Big, Huge, Golf: How Trump’s Lawyers Used The Trial To Flatter Him

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the press as he returns from a break in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 21, 2024. Donald Trump'... Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the press as he returns from a break in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 21, 2024. Donald Trump's defense lawyers rested their case Tuesday -- without the former president following through on a vow to testify -- as the judge planned jury deliberations in the historic criminal trial for early next week. (Photo by Mark Peterson / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MARK PETERSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — Stormy Daniels was almost done testifying. She was showing signs exhaustion after hours of withering cross-examination from Trump attorney Susan Necheles, who prompted Daniels to describe her open hatred of Trump, her encounters with the paranormal, and her “Make America Horny Again” strip tour.

Necheles, an experienced New York City litigator, looked poised to go in for the kill. She brought her questions back to the Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament where Trump and Daniels met, and asked one of her final questions:

“President Trump was the biggest celebrity, probably, at that tournament, right?”

Daniels seemed confused. “It depends on what you’re a fan of,” she replied.

But Necheles pushed: People recognized Trump? They “followed him around?” He did very well at golf? He played on his own?

“I don’t remember what the scores were,” Daniels said.

It was one instance of a pattern that emerged throughout testimony in Trump’s criminal hush money trial: his attorneys went out of their way to massage his ego, loading questions with praise for their boss or having witnesses testify to how big and successful Trump is.

After sitting through the entirety of the trial, I wasn’t entirely sure that my impression about this flattery — its scope and its frequency — had been correct. So, I pulled up all of the transcripts from testimony, and entered a few search terms: “success,” “big,” “golf,” “huge,” and “admire.”

It’s a less than scientific method, but it yielded results. What I found were dozens of instances in which Trump’s legal team directed their questioning towards eliciting testimony about the greatness of their client. At times, the questioning seemed to serve dual purposes, leading witnesses to both acknowledge the bigness of the defendant while testifying in ways that helped Trump’s case. But other times, it came off as irrelevant, leading to objections that Judge Juan Merchan sustained.

One such example took place early on during the cross-examination of Rhona Graff.

Necheles handled the examination, focusing on a relatively friendly witness: Graff, who had her legal expenses covered by the Trump Org, had spent decades as Trump’s personal assistant. Graff came off as professional and warm as she shared her memories of working for Trump.

One of Graff’s duties, Necheles had her affirm, was to work with producers of The Apprentice.

“It was a very popular television show, right?” Necheles asked.

“At the time it was probably the most popular television show,” Graff replied.

Necheles followed up: did it make Trump into a “big star”? Whether Graff knew she was flattering the boss or not, she was happy to play along: it “elevated him to a whole other platform,” and granted Trump “almost rock-star status.”

The defense could reap some value from this: they accused Daniels of seeking to appear on Celebrity Apprentice, and suggested that she fabricated the story of the sexual encounter with Trump as revenge after being spurned. But Necheles took the questioning far beyond that, asking if Trump was “constantly on the cover of magazines” and if The Apprentice “was a very profitable show” for Trump.

Eventually, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger said she was “going to object at this point.” Merchan sustained it.

Trump’s attorneys have spent the past weeks and months with him at trial and in preparation. Necheles reportedly began working for Trump in 2021; Todd Blanche worked his way up to start representing the big boss in April 2023 after working for lesser Trumpworld figures including Paul Manafort and Igor Fruman. At times during trial, it made Trump’s own attorneys seem like various former employees of the Trump Organization who, on the stand, reflexively employed the same kind of flattery.

Hope Hicks, a former Trump communications official, described the Trump Organization to prosecutor Matthew Colangelo at one point as a “very big and successful company.” Michael Cohen, in a similarly spontaneous manner, said the Trump Organization was a “big family.” At another moment on direct, Cohen recalled Trump’s own braggadocio: that he told Cohen of his Stormy Daniels encounter by implying that he was more appealing than NFL star Ben Roethlisberger. “Women prefer Trump even over someone like Big Ben,” Cohen recalled Trump saying.

Trump’s delicate ego can, at times, cause the former president to self-sabotage, but this flattery wasn’t entirely that. At a few points, it allowed his attorneys to gently coax witnesses into making helpful points. Defense attorney Emil Bove, while cross examining former Trump Org controller Jeff McConney, began to ask about all of the various properties that the Trump Org had: golf courses, hotels, real-estate “all over the world.” Hotels with “tens of thousands of guests,” golf courses with members “in the thousands,” facilities that “hosted weddings and other events.”

Trump had built such a global empire, Bove suggested, that the “diversity” created “very real commercial risks to adverse publicity.”

McConney initially responded that he wasn’t a marketing person, and could not reply. But after Bove broadened the question — over an unsuccessful objection from the DA — he got the answer he needed: it was true.

That helped Trump by potentially demonstrating to jurors that there were business, and not just political, reasons for him to want to keep Stormy Daniels silent. It’s not a very flattering point, but neither was a similar one that Bove elicited from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Was it true, Bove asked, that a potential story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock with his maid would have been “the biggest National Enquirer article ever?” Would it have bigger than the death of Elvis? Would it sell millions more copies than the death of the king himself?

Pecker said yes to all of these, before delivering the point that Trump needed: if the story had been true, he would have ran it.

Again, at the end of all this Trump flatter is an unflattering, but useful point for Trump’s defense: AMI signed a hush money agreement about the wedlock story because it was false, Pecker suggested to Bove, casting doubt on the Stormy Daniels agreement.

Blanche, Trump’s lead attorney, used the same approach, but with checkered results. He delivered a memorable opening by explaining to jurors that “we will call him ‘President Trump’ out of respect for the office,” while reminding them that Trump had “for years,” built a “very large, successful company.”

Trump’s responses throughout all of this were fairly tepid. He kept his eyes closed through intense moments, including much of Cohen’s testimony; when Blanche asked Cohen if he “admired” Trump’s “financial success, his high profile, his tenacity,” and whether he had called the Art of the Deal a “masterpiece,” there was little reaction.

If anything, it was Judge Merchan who grew increasingly impatient. He singled out Necheles for failing to object to testimony given to prosecutors. And, early on in the trial, Blanche earned the judge’s ire after repeatedly trying to persuade the judge that Trump had not violated a gag order imposed on the case when he made comments online about jurors and witnesses — that he was simply replying to people who had been very unfair in attacking him.

“President Trump is being very careful to comply with your Honor’s rules,” Blanche reiterated.

But the judge had had enough: “You are losing all credibility with the Court.”

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