Here are the key players in the Trump hush money case
From Alvin Bragg to Stormy Daniels, these are all the people you need to know.
Former President Donald Trump was arraigned in Manhattan Tuesday on 34 felony counts stemming from a New York grand jury's investigation into a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election.
Trump pleaded not guilty. He is the first former U.S. president to ever be charged with a crime.
The unprecedented case involves numerous figures in Trump’s orbit. Here are the key players to know.
You know who he is
The former president and criminal defendant had said he expected to be arrested on March 21, calling for his supporters to “protest” any indictment.
Trump has since ramped up the attacks on the probe and the district attorney, warning of “potential death & destruction” if he was charged, and then berating Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Judge Juan Merchan and the judge's family in remarks at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday evening.
"I never thought anything like this could happen in America," Trump said in a speech during which he railed about Bragg and the other investigations he is currently facing.
Trump has denied having the affair with Daniels but also admitted to the payment. “I never liked horse face,” he said at a rally in Waco, Texas, late last month. “That wouldn’t be the one. There is no one. We have a great first lady.”
Trump, though, was reportedly “caught off guard” by the timing of his indictment, "believing that any action by the grand jury was still weeks away and might not occur at all,” according to the New York Times.
“This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election, and it should be dropped immediately. There is no case. No case!”
— Trump in his post-arraignment speech at Mar-a-Lago
The hush money saga began in 2006 when, according to Daniels — née Stephanie Clifford — she met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe.
Daniels said Trump — then host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” — invited her back to his room, where he promised to put her on television. Then, she said, they slept together.
Trump was 60 at the time of their alleged tryst. Daniels was 27. His third wife, Melania, had just given birth to their son, Barron.
According to the New York Times, Trump and Daniels saw each other at least twice in 2007: at a launch party for the short-lived Trump Vodka and at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where “they watched ‘Shark Week.’”
“But they did not sleep together again,” the paper said. “And Trump never put her on ‘The Apprentice.’”
Over the years, as Trump flirted with running for president, Daniels tried unsuccessfully to sell her story to gossip publications, including the National Enquirer. Following the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, she pitched it again to the Enquirer, which connected her with Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer, who negotiated the $130,000 deal with Daniels to keep her quiet.
Daniels met with New York prosecutors probing the hush money case last month and said she would be willing to be a witness in any potential case against Trump.
“That I have a strong stomach and no gag reflex?”
— Daniels on Twitter when asked what her alleged sexual encounter with Trump says about her
Trump’s former lawyer and fixer
Cohen once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump. Not anymore. In 2018 he was sentenced to three years for orchestrating payments to Daniels and Karen McDougal — a former Playboy model who also said she’d had an affair with Trump (more on her in a bit) — as well as for lying to Congress.
Cohen said he was directed by Trump to pay Daniels $130,000 in October 2016, and that he was reimbursed by the president after Trump took office. According to Cohen, the Trump Organization paid him $420,000 to reimburse him for the payment and to cover bonuses and other supposed expenses. The company classified those payments internally as legal expenses. The district attorney’s office has been probing whether the payment to Daniels amounted to an illegal campaign contribution, coming just days before voters headed to the polls to decide that year’s presidential election.
Cohen began cooperating with the DA’s office when he was in prison and has emerged as the key witness in Bragg’s potential case against Trump, meeting with prosecutors dozens of times and testifying twice before the grand jury. He’s also a problematic witness, considering he’s a convicted liar with a well-documented vendetta against the former president. But speaking to reporters before his testimony last month, Cohen insisted he had no ax to grind.
“This is not revenge. This is all about accountability. He needs to be held accountable for his dirty deeds.”
— Cohen to reporters ahead of his grand jury testimony
The longtime Trump ally and former adviser to Cohen testified before the grand jury last month at the behest of the former president’s lawyers in an attempt to impeach Cohen’s credibility.
Speaking to reporters after his testimony, Costello said he “told the grand jury that this guy couldn’t tell the truth if you put a gun to his head.”
“He is totally unreliable,” he said.
Costello — who represented former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and ex-Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon — began advising Cohen in 2018 as federal investigators were ramping up their investigation into the hush money payments. He also tried to serve as a liaison between Cohen and Trump as their relationship began to sour. Cohen declined to retain him as counsel in 2019.
According to Costello, Cohen told him he had paid Daniels of his own volition, contradicting Cohen’s assertion that he made the payment at the direction of Trump.
“If they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, so be it. But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence.”
— Costello to reporters following his grand jury testimony
Manhattan district attorney
The indictment against Trump puts the Manhattan DA at the center of one of the most extraordinary legal cases in American history.
A native of Harlem, Bragg was elected in 2020 promising to pursue progressive criminal justice reform. He also promised to hold the former president — a Manhattan resident until 2021 — and his company to account for a series of finance-related misdeeds.
