Stormy, Trump and more: The names to know in historic hush money case

Illustration with photos of Donald Trump, Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels surrounded by faded text and highlight marks.
Illustration by Emily Wright/The Washington Post

Former president Donald Trump surrendered to law enforcement in New York City on Tuesday after being indicted on a charge of his role in paying adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 on the eve of the 2016 election to keep quiet about an alleged affair.

In court, Trump was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. He pleaded not guilty.

Grand jurors voted to indict Trump after spending weeks hearing evidence in the case, which involved years of work by two district attorneys. The indictment was unsealed Tuesday, laying out the first criminal charges ever filed against a former president.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been investigating whether Trump falsified business records in reimbursing his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for the payout to Daniels, who said she had sex with Trump in 2006. Trump denies the affair but has admitted to reimbursing Cohen. Prosecutors were also investigating whether Trump falsified the records in furtherance of another alleged crime, possibly related to campaign finance issues.

Here are the key players in the years-long saga that resulted in the first indictment of a former president.

Donald Trump

The GOP standard-bearer’s statements about his alleged affair with Daniels and the subsequent payment shifted after the Wall Street Journal first reported on the matter in early 2018. Trump claimed initially that he didn’t know about the payment, only to admit later that he authorized Cohen to make it. He characterized the reimbursement to his former lawyer as a “monthly retainer” that didn’t come from his presidential campaign.

“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,” Trump tweeted in May of 2018. “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.”

Trump has called the district attorney’s probe a “witch hunt” and repeatedly claimed that he was the victim of extortion by Daniels, most recently in a rambling statement in March on his Truth Social account.

“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” he wrote. “I never had an affair with Stormy Daniels, nor would I have wanted to have an affair with Stormy Daniels.”

Stormy Daniels

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is a pornographic actress and director. She said she met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006 and had sex with him. She was 27 at the time, and Trump was 60.

In 2011, Daniels shared her story with In Touch Weekly. But after seeking comment from Trump, the gossip magazine withheld the interview because Cohen threatened to sue them over it.

Years later, after Trump won the GOP nomination, Cohen called offering to pay Daniels in exchange for keeping quiet. She took the money in fall 2016, she said, to protect her infant child and her career. She said she felt pressured into signing a nondisclosure agreement and statement denying the affair took place.

She spoke out after the Wall Street Journal reported on the payment in January 2018. Discussing the chain of events with 60 Minutes that March, she said of Trump, “He knows I’m telling the truth.”

Michael Cohen

Cohen was a longtime confidant, personal lawyer and self-described “fixer” for Trump. But as investigations into the hush money payment and other alleged misconduct ramped up, Cohen turned on his former boss and now ranks as one of Trump’s most vocal critics.

Cohen admitted in 2018 to breaking campaign finance laws in arranging the payment to Daniels and a separate payment to another woman. He served time in prison after pleading guilty in two federal cases. One, brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, involved Cohen’s lies to Congress about a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow. The other, brought by federal prosecutors, focused on tax and bank fraud allegations, as well as campaign finance violations. During sentencing, he said his “weakness” was “blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”

What we know about the Donald Trump-Stormy Daniels payment case

After cooperating with federal investigators in inquiries into Trump’s activities, Cohen in March testified about the payment to Daniels before the state-level grand jury in Manhattan.

“At the end of the day,” Cohen said outside the courthouse, “Donald Trump needs to be held accountable for his dirty deeds, if in fact that’s the way that the facts play out.”

Alvin Bragg

Alvin Bragg is the prosecutor leading the investigation of the Daniels payment. He was elected district attorney of New York County in 2021 after serving as chief deputy attorney general of New York and as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

His predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a Democrat, opened a broad inquiry into Trump’s business activities in 2019. It initially included a probe of the Daniels payment, but Vance ended up turning his attention to Trump’s taxes and alleged manipulation of asset values.

Bragg, a Democrat who assumed office in early 2022, has not sought charges in the tax and asset investigation, prompting two of the office’s veteran prosecutors to resign in protest last year. But Bragg revived the investigation into the hush money payment, convening a new grand jury in January to consider criminal charges.

In March, Bragg offered Trump a chance to testify before the grand jury — a move that signaled an indictment was coming. Trump has not appeared.

