Hush money trial: All the wild defences Trump has given so far

Hush money trial: All the wild defences Trump has given so far

Former president Donald Trump’s legal team has used various defences for — and attempts to delay — his hush money case in which he is accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records.

None of them so far have worked.

The first-ever criminal case against a sitting or former president began on Monday 15 April, with opening statements now expected on Monday 22 April. The case hinges on his efforts to conceal so-called hush money payments — one of which totalled $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Mr Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen gave the money to Ms Daniels to prevent her from discussing her alleged 2006 affair with Mr Trump — which is said to have occurred one year after Mr Trump married Melania.

Mr Trump’s reaction to the hush money payment has gone through a rollercoaster of an evolution, landing him now in criminal court.

Here is a list of all of Mr Trump’s defences ahead of his hush money trial:

Claiming he didn’t know about the payment

Mr Trump at first repeatedly denied that the payment existed — as well as the affair.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in January 2018 that Michael Cohen had given $130,000 in October 2016 to Ms Daniels in exchange for her silence about the Trump affair.

“These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election,” a White House official told the outlet dismissively.

Cohen also told the publication: “President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels.”

In February, however, Cohen sang to a different tune, claiming that he personally had paid Ms Daniels ahead of the election. He added that he paid the adult film star with his own money and hadn’t been ordered to pay her by Mr Trump or his campaign, further claiming that Mr Trump hadn’t reimbursed him for the payment.

By March, Ms Daniels claimed she and Mr Trump had had an affair in 2006, and even filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement that she had signed.

On 5 April, 2018, Mr Trump was asked on Air Force One about the $130,000 payment for Stormy Daniels. The then-president denied any knowledge of the payment made by his personal attorney Michael Cohen for porn star Stormy Daniels.

He said, “You have to ask Michael.” When asked if he knew where the money came from, he said, “No. I don’t.”

Blaming Michael Cohen

Weeks after his denial in April 2018, Mr Trump admitted on Fox and Friends that Cohen represented him in “a tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work, which included “this crazy Stormy Daniels deal.” The then-president added, “he did absolutely nothing wrong.”

A month later, his previous stance began to unravel. Mr Trump confessed in a tweet that Cohen was reimbursed for the payment and that the non-disclosure agreement existed — but again denied the affair ever occurred.

Cohen also later testified that he had been reimbursed by Mr Trump for this payment, walking back his previous statement.

“The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair, despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair,” he wrote.

In May of that year, the then-president signed a financial disclosure form, revealing that he had reimbursed Cohen in 2017 for an amount between $100,001 and $250,000. However, court documents from August of that year showed that Cohen was paid $420,000 in total, highlighting an apparent discrepancy.

By June, Mr Trump said he was no longer represented by Cohen.

Two months later, in August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion, making false statements to a federally-insured bank, and campaign finance violations. He testified to prosecutors that he made the payments to Ms Daniels and Karen McDougal “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”

After Cohen’s guilty plea, Mr Trump’s new personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, said, “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”

‘Not a campaign contribution’

Mr Trump shifted his defence strategy again later that year, after his former fixer had pleaded guilty.

Once again contradicting his past claims, Cohen testified that he made the payments “for the principal purpose of influencing the [2016 presidential] election.”

By December, Mr Trump posted on Twitter, labelling the hush money payments a “simple private transaction.” He also said the transaction had been “wrongly” labelled as a campaign contribution.

He echoed this to Reuters, saying the Daniels payment “wasn’t a campaign contribution” and “there was no violation based on what we did.”

‘Statute of limitations’

Years later, in January 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg began presenting evidence about the payments to a grand jury, the New York Times reported.

“This is just the latest act by the Manhattan D.A. in their never-ending, politically motivated witch hunt,” the Trump Organization told the outlet in a statement.

In March, Mr Bragg then invited the former president to testify in the probe. On Truth Social, Mr Trump once again branded the investigation a “political witch-hunt” and added that the “statute of limitations has long since ended.”

In September 2023, Mr Trump’s lawyers ran with that statute-of-limitations claim — among others — in a filing requesting to dismiss the indictment.

New York law says that most felonies must be prosecuted within five years of their commission.

However, there are exceptions, like if a defendant is living out of state — say, if he serves as President of the United States and is working out of Washington, DC. There was also an extension on the statute of limitations for prosecution of these offences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The DA’s office cited these exceptions in its response; the judge rejected Mr Trump’s claim in March 2024.

‘Multiplicitous counts’

In this same September document, Mr Trump’s lawyers contended that he was being charged multiple times for the same 11 reimbursement checks made to Cohen.

If “multiple charges are based on the same payment, the charges are multiplicitous and must be dismissed,” Mr Trump’s lawyers wrote.

