought during the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation of the Trump Organization.

Image source, Getty Images

As part of his plea deal, he served 100 days in prison, and he also agreed to testify in the ongoing case against Mr Trump’s company. He later testified in the New York civil trial against Mr Trump, but he would have to plead guilty to two charges of lying under oath soon after. He was sentenced to five further months in prison on 10 April.

David Pecker – the tabloid publisher – is former CEO of American Media Inc (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer. When he led that tabloid, he pursued a practice known as “catch-and-kill” to support Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential run. He did this by buying the rights to stories that cast Mr Trump in a bad light. He would then decline to publish them, which effectively suppressed the damaging information.

Karen McDougal – the Playboy model – claims to have had an illicit affair with Mr Trump in 2006 and 2007, which the former president also denies. She says she was paid $150,000 by American Media Inc, the parent company of the National Enquirer, for her story. It forced her to keep quiet about the purported tryst.

Dino Sajudin – the former Trump Tower doorman – could also take the stand. Mr Trump’s team allegedly paid him hush-money as well, after he tried to sell a story to the National Enquirer about an unsubstantiated rumour that Mr Trump once fathered a child out of wedlock.

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