July 19, 2024

Her voice low, her posture tense, the woman who spent years steering Donald J. Trump through strife and scandal stepped to the witness stand on Friday carrying a different burden. She was there under the fluorescent lights of a dreary Manhattan courtroom, seated 15 feet from the former president she once fiercely defended, to testify at his criminal trial.

“I’m really nervous,” Hope Hicks, the onetime Trump spokeswoman, messaging maestro and all-around adviser, acknowledged to the prosecutor questioning her, declaring what was already obvious to the riveted courtroom.

Ms. Hicks’s unease came to a head hours later as Mr. Trump’s lawyer began to cross-examine her — and she began to cry. As her voice cracked, Mr. Trump locked his eyes on her.

The question that initially unnerved Ms. Hicks was about her time at the Trump Organization, the family’s business, where she had fond memories of working. Ms. Hicks left the stand, and the trial paused so that she could compose herself. She returned minutes later to continue her testimony, occasionally dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The striking show of emotion reflected Ms. Hicks’s discomfort with testifying against a man who launched her career and entrusted her with his reputation. Each time the questioning conjured up another memory of working for Mr. Trump — at his company, on his campaign and finally in his White House — Ms. Hicks appeared to fight back tears.

Ms. Hicks, who fell out of favor with Mr. Trump once it emerged that she had privately voiced anger at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by his supporters, said in her testimony that they had not spoken in nearly two years.

Mr. Trump, who faces up to four years in prison, is on trial for 34 felony charges of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal involving a porn star. The case, brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, is the first criminal prosecution of an American president.

The prosecution summoned Ms. Hicks — against her will — to demonstrate what it says was Mr. Trump’s outsize role in the suppression of that scandal and others.

She testified, interspersing plenty of apologetic compliments, that Mr. Trump was an image-obsessed micromanager. She also acknowledged that it seemed implausible that Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s fixer, would pay hush money to the porn star, Stormy Daniels, without the then-candidate’s say-so.

And Ms. Hicks testified that Mr. Trump had shown awareness of that payoff years after the fact. “Mr. Trump’s opinion,” she said, was that “it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election.”

But she was not totally unhelpful to the defense, providing Mr. Trump’s lawyers grist to argue that their client was a family man, and that his motive for suppressing damning stories might not have been solely to win election but also to protect his home life. That argument could undercut the prosecution’s theory that Mr. Trump authorized the hush-money payment because he was bent on attaining the White House.

Ms. Hicks, who delivered several hours of testimony to a jury of 12 transfixed New Yorkers, transported the courtroom back to the scenes of the 2016 presidential campaign: the 25th floor of Trump Tower, 30,000 feet in the air aboard the plane nicknamed Trump Force One and placing them inside the campaign car on the way to a rally.

It was in these moments, which Ms. Hicks painted in vivid detail, that she and Mr. Trump managed one scandal after another.

The first crisis arose when The Washington Post contacted Ms. Hicks about a recording it obtained in which Mr. Trump had boasted about grabbing women by the genitals. The tape, from the set of “Access Hollywood,” sent the campaign into a frenzy, as a cadre of advisers huddled inside Trump Tower.

Ms. Hicks said she was “a little stunned,” but had a “good sense that this was going to be a massive story and sort of dominate the news cycle for the next several days at least.”

Mr. Trump was upset as well, she said, but one of his early reactions was to tell her that his comments about women “didn’t sound like something he would say.”

The fallout from the tape soon spread, prompting Ms. Daniels to seize the opportunity to sell her story of a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen raced to buy her silence, striking the $130,000 hush-money deal at the heart of the case against the former president. After he made the deal, that crisis, for the time being, was contained.

But in the campaign’s waning days, The Wall Street Journal contacted Ms. Hicks with more damaging news. The newspaper was prepared to report that The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid that had close ties to Mr. Trump, had bought and buried the story of a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump years earlier.

Ms. Hicks first tried to work the campaign’s connections to Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who owned The Journal, so she could “buy a little extra time to deal with this,” she said. When that failed, she called Mr. Cohen, who had a relationship with the tabloid’s publisher, David Pecker.

Mr. Trump, she testified, told her that the affair story was not true, but Ms. Hicks said she did not remember whether he “verbatim” stated that he had no knowledge of that hush-money deal.

The Journal also planned to write about Ms. Daniels, but Ms. Hicks again denied “unequivocally” to a reporter that Mr. Trump had a relationship with the porn star.

Shortly after the story about the Playboy model ran, five days before the election, Ms. Hicks and Mr. Cohen exchanged a series of text messages wishing that it would go away.

“I don’t see it getting much play,” she said, adding that “the media is the worst.”

When Mr. Cohen mentioned how little coverage the story was getting, Ms. Hicks replied: “Keep praying!! It’s working!” (In the courtroom, testifying in a criminal case that sprang in part from that story, Ms. Hicks acknowledged the irony of that particular message.)

Mr. Trump was elected, but The Journal was not done digging. In early 2018, it published an article exposing Mr. Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Ms. Daniels. When asked about that, Ms. Hicks became fuzzy, saying she could not recall the period. She grew considerably more tense, clenching her jaw and stumbling a bit in her speech.

Ms. Hicks said she did not have knowledge of the records Mr. Trump is accused of falsifying. Those records, prosecutors say, disguised Mr. Trump’s repayment of Mr. Cohen for the hush money.

And at times, she seemed to aid the defense. When a prosecutor, Matthew Colangelo, asked about Mr. Trump’s reaction to the initial The Wall Street Journal article, she said that he was “concerned about how it would be viewed by his wife.” That response recalled the defense’s opening statement, in which Mr. Trump was portrayed as a family man — and helped provide an alternative motive for efforts to cover up damaging information to which prosecutors have already linked him.

Still, Ms. Hicks’s testimony was key to the prosecution’s case, including when she recalled a potentially crucial conversation: “I believe I heard Mr. Trump speaking to Mr. Cohen shortly after the story was published,” she said, which prosecutors might use to argue that Mr. Trump was involved in the machinations.

And she delivered a memorable observation that bolstered the prosecution’s argument that Mr. Trump directed Mr. Cohen’s payment. She scoffed at a prosecution question prompting her to consider whether Mr. Cohen “would have made a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels out of the kindness of his heart.”

That sort of altruistic move, she said, “would be out of character for Michael.”

The testimony marked a stunning spectacle: a former president’s confidante turned against him.

An accomplished lacrosse player and former model, Ms. Hicks started working in her mid-20s for Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and the Trump Organization, before unexpectedly being elevated to campaign press secretary. Between two stints working at the White House, including the lofty role of communications director, she worked for Fox Corporation, and now is a communications consultant.

Ms. Hicks, now 35, was cautious and self-deprecating on the stand, but sprinkled her detailed recounting with the words “I don’t recall.”

Her emotional testimony helped and harmed her old boss in the same breath. She remarked that the Trump Organization was big and successful but run “like a small family business,” and that because of that, “Everybody that works there, in some sense, reports to Mr. Trump.”

That description plays into the prosecution’s portrait of Mr. Trump as a hands-on boss who must have known about the false records and the sex scandal they obscured.

“He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, and we were all just following his lead,” Ms. Hicks said.

Kate Christobek contributed reporting.

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