As Trump posted on social media about his possible arrest last month, Bragg told his staff in an internal email that he would protect them against any threats.

“Please know that your safety is our top priority,” he wrote. “We do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York.”

Bragg has said little publicly about the status of his office’s probes of Trump.

In a rare statement last spring, he said, “We are investigating thoroughly and following the facts without fear or favor.”

Allen Weisselberg

Allen Weisselberg is the former top financial officer for Trump’s business. Cohen has said that Weisselberg arranged to reimburse him for the payment to Daniels.

Weisselberg pleaded guilty in 2022 to tax fraud, grand larceny and other crimes in an unrelated case focusing on financial crimes by the Trump Organization. He is serving a five-month prison sentence in New York.

His cooperation was instrumental in helping federal prosecutors convict the Trump Organization of felony tax fraud and other charges in December. But he hasn’t implicated Trump himself in any criminal activity. “It was my own personal greed that led to this,” Weisselberg testified last year.

David Pecker

David Pecker allegedly helped broker the $130,000 payment to Daniels from his perch as chief executive of the publishing company that owned the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper.

Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, had agreed to “catch and kill” negative stories about Trump during the campaign. In a 2018 agreement with federal prosecutors, American Media Inc. admitted to buying the silence of a Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump to “suppress the story” and “prevent it from influencing the election.”

Prosecutors said Pecker and a National Enquirer editor contacted Cohen shortly before the 2016 election and told him Daniels was shopping around a story about her alleged affair with Trump. Soon after, Cohen reached out to Daniels offering the $130,000 payout.

Pecker, who left the publisher in 2020, appeared in February at the courthouse where Bragg’s grand jury is meeting.

Robert Costello

Robert Costello is a former legal adviser to Cohen and Trump. A longtime litigator and defense attorney, Costello previously represented Trumpworld figures Rudy Giuliani and Stephen K. Bannon while they were under federal investigation.

Cohen consulted with Costello while the Justice Department was probing his role in the Daniels payment but never actually retained Costello. After he was charged, Cohen waived attorney-client privilege, allowing Costello to describe their interactions to investigators.

Costello testified in March before Bragg’s grand jury in Manhattan. He said Bragg’s office asked him to come in but that the request originally came from Trump’s legal team. His appearance suggested that Trump’s lawyers believed Costello could cast doubt on Cohen’s version of events surrounding the payment to Daniels.

Justice Juan Merchan

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan is presiding over the criminal proceedings against Trump. The 60-year-old jurist is no stranger to the former president.

Merchan, a former prosecutor who has served on the New York bench since 2009, handled the jury trial last year that resulted in the conviction of the Trump Organization on an array of tax crimes committed by Weisselberg and another executive. The case offered a rare window into the inner workings of Trump’s namesake company.

The judge also presided over the prosecution of Weisselberg. In court earlier this year, Merchan told Weisselberg that he would have handed down a “stiffer sentence” than the five months Weisselberg received were it not for the defendant’s plea deal with prosecutors.

Trump has lashed out at Merchan on social media. He claimed last week that the judge “HATES ME,” adding, “He strong armed Allen, which a judge is not allowed to do, & treated my companies, which didn’t ‘plead,’ VICIOUSLY.”

Before becoming a judge, Merchan held various roles in New York government, serving for several years as an assistant district attorney in the office that Bragg now leads. He was born in Colombia, emigrated to the United States as with his family as a child, and grew up in New York City.

As a judge, his current portfolio of cases also includes overseeing a specialized court that considers merit-based plea agreements to defendants struggling with mental illness.

Trump’s legal team

Trump appeared in court Tuesday flanked by four lawyers: Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles, Joe Tacopina and Boris Epshteyn.

Blanche, the newest member of the team, is a veteran white-collar criminal attorney and former federal prosecutor who was a partner at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, New York City’s oldest law firm. People familiar with the matter told The Washington Post he recently resigned from the firm to represent Trump.

He joined after spending several years representing high-profile figures in Trump’s orbit.

He led the team at Cadwalader that defended Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign chair, in a financial crimes case brought by Bragg’s predecessor. He also represented Igor Fruman, a key player in the events leading to Trump’s first impeachment who helped dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents, and represents his co-counsel Epshteyn, a lawyer and senior adviser to Trump.

