5 Takeaways from David Pecker’s Testimony in Trump’s Hush-Money Trial

By Equipo
6 Min Read

The criminal trial of Donald Trump featured vivid testimony on Thursday about a plot to protect his first presidential campaign and the beginnings of a tough cross-examination of the prosecution’s initial witness, David Pecker.

In his third day of testimony, Mr. Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, described his involvement in the suppression of the stories of two women who claimed to have had sex with Mr. Trump: Karen McDougal, a Playboy model, and Stormy Daniels, the porn star whose 2016 hush-money payoff forms the basis of the prosecution’s case.

Mr. Trump, 77, is charged with falsifying 34 business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to Ms. Daniels, who has said they had a sexual encounter in 2006 and was shopping that story in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election. He has denied the charges and having sex with Ms. Daniels and Ms. McDougal; the former president could face probation or prison if convicted.

Here are five takeaways from Mr. Trump’s seventh day on trial:

Pecker teed up falsified records charges.

As part of a so-called catch-and-kill scheme, Mr. Pecker testified that his company, AMI, paid Ms. McDougal $150,000 to purchase her story, with no intention of publishing anything about an affair with Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Pecker expected repayment. He said he asked Michael D. Cohen, who was Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who would handle the reimbursement, and Mr. Cohen responded, “The boss will take care of it.”

Because Mr. Pecker had such a hard time getting Mr. Trump to pay up, he was unwilling to buy a third story: Ms. Daniels’s account of sex with Mr. Trump.

“I am not a bank,” Mr. Pecker recalled saying.

Mr. Pecker suggested that Mr. Cohen buy Ms. Daniels’s story instead, leading to the hush-money deal, repayments and records at issue in this trial.

Prosecutors painted a picture of election interference.

The prosecution’s discussion of the deal with Ms. McDougal — brokered in summer 2016 — served another purpose: trying to demonstrate that the payment was part of a scheme to influence that year’s election.

Mr. Pecker said that Ms. McDougal’s payment was disguised as a contract for services, to avoid violating campaign finance laws.

“I wanted to protect my company, I wanted to protect myself and I wanted also to protect Donald Trump,” Mr. Pecker said.

Mr. Pecker was also asked whether he believed Mr. Trump was concerned that his wife or family would find out about the affairs. But Mr. Pecker suggested that Mr. Trump’s concerns were electoral, not personal.

Trump worried about Ms. McDougal, even after his election.

Mr. Pecker told of least two instances in which Mr. Trump inquired about Ms. McDougal, referring to her at a Trump Tower meeting before he took office as “our girl.” He also asked about her during a meeting with Mr. Pecker at the White House, the publisher said.

At the Trump Tower meeting, which also included notables like James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, and Reince Priebus, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mr. Pecker reassured Mr. Trump that everything was fine.

Mr. Trump then told the group that Mr. Pecker probably “knows more than anyone else in this room.”

“It was a joke,” Mr. Pecker testified, adding, “They didn’t laugh.”

Pecker did a lot for Trump, who could be hard to please.

Mr. Pecker said on Tuesday he had agreed to be the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign and used AMI to deal with threats to Mr. Trump’s reputation.

After the “Access Hollywood” tape was revealed in October 2016, featuring Mr. Trump’s boasts about groping women, one of Mr. Pecker’s editors scrubbed an AMI publication’s website of a 2008 article describing Mr. Trump as a “playboy man.”

Despite that, Mr. Trump often made his displeasure known, Mr. Pecker testified, either through Mr. Cohen or in phone calls. Mr. Pecker variously described Mr. Trump as becoming “very angry” and “very aggravated.”

Still, Mr. Pecker said he felt no ill will. “I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor,” Mr. Pecker said, adding, “I still consider him a friend.”

Cross-examination continues Friday. More names may drop.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers, led by Emil Bove, started their cross-examination trying to show that such deals were “standard operating procedure” in the supermarket tabloid business and that the magazines published only about half of the stories they bought.

That offered the first intimation of the defense strategy: presenting as commonplace actions that the prosecutors have deemed criminal. The cross-examination also showed the ugly side of the tabloid trade, including the admission that Mr. Pecker’s magazines would buy stories as leverage against celebrities.

Many famous names were mentioned, including that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star-turned-Republican politician. Mr. Pecker described a 2002 meeting in which Mr. Schwarzenegger asked Mr. Pecker not to run negative stories about him before his run for governor of California. It worked: the star of “The Terminator” was elected and served from 2003 until 2011.

The name-dropping may well continue when cross-examination continues Friday.

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