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Politics

Prosecutors Move Deeper into Trump’s Orbit as Testimony in Hush Money Trial Enters a Third Week

NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial are moving deeper into his orbit following an inside-the-room account about the former president’s reaction to a politically damaging recording that surfaced in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

Hope Hicks, a former White House official and for years a top aide, is by far the closest Trump associate to have taken the witness stand in the Manhattan trial.

Her testimony Friday was designed to give jurors an insider’s view of a chaotic and pivotal stretch in the campaign, when a 2005 recording showing Trump talking about grabbing women without their permission was made public and when he and his allies sought to prevent the release of other potentially embarrassing stories. That effort, prosecutors say, included hush money payments to a porn actor and Playboy model who both have said they had sexual encounters with Trump before he entered politics.

“I had a good sense to believe this was going to be a massive story and that it was going to dominate the news cycle for the next several days,” Hicks said of the “Access Hollywood” recording, first revealed in an October 2016 Washington Post story. “This was a damaging development.”

The trial enters its third week of testimony Monday with prosecutors building toward their star witness, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments. Cohen is expected to undergo a bruising cross-examination from defense attorneys seeking to undermine his credibility with jurors.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with payments made to stifle potentially embarrassing stories. Prosecutors say Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, reimbursed Cohen for payments to porn actor Stormy Daniels and gave Cohen bonuses and extra payments. Prosecutors allege that those transactions were falsely logged in company records as legal expenses.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied sexual encounters with any of the women, as well as any wrongdoing.

So far, jurors have heard from witnesses including a tabloid magazine publisher and Trump friend who bought the rights to several sordid tales about Trump to prevent them from coming out and a Los Angeles lawyer who negotiated hush money deals on behalf of both Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Trump’s lawyers have tried to chip away at the prosecution’s theory of the case and the credibility of some witnesses. They’ve raised questions during cross-examinations about whether Trump was possibly a target of extortion, forced to arrange payouts to suppress harmful stories and spare his family embarrassment and pain. Prosecutors maintain the payments were about preserving his political viability as he sought the presidency.

The case is one of four Trump prosecutions and possibly the only one that will reach trial before the November election. Other felony indictments charge him with plotting to subvert the 2020 presidential election after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden and illegally hoarding classified documents after he left the White House.

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By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, ERIC TUCKER and JAKE OFFENHARTZ Associated Press

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