Before joining Cadwalader, Blanche spent nearly a decade with the Justice Department as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he handled a range of investigations and prosecutions involving public corruption, financial fraud and violent crimes.

Necheles has represented Trump in Bragg’s investigation. Like others, she’s not entirely new to Trumpworld.

She was first hired a couple years ago to represent the Trump Organization in the tax fraud case brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In those proceedings, she not only defended the company but fought to deflect blame from Trump’s family, arguing in court late last year that Weisselberg was the true beneficiary of the company’s financial crimes.

In court, she rankled Merchan when she presented some testimony that had been stricken from the record, according to Politico. “It’s problematic, and I don’t fault the people for being upset about this,” Merchan said, prompting an apology from Necheles.

Necheles, who runs her own private firm, specializes in representing individual clients and corporations in investigations. Aside from the Trump Organization, some of her noteworthy clients have included a Genovese crime family underboss and a former donor for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who was convicted of bribing high-ranking New York police officials in exchange for special favors.

Tacopina started representing Trump earlier this year and quickly became known for his brash TV interviews.

As indictment loomed, Tacopina made the rounds on ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC, laying out the legal team’s defense and making questionable characterizations about the case. He also contradicted Trump’s claim that the judge has a personal grudge against him, saying this week that he had “no interactions with the judge that would lead me to believe he’s biased.”

Tacopina is also representing Trump in a defamation lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a former magazine columnist who has accused Trump of raping her in the mid-1990s.

After an early-career stint in the district attorney’s office, Tacopina made a name for himself representing celebrities in civil and criminal matters. His clients have included Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, Washington Commanders and team owner Daniel Snyder and rapper Meek Mill.

Epshteyn is a former White House staffer and one of Trump’s most influential advisers. A college friend of Trump’s son, Eric Trump, Epshteyn trained as a lawyer and has worked as an investment banker and political strategist. He has counseled Trump on how to respond to the raft of investigations the former president is facing, despite a lack of relevant experience in criminal law.

Karen McDougal

Karen McDougal is a former Playboy model who said she had a months-long affair with Trump around the time Daniels said she and Trump had sex. McDougal, too, received a six-figure payout to stay silent as part of the “catch and kill” scheme outlined by prosecutors.

After the Wall Street Journal first reported on the payment in early 2018, McDougal filed a lawsuit against AMI, the National Enquirer publisher, to void a contract barring her from speaking publicly about the matter. The case settled soon after, allowing McDougal to discuss it freely. AMI would later acknowledge in court that it paid $150,000 through Cohen to “suppress” McDougal’s story and “prevent it from influencing the election.”

McDougal told the New Yorker in 2018 that she regretted entering into the hush money agreement.

“At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble, because I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about,” she said. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.”

The payment to McDougal was described in the statement of facts the district attorney’s office released Tuesday, but Trump was only charged in relation to the Daniels payment.

The doorman

The indictment also describes a $30,000 payment made to a former Trump Tower doorman who reportedly tried to sell information about Trump having a child out of wedlock. AMI, working with Cohen, sought to bury that story, too, according to the district attorney.

The statement of facts says AMI bought the exclusive rights to the doorman’s account in fall 2015, a few months after Trump announced he was running for president, and falsely characterized the payment in its records.

Later, when AMI determined the story was untrue, Pecker wanted to release the doorman from the agreement, according to prosecutors. But Cohen told Pecker not to do so until after the election, the statement of facts says. Pecker complied.

Illustration by Emily Wright/The Washington Post; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, AP Photo/Markus Schreiber (file), iStock

More on the Trump NY indictment

The latest: Former president Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York is scheduled for March 2024. Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 counts stemming from 2016 hush-money payments, the first criminal charges for any former U.S. president.

What is the case about? The investigation involves a $130,000 payment made to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress, during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s one of many ongoing investigations involving Trump. Here are some of the key people in the case and how the indictment process will work.

What are the charges? Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Falsifying business records is a felony in New York when there is an “intent to defraud” that includes an intent to “commit another crime or to aid or conceal” another crime. Here’s the full text of the Trump indictment.

Can Trump still run for president? While it has never been attempted by a candidate from a major party before, Trump is allowed to run for president while under indictment — or even if he is convicted of a crime. Here’s how Trump’s indictment could impact the 2024 election.