5 Key Takeaways From Tabloid Boss David Pecker’s Trump Trial Testimony

Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial kicked off this week with witness testimony from media honcho David Pecker, who said that the former president was well aware of the catch-and-kill scheme and even thanked Pecker for his help in hiding two potentially “damaging” stories. The former American Media Inc. Chairman and CEO set the stage for the rest of the trial, giving a chronological overview of how he was brought into a meeting with Trump and his former fixer Michael Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015, two months after Trump announced his candidacy for president. That now-notorious meeting kicked off a series of requests from the Trump team in the hopes of helping Trump’s chances ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Although Pecker first met Trump in the late 1980s, he says their relationship blossomed with the “instant success” of The Apprentice, which ran from 2004 until 2017, when Trump took office. AMI, which Pecker had taken over in 1999, was the publisher of several supermarket tabloids including Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, and most importantly, the National Enquirer, a weekly tabloid with about 300,000 unique readers. As Pecker and Trump had discussed Trump’s political ambitions in the past, Pecker informed him of a National Enquirer poll that found about 80 percent of readers would support Donald Trump if he were to run for president.

After Trump’s famous descent on a golden escalator in Trump Tower announcing he was running for president in June 2015, he referenced the National Enquirer poll in an interview with Matt Lauer explaining his decision to run for office. Here are some of the key takeaways from Pecker’s testimony.

Pecker Acts as the “Eyes and Ears” of the Trump Campaign

Pecker testified on Tuesday that he was asked by Trump and Cohen in the August 2015 meeting, “What can I do, and what my magazines can do to help the campaign.” Throughout that meeting, Pecker said he would run and publish positive stories about Trump, negative stories about his opponents, and use AMI’s vast network of sources to let Trump and Cohen know if there was any negative story that could potentially go public. “I said I would be your eyes and ears,” he testified.

Pecker added that he would pay special attention to any women that came forward, saying in his line of work he would often see women bring salacious stories to light when men would announce their candidacy for public office. He added he had done something similar when Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was running for governor of California. Pecker also said he would help to bury negative stories about Trump, his family, and his campaign.

“Embellished” Stories about Trump’s Political Opponents

Throughout the week, both the prosecution and Trump’s legal team showed the court a series of headlines published in the National Enquirer attacking prominent Republican candidates for president, including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Among the articles the tabloid published during the election included some with such headlines:

  • “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson left sponge in patient’s brain”

  • “Conjoined Twins died after Ben Carson’s botched operations”

  • “Boozin’ Ted Cruz destined to lose”

  • “Donald Trump blasts Ted Cruz’s dad for photo with JFK assassin”

  • “Family man Marco Rubio’s love child stunner”

  • “Senator Marco Rubio’s cocaine connection”

Pecker testifed that each of these articles was published after he received a phone call from Cohen requesting the Enquirer publish a negative story based on which candidate was polling higher that week. “Then Michael Cohen would send me negative information about Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Michael Rubio, and that was the basis of our article, and then we would embellish it from there.” Pecker testified that he would send Cohen the article before it was sent to press and that Cohen would give him final feedback regarding the direction of the article — something that is unheard of in the tabloid industry, Pecker said. Pecker specifically pointed out the article about Ted Cruz’s father’s connection to Lee Harvey Oswald as one such example of a story the Enquirer fabricated, taking a photo of Cruz’s father and having it “mashed” with a photo of Oswald.

Additionally, the publication would publish good stories about Trump. Some titles included “Donald Trump GOP Unity After Meeting,” “Cruzin’ to Victory, Ted Endorses Donald,” and “Obama’s Half-Brother Cheering on Donald at a Debate.”

Cohen Directs Pecker to Buy Two Stories So the “Boss Would be Happy” 

In the months preceding the presidential election, Pecker became aware of Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, who was looking to sell a story about Trump allegedly fathering an illegitimate child. Pecker, recalling his Trump Tower agreement with Cohen and Trump, called Cohen and told him that he and his team would purchase the story. “One, I thought it was important to stop Dino from getting this story to other outlets,” Pecker testified. “Two, I bought the story, and if the story was true, and I’d publish it, it would probably be the biggest sale for the National Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley.” Pecker added Presley’s death brought the publication more than $6.5 million. Pecker told Cohen the paper had negotiated a price of $30,000 and said he would pay for it. “He said thank you and said the boss would be happy,” Pecker testified.

In June 2016, Pecker was then informed of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who alleged she had a sexual relationship with Trump while Melania was expecting Barron. Pecker had AMI chief content officer Dylan Howard conduct an interview with McDougal, in which he learned McDougal did not want to come public about the encounter, but rather wanted to get back into the spotlight. Pecker once again contacted Cohen, who counseled him to purchase her story. Under the guise of a contract offering McDougal a monthly column in several publications and having other articles ghostwritten for her, AMI acquired the life rights to the story for $130,000. “The actual purpose was to acquire the lifetime rights to her actual story, so it wouldn’t be published by American Media, and it wouldn’t be published by any other media source,” Pecker testified on Friday. Once again, Pecker footed the bill for her story.

Pecker Refuses to Purchase Stormy Daniels’ Story: “I Wasn’t a Bank”

Until that point, Pecker testified to three things: the most he had spent on a story had been $20,000; the Sajudin story had ended up being a lie and he would never have spent money on a fabricated story; and he would not have spent $130,000 not to publish a story, as he did with McDougal’s. So when news of Stormy Daniels’ alleged affair with Trump started to come to light, Pecker refused to purchase her story. “I told Michael Cohen after paying the doorman story and the Karen McDougal, that I wasn’t going to pay anything further and I wasn’t a bank,” he testified. “There is no possible way I buy the story for $120,000, and I don’t want anything to do with a porn star,” he added. Pecker recalled a phone call with Cohen in which Pecker said he refused to buy the story and instead suggested Cohen purchase it. “If you don’t, it’s going to be sold to another media outlet and the boss is going to be very very angry with you,” Pecker told Cohen. Once Pecker put his foot down, Cohen opened an LLC to wire the reimbursement payments for the other stories Pecker had purchased.

Trump Knew of the Alleged Hush Money Payments — and Asked Pecker About Karen McDougal at the White House

Pecker testified that after Trump was elected, he invited him to a Trump Tower meeting with Sean Spicer and Mike Pompeo, joked that Pecker had more information than the men in the room, and then asked about McDougal. Pecker said she was doing well and had authored 65 articles as part of their agreement. “Trump said to me, ‘How is Karen McDougal?’ I said, ‘Everything is quiet.’ Trump said ‘Karen is a good girl’ and then he said he was very appreciative of how I handled the McDougal story. And he thanked me for how I handled the doorman story,” Pecker testified. He also testified that Trump asked about the stories Pecker helped hide during a July 2017 dinner at the White House. The media mogul recalled that Trump used the word “damaging” when describing the two stories, and said those were the direct times Trump admitted to knowing of AMI’s efforts to catch-and-kill the stories.

Week one of witness testimony concluded with Rhona Graff, a former senior vice president at the Trump Organization who was in charge of Trump’s schedule in 2015 when she vaguely recalled seeing Daniels in Trump Tower; and with Gary Farro, the former senior managing director at First Republic Bank in 2016 when Cohen opened a bank account for an LLC he started to make the hush-money payments.Next week will open with additional testimony from Farro and another hearing regarding Trump’s alleged violations of the gag order.

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