Trump’s N.Y. Trial Is Not Televised, but TV Played a Starring Role

Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post
Former President Donald Trump throws a pen to supporters during a campaign rally at Crotona Park in the on Thursday.

The key players at Donald Trump’s criminal trial have told a saga of shifting alliances, secret agendas and petty grievances. Throughout it all, they shared one thing in common: the strong desire to be on television.

For adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and disgraced lawyer Michael Cohen, the lure of being on television, particularly reality television, play a significant role in their decision-making when dealing with Trump, whose successful 2016 presidential bid was fueled in large part by his own reality TV stardom.

The trial testimony has exposed “the underbelly of American pop culture,” said Ken Sunshine, a veteran public relations consultant who is also a longtime Democratic activist.

For decades, the former president and presumptive GOP presidential nominee has been obsessed with television and celebrity, and one of the larger ironies of his case is that his history-making trial is not on television.

In many ways, however, it is a trial about television.

When Daniels met Trump at a golf tournament in Nevada in 2006, she said, she found him to be rude and arrogant, but was intrigued when he suggested putting her on his hit show “The Apprentice” on NBC.

At the time, she was an established star in and director of porn movies, but she’d also had small roles in mainstream hits like “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.”

When Daniels first arrived at his hotel suite for dinner, Trump greeted her in silk or satin pajamas, she said on the stand. She told him to change into clothes, which he did, and then the two talked about the entertainment business.

During that conversation, “he got really quiet, and he was thinking, and he told me he had an idea, that I should go on his television show,” Daniels testified.

“I wanted to write and direct film and music videos, things like that,” Daniels said. “And he was like, this is your chance for somebody to see you and maybe give you that kind of opportunity.”

Later that night, Daniels said, she had sex with Trump.

In the months that followed the two stayed in touch. For a time, according to Daniels’s book, Trump seemed like he might be serious about making her a contestant on his show.

“He let me know, constantly, that he was working on getting me my spot on The Apprentice,” she wrote, describing conversations that went on for about six months and left her both skeptical and still hopeful it might happen.

Another trial witness, Rhona Graff, testified that she, too, believed Daniels was in the running to appear on “The Apprentice,” and that at one point Daniels visited Trump at Trump Tower in New York.

“I vaguely recall hearing him say that she was one of the people that may be an interesting contestant on the show,” said Graf, who was, in fact, a regular on the reality program.

When Trump and Daniels met at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2007, Trump said getting her on the show was “almost a done deal,” according to Daniels’s book.

“Well that would be great,” she replied. “I would love to be on the show.”

The two watched a television program about sharks and then, she wrote, he made a pass at her, but she demurred, and left the hotel soon after.

Shortly after that nonsexual encounter, her shot at a TV role became a nonissue.

Trump “called me to tell me that I had been right. There was no spot for a porn star on Celebrity Apprentice,” Daniels wrote, saying that Trump told her a TV producer’s wife had nixed the idea.

While Trump continues to deny having sex with Daniels, she was paid $130,000 in hush money in October 2016 to keep her from going public with her account. The payment and reimbursements of that money to Trump’s then-lawyer and fixer Cohen are the basis of the 34 counts of falsifying business records that he is charged with in this trial.

Earlier that same year, as Trump pushed forward with his unorthodox presidential campaign, the chief executive of the company that ran the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story of an alleged affair with Trump. The executive, David Pecker, was an ally of the future president. At Trump’s trial, he testified that he paid McDougal to conceal, not reveal that information.

Trial evidence shows that even as McDougal was negotiating with the Enquirer, she was considering a competing offer from ABC to tell her story, and the television network had dangled the possibility of her appearing on one of its hit shows, “Dancing With the Stars.”

For McDougal, witnesses said, the choice was between having to talk about the affair on television, or getting paid to keep the salacious account off the airwaves. McDougal’s own lawyer, Keith Davidson, was skeptical the “Dancing With the Stars” opportunity would ever materialize, and eventually she decided instead to take the hush money from Pecker and the National Enquirer.

In a text conversations entered as evidence, Davidson joked with Dylan Howard, an editor at the National Enquirer, about the chance of television stardom that was dangled before McDougal.

“By the way, they promised her a role on Dancing With the Stars, season 578568655,” Davidson texted, to which Howard replied, “ha.”

The thirst to be on television didn’t stop when charges were filed last year against Trump by the Manhattan district attorney. For some of the participants, it only intensified.

Michael Cohen, who since breaking with Trump in 2018 has launched a public crusade against him, testified that an associate of his is still shopping a television show called “The Fixer.” The show would tell the story of Cohen’s transformation from Trump henchman to critic.

“Your expectation and hope is that if it gets picked up, you are going to make money, right?” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche asked Cohen on the stand.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied.

“Has it been picked up?” Blanche asked.

“No, sir.”

Cohen, who makes near-daily online videos and appears in television interviews about the case, acknowledged that prosecutors have repeatedly begged him not to go on television or make public statements while the trial is ongoing.

He also admitted that he has disregarded those requests.

Daniels has had more success in getting TV time in the run-up to the trial. In March, she was the focus of a lengthy documentary on NBC’s Peacock streaming service.