In November, Mr Bragg’s office, in turn, argued that the charges are “not multiplicitous because each count is based on a separate allegedly false entry in the business records of the Trump Organization.” The DA’s office clearly enumerated the 34 counts: one count for each of eleven invoices, one count for each of twelve ledger entries, and one count for each of eleven checks held by the Trump Organization.

Judge Juan Merchan rejected this argument from Mr Trump’s legal team as well.

‘Impermissibly targeted’

In line with his “political witch hunt” claims, Mr Trump, via his lawyers, also argued in September 2023 that he was “impermissibly targeted for prosecution.”

His lawyers argued that the charges against Mr Trump arose from “political pressure” so they should be dismissed.

The DA’s office called Mr Trump’s claim “meritless,” adding, “this case is proceeding on the same prosecution theory as hundreds of others: defendant allegedly lied in corporate records to cover up other criminal activity. Defendant therefore cannot show selective enforcement.”

Judge Merchan also rejected this argument from Mr Trump.

Misconduct allegations

In March, Mr Trump’s attorneys levelled allegations of misconduct against the DA’s office over the production of thousands of pages of documents from federal prosecutors pertaining to Cohen not long before the trial’s start. Mr Bragg had already proposed a 30-day delay due to the massive document dump.

The judge held a hearing — the same day that the hush money trial was intitially set to begin — to hear both sides. He determined the DA’s office was not at fault for the late production of documents, adding that the office has been engaged in “good faith” efforts related to discovery.

Judge Merchan granted a 30-day delay in the trial, pushing the start date to 15 April. He then scolded Mr Trump’s lawyers for launching such serious claims without adequate legal support.

“The allegation that the defence makes in all of your papers about the People’s misconduct is incredibly serious. Unbelievably serious,” he told Trump lawyer Todd Blanche. “You are literally accusing the Manhattan DA’s office and the people prosecuting this case, and trying to make me complicit in it. And you don’t have a single cite to support that position?”


In a mid-March filing, Mr Trump’s attorneys notified the court that he intends “to rely on the defense of advice-of-counsel,” arguing in part that he cannot be held responsible for the crimes he was charged with because he was acting on the advice of his lawyers.

However, his current lawyers clarified that Mr Trump won’t assert a “formal” advice-of-counsel defence.

They said this means that while the former president plans to “elicit evidence concerning the presence, involvement and advice of lawyers in relevant events,” he would not be forced to give up his attorney-client privilege and require him to disclose confidential communications or other privileged materials.

Immunity defence

Mr Trump’s defence attorneys asked New York Judge Juan Merchan to adjourn the trial as the Supreme Court reviews his presidential immunity claim — scheduled for 25 April.

His legal team wrote in a March 2024 filing that Mr Trump’s Twitter account was “an official communications channel during his Presidency, to communicate with the public regarding matters of public concern.”

The filing didn’t mention the fact that the payment was made before he took office.

On 3 April, Judge Merchan shot down Mr Trump’s attempt to get the trial delayed on presidential immunity grounds, saying the former president’s filing was “untimely.”

He added that the court would not consider “presidential immunity precludes the introduction of evidence of purported official presidential acts in a criminal proceeding.”

Efforts against Judge Juan Merchan

Then there were efforts to stall the case.

Mr Trump’s defence attorneys accused the judge of having “ongoing financial interest” tied to the former president’s criminal trial due to his daughter’s job at the digital consulting firm Authentic Campaigns.

“Under these circumstances, Your Honor has an interest in this case that warrants recusal, there is an unacceptable risk that the Court’s family relationships will influence judicial conduct, and the Court’s impartiality ‘might reasonably be questioned,’” Mr Blanche wrote on 2 April.

Judge Juan Merchan (AP)
Judge Juan Merchan (AP)

“There is simply nothing new here that would alter this Court’s prior conclusion that nothing about this proceeding will directly benefit Authentic or this Court’s family member, let alone this Court,” the DA’s office responded in a filing.

A week before his trial was set to begin, the former president made a string of extraordinary efforts to once again delay his trial.

Mr Trump filed litigation against New York Justice Juan Merchan, who imposed a gag order preventing parties in the case from targeting members of the court, attorneys and their families, an appeals court docket showed. Those documents are under seal.

Separately, Mr Trump’s attorneys also requested a change of venue. They argued that New Yorkers are biased against the former president and he wouldn’t be given a fair trial. An appeals court judge quickly rejected Mr Trump’s request.

One day after this rejection, an appeals court judge also nixed the former president’s request to delay the hush money trial while he challenges the gag order.

Despite his best efforts, the hush money trial got under way on 15 April – with opening statements now expected on Monday.