Whether the Harvard-trained attorney can convince a jury that Trump broke New York law in making the payment will determine his legacy.
Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., looked at the potential case against Trump twice, and decided not to bring charges.
At a press conference following Trump's arraignment, Bragg defended bringing charges against the former president, saying his office had uncovered additional evidence in its "rigorous and thorough investigation."
"The case was ready to be brought," he said. "And it was brought."
Bragg, a Democrat, has faced a barrage of attacks from Trump and his allies in Congress, who demanded he turn over documents and other material from his investigation. Bragg responded in a letter saying he would not be intimidated.
"These are felony crimes in New York state, no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct."
— Bragg at a press conference following Trump's arraignment
Judge overseeing the case
From the moment he was assigned the case, Merchan has faced a barrage of attacks from Trump and his allies.
“The Judge ‘assigned’ to my Witch Hunt Case, a ‘Case’ that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME,” the former president wrote Friday in a post on Truth Social, his social media platform.
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Merchan emigrated to the U.S. at 6 years old and grew up in New York City. According to the Associated Press, he was the first member of his family to go to college, working his way through law school at Hofstra University, where he graduated in 1994.
He has had experience with several high-profile cases in his 16 years on the bench — most recently overseeing the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial late last year.
In court on Tuesday, Merchan did not issue a gag order. But he warned attorneys on both sides to urge their clients and witnesses to "refrain" from rhetoric that could lead to violence.
"Defense counsel, speak to your client and anybody else you need to, and remind them to please refrain, please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest," he said.
That didn’t stop Trump from attacking Merchan and his family during Tuesday night’s speech at Mar-a-Lago.
The former president called Merchan a “Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris.”
"Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals."
— Merchan's request to lawyers on both sides at Trump's arraignment
Former publisher of the National Enquirer
Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, has emerged as another key witness in the case.
As chief executive of American Media, the publishing company that formerly owned the National Enquirer, Pecker allegedly helped broker the $130,000 payment to Daniels in order to suppress the story of her affair with Trump.
In a 2018 agreement with federal prosecutors, Pecker admitted that he had agreed to buy negative stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign and not publish them — a practice known as "catch and kill." As part of an immunity deal, he began cooperating with investigators in the hush money probe. Dylan Howard, American Media’s chief content officer, also reportedly cooperated in the initial federal probe.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that testimony from Pecker “tied Mr. Trump directly” to an August 2016 payment made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The Enquirer bought the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000 but never ran it. The Journal previously reported that Trump had asked Pecker to buy McDougal’s story in order to kill it.
Pecker testified twice before the grand jury, the second time occurring last week.
“It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal. It’s not a fair thing.”
— Trump’s reaction in 2018 to Pecker’s plea deal with the government
Former Playboy model
McDougal says she had an affair with Trump and was paid to keep quiet. Before the indictment was announced last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors in the Manhattan DA’s office had also asked witnesses who appeared before the grand jury about the $150,000 payment to her by American Media.
McDougal, who was Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Year in 1998, has said she and Trump began a 10-month affair in 2006. Trump has denied having a relationship with her.
In a 2018 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, McDougal said Trump tried to pay her after they had sex.
“After we had been intimate, he tried to pay me, and I actually didn’t know how to take that.”
— McDougal to Cooper, describing her first alleged sexual encounter with Trump
Former first lady
Melania Trump has not said much publicly about her husband's alleged affairs. But according to a recent People magazine report, the former first lady is still livid about the hush money saga.
“She remains angry and doesn’t want to hear [the alleged hush money payment] mentioned,” a source close to her told the publication. “She is aware of who her husband is and keeps her life upbeat with her own family and a few close friends.”
Donald Trump’s alleged tryst with Daniels took place less than four months after Melania gave birth to the couple’s son, Barron.
According to the report, Melania and Donald live in separate quarters of their Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., though they are still often spotted eating dinner together.
Hours after news of the indictment broke, the New York Times reported that they were “seen having a very public dinner” with Melania’s parents at Mar-a-Lago.
Notably, though, Melania Trump did not accompany her husband to New York for his arraignment, nor was she seen at his post-arraignment event at Mar-a-Lago.
“I have much more important things to think about and to do.”
— Melania Trump to ABC News in 2018 when asked whether her husband's alleged infidelities had put a strain on their marriage
Other key players
Former chief financial officer for the Trump Organization
According to Cohen, Weisselberg reimbursed him for the $130,000 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. In January, he was sentenced to five months in Rikers Island prison in New York City. He began serving his sentence the same month.
As part of a plea deal, which helped Weisselberg avoid a longer prison sentence, he agreed to testify against the Trump Organization — but not against his former boss.
“It was my own personal greed that led to this,” he testified last year during the tax fraud trial.
Unlike Cohen and Pecker, Weisselberg did not cooperate with Bragg’s investigation.
