Hope Hicks Testimony: Access Hollywood Tape Panic Led to Hush-Money Payments

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks took the stand in Manhattan court Friday to testify in the criminal trial of her ex-boss, Donald Trump.

Trump has been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The case, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg last year, revolves around allegations that a 2016 hush-money payment made at Trump’s direction to adult film actress Stormy Daniels violated campaign finance laws.

Hicks, who left the White House alongside the former president in 2021, was a central figure in Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent administration — and her name has already been invoked in the trial.

Former tabloid executive David Pecker testified last week that Hicks was aware of and, at times, present for negotiations around a 2015 deal brokered between himself, Trump, and Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen in which Pecker would act as the “eyes and ears” of the campaign and kill potentially damaging stories about the then-candidate.

On the stand, Hicks recalled that the former president had heaped praise on Pecker after the National Enquirer published a piece accusing former brain surgeon and Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson of leaving a sponge in the brain of a patient. Pecker had previously testified that part of the deal he’d struck with the Trump campaign included boosting damaging stories against his 2016 rivals.

Hicks told the court that Trump had described some of the hit pieces published by the Enquirer as “Pulitzer-worthy,” and were “great investigative pieces.” Pecker previously testified that the Carson medical malpractice stories were given to him by Michael Cohen, or in the case of the story linking Ted Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald, were fabricated completely.

The former aide repeatedly asserted that she reported directly to the former president, and prosecutors heavily questioned Hicks about the infamous Access Hollywood tape – which they contend was the central scandal that moved the Trump campaign to attempt to squash Daniels’ allegations of an affair with the former president.

“I was concerned. Very concerned,” Hicks said of the moment she first received a transcript, via email, of the tape. “I was concerned about the contents of the email, I was concerned about the lack of time to respond, I was concerned that we had a transcript but not a tape. There was a lot at play.”

Hicks testified she forwarded the email to key Trump players, including Kellyanne Conway, Jason Miller, and Steve Bannon. In the email, she wrote: “Need to hear the tape to be sure. Deny, deny, deny.” Immediately after sending the email, Hicks ran up to the 26th floor of Trump Tower where Trump was gathered with the three people above as well as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, and spoke with them about the transcript.

“The sight of the six of us gathered out there meant that something was afoot. So Mr. Trump asked us to come into the conference room at some point and share with him what we were discussing,” Hicks testified on Friday. “He said that didn’t sound like something he would say.”

“Mr. Trump said this wasn’t good,” she continued. “It was two guys talking privately, locker room talk. I think he felt like it was pretty standard stuff, for two guys fattening up each other.”

With a debate less than two days away, Hicks and the Trump campaign team said the Access Hollywood tape had taken over the media cycle. “It was intense. It dominated coverage for all 36 hours leading up to the debate.” In the hours that ensued, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell among others made “particularly sharply worded statements” directed at Trump.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Hicks said that she spoke to Cohen about identifying other potentially damaging stories. In 2016, when the campaign learned that The Wall Street Journal intended to publish a story on an alleged affair between Trump and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, Hicks testified that she reached out to the former president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “He had a very good relationship with Rupert Murdoch and I was hoping to see if we could buy a little extra time to deal with this,” she said. Kushner immediately informed her “he couldn’t get in touch with Murdoch and that we would need to punt on this.”

During this time, Trump was giving a campaign speech in an airport hangar in Ohio. While she waited for Trump to get offstage, Hicks says she called Cohen about the article and said, “Michael feigned that he didn’t know what I was talking about and I should connect with David [Pecker] to get more information.”

Matters only worsened when Trump finally regrouped with Hicks, learned of the impending article, and requested she call Pecker back again and demand he tell her what he would tell the Journal. “Mr. Trump didn’t want to use the statements,” Hicks said of several prepared statements she and Cohen authored. “He wanted to have a conversation of what David [Pecker] had told me previously.”

“That this was a legitimate contract and that’s what he wanted to tell the Journal,” she testified. “It was just a denial of the accusations and the statements, that they were totally untrue and that we didn’t know about this deal.”

“He wanted to know the context and he wanted to make sure there was a denial of any kind of relationship,” Hicks said of Trump. “He felt the point of the story was that the National Enquirer paid a woman for her story and never published it. It wasn’t necessarily about accusations of certain behavior.”

“The denial was from Mr. Trump for both women, and that’s very clear,” Hicks continued.

Three days before the election and after the publication of The Wall Street Journal article, Cohen texted Hicks and said “I have a statement by Storm denying everything and contradicting the other porn stars statement. I wouldn’t use it now or even discuss it with him as no one is talking about this or cares!”

Hicks says Trump wasn’t so much worried about the article’s substance, but rather, the effect it could have on his family. “He was concerned about the story, he was concerned it would be viewed by his wife, and he wanted me to make sure that the newspapers weren’t going to be delivered to their residence that morning,” she testified.

The story picked up little attention in the days that followed, and ultimately, proved to be but a little blip on Trump’s election the following week. However, news of the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels once again graced newspaper pages in February 2017 when The New York Times published a story of AMI’s refusal to make the hush money payment — and included a statement made by Cohen saying “he did it with the kindness of his own heart he never told anybody,” Hicks testified.

When asked if this statement rang true for Cohen, whom Hicks had known for well over three years at the point, Hicks said, “It would certainly be out of character for Michael. I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person or selfless person. He’s the kind of person who seeks credit.”

“I used to say he liked to call himself Mr. Fix It and it was only because he first broke it that he was then able to fix it,” Hicks joked.

Trump, in turn, “thought it was a general thing to do, and he was appreciative of the loyalty of Michael,” Hicks testified. “Mr. Trump thought it was better to be dealing with it now and said it would be bad if it had come out during the election,” she said, adding Trump at one point told her it was better Cohen made the payment and the story went live than if he didn’t, and it would have been an entirely different story.

Hicks broke into tears after Trump lawyer Emil Bove began cross-examination once prosecutor Matthew Colangelo finished his line of questioning. Court resumed late Friday afternoon with Hicks describing the relationship Cohen had with the Trump campaign and behind the scenes working to lessen the blow of the Karen McDougal and Daniels stories.

Hicks’ testimony paints a picture of a campaign that was scrambling to mitigate the potential damage already done by the Access Hollywood tape — and prevent any repeat scandals in the weeks before the 2016 election. That panic, prosecutors argue, would ultimately lead to the hush money payment to Daniels, and the crime at the center of their case.

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone