Judge Blocks Trump’s ‘Fishing Expedition’ To Force NBC To Hand Over Secret Information About Stormy Daniels

Mr. Trump had been seeking to prove ‘collusion’ between NBC and the porn star known as Stormy Daniels to time the release of the documentary as close to his criminal trial as possible to ‘maximize their own financial interests.’

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The adult film star Stormy Daniels, left, and President Trump, right. Getty Images

President Trump suffered another blow as he prepares for his imminent hush-money-trial. The New York state judge, Juan Merchan, who oversees the case, denied Mr. Trump’s request to subpoena NBCUniversal and obtain information about a key witness, the pornographic film star, writer and director Stormy Daniels. 

“Because Defendant’s claims are purely speculative and unsupported, his subpoena and the demands therein are the very definition of a fishing expedition,” the judge wrote in his order on Friday.  

Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is expected to be a star-witness for the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting Mr. Trump in the first ever criminal trial of a former president in U.S. history, due to begin later this month.   

The case centers on Ms. Clifford’s claim that she had a one-night sexual encounter with Mr. Trump during a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in July of  2006. She was 27 and he was 60. Four months prior, his third wife, Melania Trump, had given birth to their son, Barron. The former president fiercely denies the extramarital affair.   

Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers in New York, Thursday, March 14, 2024. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Fast forward to 2016. According to prosecutors, Mr. Trump directed his former lawyer and current nemesis, Michael Cohen, to pay $130,000 to Ms. Clifford, who was shopping around her account of the sexual encounter, so that she would agree to be silent. Prosecutors further allege that Mr. Trump later repaid his debt to Cohen, but fraudulently concealed the reimbursement as legal expenses.   

Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in 2018 to having orchestrated Ms. Clifford’s payout. He went to federal prison but was eventually released and placed under home confinement. Cohen, who felt abandoned by Mr. Trump at his greatest time of need, turned on his former boss, agreeing to testify against him and publishing a memoir called “Disloyal”. 

It was after his presidency, in 2023, that the Manhattan district attorney indicted Mr. Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. In order to upgrade to felonies what would normally be misdemeanors, Mr. Bragg pursued an ornate strategy that The New York Times has characterized as “a staple of his office’s white-collar work,” alleging that Mr. Trump committed one crime in order to commit another crime. Unlike in his other cases, though, Mr. Bragg has refrained from revealing what that second secret crime is, giving his attorneys more leeway during the trial.   

If found guilty by a jury, Mr. Trump could face prison time. While legal experts consider prison to be a highly unlikely outcome, because Mr. Trump has no prior convictions, this is an unusual case with an explosive defendant who is deeply unpopular in Manhattan. 

Stephanie Clifford, known as 'Stormy Daniels,' at the New York premier of her documentary, 'Stormy.' Three Dollar Bill, Brooklyn, March 18, 2024.
Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, at the New York premiere of her documentary, ‘Stormy.’ at Three Dollar Bill, Brooklyn, March 18, 2024. A.R. Hoffman/The New York Sun

Mr. Trump pleaded innocent to all charges. He has called the case a political “witch hunt” brought on by his political opponents to stop him from winning the presidency in the up-coming election.  

The trial was initially scheduled to begin on March 25, but the judge granted the parties 30 extra days, after the defense produced an exorbitant amount of documents, mostly related to Cohen, they had received from the prior federal investigation. 

On March 18, exactly one week before the trial’s original start date, NBCUniversal premiered the documentary “Stormy” on the network’s also-ran streaming service, Peacock.

The film, reviewed by the Sun, chronicles Ms. Cliford’s years-long legal battle with Mr. Trump, and how it turned her life upside down. It reveals, from her point of view, how Ms. Clifford experienced a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump that he says never occurred. 

Stormy Daniels attends the Los Angeles Premiere Of Neon’s “Pleasure” at Linwood Dunn Theater on May 11, 2022 at Los Angeles.Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

The documentary portrays how their alleged tryst was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2018, in a detailed account of how Ms. Clifford was paid for her silence by Cohen, in a complicated “catch and kill” transaction involving Mr. Trump’s friends at the National Enquirer. 

Mr. Trump, who was the sitting president, called Ms. Clifford a liar. She sued him for defamation, setting in motion what she describes as a “never ending avalanche of court documents.” Ms. Clifford lost the lawsuit, she appealed, but lost again and currently owes Mr. Trump around $600,000 in legal fees. She says she’d rather go to prison than pay him.

Mr. Trump’s defense attorneys had subpoenaed NBCUniversal, “seeking all materials related to the documentary film titled ‘Stormy’”, the judge wrote in his Friday order. The defense sought information that would establish a “collusion between NBCU and Daniels relating to the release date of the documentary.” The judge explained, “Defendant argues that NBCU and Daniels conspired to release the documentary as close to the start date of this trial as possible to prejudice Defendant and maximize their own financial interests.” 

In response, NBCUniversal filed a motion to quash the subpoena, stating that Mr. Trump’s claims were “devoid of factual support or corroboration.” Furthermore, Senior Vice President of Production and Development at NBCUniversal, Erica Forstadt, provided legal affirmation that Ms. Clifford had no “right to approve the content of the Documentary or the timing of its release.”

The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has been criticized for offering a plea deal to the perpetrator of an antisemitic attack at New York.
The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. AP/Mary Altaffer

The defense also wanted information regarding the editing of the documentary, the promotion, the marketing, the form of compensation to Ms. Clifford, the rights to the documentary maintained by Ms. Clifford, and any legal agreements between Ms. Clifford and NBCUniversal. 

How Ms. Clifford was paid for “Stormy” remains unclear. NewsNation reports that NBC did not pay her directly, because any money she received would go to Mr. Trump, as she owes him so much money for his legal fees. However, NBC may have set up a trust fund for her daughter. One goal of Mr. Trump’s attempt to subpoena NBC may be to identify any backdoor compensation paid indirectly to Ms. Clifford that he could then seek to claw back.

Judge Merchan compared the request to a “fishing expedition,” deeming it as “far too broad”, and calling the claims “speculative and unsupported.”

However, the principal reason Judge Merchan gave for his denial was from New York state civil rights law. He wrote, “even if this Court were to find that defendant’s request was not speculative or that it seeks general discovery, NBCUniversal’s motion nonetheless would be granted because Defendant seeks unfettered access to the notes and materials of a media organization in violation of New York Civil Rights Law § 79-h.” 

President Trump talks to attorney Susan Necheles during a pre-trial hearing in his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on February 15, 2024. Steven Hirsch-pool/Getty Images

New York’s Shield Iaw, as it is also called, the judge wrote, “provides journalists an absolute privilege from testifying with regard to news obtained under a promise of confidentiality.” The Civil Rights Law, he said, includes “newscasters and their supervisors and employers.”  

The Reporters Committee For Freedom Of the Press write on their website that the statute originally only applied to materials or information given in confidence to reporters. “However, various amendments, some in response to judicial decisions, expanded the statute so that it now protects both confidential and nonconfidential information from disclosure.”  

Ms. Clifford premiered her documentary at a nightclub in New York on March 18. She told the audience that, although she felt exhausted from the many years of legal quarrels, she was ready to testify against Mr. Trump in the upcoming trial.

When asked if the documentary had given her a sense of closure, she replied,  “How does this end before the trial? It’s like six years of foreplay and no orgasm.”  

The New York Sun

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