Why This Old Trump Scandal Is Now At The Heart Of One Of His Criminal Trials

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The linchpin to a case that could — in theory — lead to former President Donald Trump seeing the inside of a jail cell stems from a scandal the American public had almost forgotten: the “Access Hollywood” tape, which emerged way back in 2016.

The tape, in which Trump crudely describes groping women, is not allowed to be played at the former president’s criminal hush money trial, as New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan does not want jurors to hear the words in Trump’s own voice. But it can be described and quoted from for the jury, and it has loomed large over the case.

Trump’s scandals can fill books. Over his nearly eight decades on this planet, the man has been variously accused of being a slumlord, a racist, a cheat and a rapist. But it was after he gained the powers of the presidency that interest in his misbehavior really ratcheted up, as reports of his outrageous behavior felt like they came every five minutes. From the way he picked on U.S. allies and cozied up to longtime adversaries, to the way his remarks sowed confusion and outrage while Americans dealt with the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic, to his attempt to fan the flames of insurrection on his way out of office, to his multiple criminal trials for actions during and after his presidency — the American people have had a lot to pay attention to.

Now, for one of those trials to remind the public of how this lone scandal almost derailed his presidency before it even happened — well, it’s a reminder of what seems like a quainter time.

First published by The Washington Post, the tape, which was recorded in 2005, became front-page news in October 2016, one month before the presidential election. It was obscene. Caught on a hot mic speaking with “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, Trump could be heard talking about an unnamed woman who he failed to seduce. He and Bush were on a bus, going to meet an actress who would escort them onto the set of a soap opera that was expecting Trump to make a cameo. His reality show, “The Apprentice,” had become a hit since its first season aired the year before. 

“I did try and fuck her. She was married,” Trump tells Bush on the tape. “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there.” Once the pair see the actress, they react: “Your girl’s hot as shit,” Bush tells Trump. “Woah!” Trump says. “Woah!” 

“I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her,” Trump says. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” 

Then came the famous quote: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” In the background, Bush is heard cackling. 

Donald Trump and then-fiancee Melania Knauss are interviewed by
Donald Trump and then-fiancee Melania Knauss are interviewed by "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush at the 2004 Emmys. George Pimentel via Getty Images

To many, Trump’s comments amounted to an admission that he had sexually assaulted women and was proud of it. Bush, who by the time of the tape’s release had moved on to working as a “Today” show host, was fired

Trump initially tried playing cool. “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” he said in a statement at the time. “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.” 

But soon afterward, he released a more nuanced response in the form of a video statement. Trump said his campaign trips around the U.S. had changed him, and he even appeared to take responsibility: “I said it, it was wrong and I apologize.” 

Things appeared dire for Trump’s campaign. Some of his fellow Republicans were calling for him to drop out of the race and let his running mate, Mike Pence, lead the ticket. Others proposed trying to remove him from the ballot, but early voting was already underway, complicating the idea.

Now, Trump’s trial in New York has revealed what was allegedly going on behind the scenes. While Trump downplayed the tape in public, the pressure on his campaign in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape was so intense that it prompted him to take illegal measures, prosecutors allege. Ultimately, they say, he falsified business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star called Stormy Daniels who claimed an affair with him.

According to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his team, Trump had his personal attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, take steps to ensure no other damaging Trump stories became public.

Daniels had been trying to sell her story before the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, but found there was “very little interest,” her former attorney, Keith Davidson, testified this week. 

After the tape, however, there was suddenly “tremendous” interest in Daniels, Davidson said. 

It was clear to him how desperate Trump’s circumstances were in October 2016. 

“Trump is fucked,” Davidson wrote to Dylan Howard, the editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer, in a text read aloud in court. 

Davidson had worked with Howard a few months earlier to buy a similar story from ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also claimed an affair with Trump, for $150,000. He led the jurors through the process of working out a similar deal for Daniels in October 2016, although it did not go nearly as smoothly. The price for the exclusive rights to publish (or not publish) Daniels’ story was set at $130,000, which included a $10,000 payment to Davidson.

While the McDougal payout was covered by American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer helmed by Trump pal David Pecker, the company was not interested in ponying up that kind of cash again. Davidson spoke at length about frenzied conversations he had with Cohen, testifying that he thought Trump’s lawyer was giving him “excuses” in order to delay the payment to Daniels until after the election, when it would matter less if it came out. Eventually, Daniels was paid, and the story only came out through reporting by The Wall Street Journal after Trump won.

But one person knows even more about how the “Access Hollywood” tape roiled the Trump campaign — Cohen. In the coming weeks, we’re expecting to hear the star witness’s testimony as he takes the stand in front of his former boss.