Hope Hicks divulges being at center of Trump’s 2016 damage control

NEW YORK — “This was a crisis.”

That was the consensus among senior Trump campaign aides on Oct. 7, 2016, after stepping out of a Trump Tower conference room, where the then-presidential candidate’s debate prep session was underway. There was to be a huddle about a more pressing matter.

A Washington Post reporter had notified the campaign that, in two hours, the paper planned to publish what became known as the “Access Hollywood” tape, a scandal that nearly ended Trump’s first bid for president one month out from Election Day.

Hope Hicks, who received the reporter’s email, took the stand in former President Trump’s New York hush money trial on Friday to detail her efforts to tamp down the chaos that followed, coupled with the revelations of hush money payments made to keep two women quiet about alleged affairs with the business mogul.

A fixture in Trump’s inner orbit who served as his press secretary at the time, Hicks’s role shaping media narratives placed her at the center of it all — making her testimony in the trial critical to the Manhattan district attorney’s case.

Hicks was one of the first staffers to work on Trump’s 2016 campaign and quickly became one of his most trusted advisers. She served in the Trump White House over two separate stints, departing in early 2018 and eventually joining Fox’s corporate team before returning to the White House in early 2020 as a senior adviser.

She previously appeared before a Washington grand jury as special counsel Jack Smith probed whether Trump knew he lost the 2020 election. Trump has since been charged in Washington, D.C., over his attempts to remain in power after the 2020 election.

Hicks has not been part of Trump’s political circle since the end of his first term and does not have a role in his 2024 campaign, though people familiar with the matter said there is no tension between the two.

Hicks appeared nervous to be on the stand, at times running her hand through her hair and fidgeting with her earrings. Moments after indicating she doubted an explanation for the hush money payment Trump told her years ago, Hicks broke down in tears.

But before prosecutors questioned Hicks about the hush money, much of her testimony concerned the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which marked a watershed moment in Trump’s 2016 campaign and ignited rampant speculation that the business mogul’s political ambitions had run their course.

On the tape, Trump is heard boasting about grabbing women inappropriately and seemingly without their consent, off-the-cuff remarks captured while on set of a soap opera more than 10 years earlier.

“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” he says in the tape. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the p—-. You can do anything.”

“I was concerned,” Hicks testified Friday about when she learned of the tape. “I was very concerned.”

Now, the former president is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with reimbursements his then-fixer received after paying porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet about her alleged affair with Trump. Trump, who denies the affair, pleaded not guilty.

While the tape is not at the center of the case, the district attorney’s office is attempting to connect the fallout from Trump’s remarks on it to the Daniels payment as part of efforts to portray Trump’s charges as a criminal conspiracy to corruptly influence the 2016 election.

Hicks detailed learning of the hush money payments made to Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

When discussing the McDougal payment, Hicks testified that Trump expressed concern about how his wife, Melania, would react, bolstering one of Trump’s defenses in the case: that the motivation behind the hush money was to save embarrassment for Trump’s family, rather than to preserve his political fortune before the election.

But at other moments, Hicks gave testimony key to the prosecution’s case of an election conspiracy. She testified about a conversation she had with Trump where he indicated ex-fixer Michael Cohen had made the payment to Daniels out of the goodness of his heart, a characterization she questioned.

Hicks added that Trump told her it was a good thing the Daniels payment story had made waves after he had already won the 2016 election, right before she broke down on the stand.

Prosecutors say the fallout from the “Access Hollywood” tape upped the ante for letting Daniels’s salacious allegations surface publicly just before Election Day, attempting to convince jurors that the hush money deal was part of a broader criminal conspiracy.

Hicks had been brought up earlier in the trial during the testimony of former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who said she was in the room when Pecker met Trump to initially establish an agreement to “catch and kill” salacious stories about the then-candidate in order for them to never surface in the news.

But some of Hicks’s most compelling testimony was recounting the damage control she managed during the two hours between when the campaign was notified of the “Access Hollywood” tape by the Post and the story publishing.

Hicks said two strategies emerged as she forwarded the Post’s comment request to four senior campaign aides, including Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.

“Need to hear the tape to be sure” it’s accurate, or “deny, deny, deny.”

“Strategy number two was going to be a little more difficult,” Hicks said once she realized the reporter had provided a transcript of the tape.

Hicks then headed upstairs to a Trump Tower conference room, she said, where Trump was conducting a debate preparation session for his then-rival, Hillary Clinton.

Hicks said she motioned for a few aides to join her outside so as not to disturb the preparations, and they huddled about what to do.

“Everyone was just absorbing the shock of it,” Hicks testified.

Trump, who could see them through the conference room windows, eventually caught on that there was a problem and demanded his aides come back inside and explain the situation, Hicks said.

When confronted with the comment request, Trump told Hicks that it “didn’t sound like something he would say,” she testified. But the first time he saw the tape, he was upset, she said. He later told her the remarks were “pretty standard stuff for two guys chatting.”

After a weekend filled with Republicans scrambling to figure out what to do, including what would happen if Trump ended his bid that late into the election cycle, the former reality television host managed to reengineer media attention toward his efforts to seat sexual abuse accusers of Clinton’s husband, former President Clinton, in a VIP box at the very debate he was prepping for at the time the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked.

Trump went on to beat Clinton in the general election a month later.

Brett Samuels contributed. 

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