Lawyer for Trump
The New York Post once called Joe Tacopina “the most hated lawyer in New York.” Before joining the Trump team, the criminal defense lawyer and Brooklyn native had already built up a roster of high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson, former New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder and rap artists Jay-Z and Meek Mill, to name a few. He even represented Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the 2005 disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba, who was later convicted in the murder of another woman in Peru.
Tacopina — who sat next to Trump in court on Tuesday — has been appearing on television in recent weeks defending the former president in the hush money case. But he also distanced himself from Trump’s tweets attacking Bragg, calling them “ill-advised.”
Trump’s new lead counsel
Blanche, top white-collar criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, was hired by Trump as his lead counsel on the eve of the former president’s surrender in Manhattan.
According to Politico, Blanche resigned from New York’s prestigious Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft law firm, where he was a partner, in order to represent Trump.
“After much thought/consideration, I have decided it is the best thing for me to do and an opportunity I should not pass up,” he wrote in an email to Politico.
Blanche previously represented former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as well as Igor Fruman, a onetime associate of Rudy Giuliani who pleaded guilty in a campaign finance case that was brought by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office in 2021.
Lawyer for Cohen
Davis, a lawyer and Democratic political strategist, served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998, and as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 run in the Democratic primary for president. Despite his longtime loyalty to the Clintons, Davis has insisted that his decision to represent Cohen in the hush money case was not an act of “revenge” against Trump.
“It’s about having young children and being frightened to have a president this unhinged,” Davis told the Washington Post in 2018. “I saw it as an opportunity not to bring Trump down but to offer people hope that you could fight back.”
Lawyer for Trump
A prominent Trump lawyer and senior adviser to the former president’s political action committee, MAGA Inc., Habba appeared on Fox News following the news of the indictment, calling the case “legally pathetic” and insisting that Trump “will be vindicated” at trial.
Habba, who met Trump after joining his Bedminster, N.J., golf club in 2019, was brought on to the former president’s legal team in 2021, and quickly rose to the position of top lawyer in a number of high-profile cases, including the lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James against Trump and the Trump Organization alleging financial fraud. Earlier this year, a judge in Florida sanctioned Habba and Trump, ordering them to jointly pay nearly $1 million in fines for filing “frivolous” lawsuits against Hillary Clinton, James Comey and others, whom they accused of conspiring to sabotage Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Former senior counselor to Trump
According to Cohen, Conway — who managed Trump’s 2016 campaign in its final months — was the person he notified after completing the hush money payment to Daniels. In his 2020 memoir, “Disloyal,” Cohen wrote that he’d called Trump “to confirm that the transaction was completed, and the documentation all in place, but he didn’t take my call — obviously a very bad sign, in hindsight.”
Instead, Conway “called and said she’d pass along the good news,” according to Cohen.
Conway was seen arriving at Bragg’s office in Manhattan last month for what was reportedly at least her second meeting with prosecutors investigating the hush money case.
Former Trump spokeswoman and White House communications director
Trump's longtime spokeswoman served as the press secretary for his 2016 campaign and went on to serve in various roles in the White House. According to court records from an earlier federal probe into Trump’s alleged hush money payments, which resulted in Cohen’s arrest, Hicks spoke to Trump and Cohen on the phone the same day they learned Daniels wanted to be paid for her silence, and she also spoke to Cohen the day after he completed the $130,000 payment to Daniels’s lawyer.
Hicks, who met with prosecutors at the Manhattan district attorney’s office last month, previously testified before Congress that she was unaware of the hush money payment at the time, and denied being present for any conversation between Trump and Cohen regarding the deal with Daniels.
Governor of Florida
DeSantis, who is widely expected to challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination, needled the former president when he was initially asked about an impending indictment.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said.
But after news of Trump’s indictment broke, the Florida governor called Bragg’s case a “weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda,” and vowed that his state would “not assist in an extradition request.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene
The Republican and far-right conspiracy theorist has been one of Trump's most fervent supporters in Congress. And she's been showing up for him amid his legal woes.
Greene appeared Tuesday morning at what was billed as a "peaceful" pro-Trump protest outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan, where she got a decidedly chilly New York reception. She made a brief speech that was largely drowned out by whistles and catcalls from anti-Trump demonstrators, and was quickly whisked away by police officers and bodyguards through a crush of reporters.
Later in the day, she was at Mar-a-Lago for Trump's post-arraignment rally.
On her ride to the airport, Greene gave an interview in which she compared Trump to Jesus Christ.
“Trump is joining some of the most incredible people in history," she told the Right Side Broadcasting Network. "Nelson Mandela was arrested, served time in prison. Jesus! Jesus was arrested and murdered.”
Cover thumbnail photo Illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images, Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images, Marion Curtis via AP Photo, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, Roy Rochlin/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Jefferson Siegel/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Str/Reuters, Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Joe Raedle/Getty Images