At Trump’s Trial, a Window Into the Golden Era of Tabloids

By Equipo
11 Min Read

Inside a staid Manhattan courtroom this week, flashes from a bygone era appeared, recollections of a celebrity-studded world of leveraged secrets and traded favors, and one in which publications sold at supermarket checkout counters wielded real cultural and political power.

It was a world that David Pecker, the first witness called in Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial and the former publisher of The National Enquirer, once presided over. Mr. Trump, his old friend and associate, sat silently at the defense table as Mr. Pecker testified not only about their own dealings, but also about his brushes with other celebrities: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mark Wahlberg. Tiger Woods.

His testimony, over four days, evoked the sensational, transactional tactics of tabloid newspapers and magazines. But it was also particular to Mr. Pecker, who over two decades ran American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, commingling journalism and business interests to an extent that other executives had not in his slowly dying industry, according to people familiar with his career.

Once called the “tabloid king,” Mr. Pecker, 72, had been written about often in his decades-long career, but he had never spoken so publicly about how he operated before taking the witness stand.

Under questioning from prosecutors for Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, Mr. Pecker walked the jury through his role in an effort to suppress negative news about Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential election. He said he helped orchestrate hush-money deals related to supposed sexual encounters, and an uncorroborated story about an out-of-wedlock child.

That scheme, prosecutors said, provides context for the charges that Mr. Trump criminally falsified records at his company to cover up one of those deals, a $130,000 hush-money agreement with the porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the election. Mr. Trump denies Ms. Daniels’s claims that they had sex.

One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Emil Bove, tried to get Mr. Pecker to admit that what he did for Mr. Trump in 2016 — paying the sources of negative stories and then never publishing them, and manipulating headlines to aid his friend’s campaign — was “standard operating procedure.” Mr. Pecker obliged to a point, describing others he had helped in the past, people his employees had branded “F.O.P.s,” for “Friends of Pecker.”

Mr. Pecker in 2014. He presided over The National Enquirer during a period in which supermarket tabloids wielded remarkable influence.Credit…Marion Curtis/Associated Press

There was Mr. Schwarzenegger, who ran for governor in California’s recall election in 2003, and ultimately won. Mr. Pecker had just purchased a group of muscle and fitness magazines from Mr. Schwarzenegger’s mentor, Joe Weider, who introduced him to the star. When they met, Mr. Schwarzenegger noted that he had been on the covers of the muscle magazines dozens of times, and he had also been the focus of negative stories in the tabloids Mr. Pecker also owned.

“And he said, ‘I plan on running for governor, and I would like for you not to publish any negative stories on me now,’” Mr. Pecker recalled.

He agreed to the request and made Mr. Schwarzenegger an “editor at large.” After Mr. Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor, women contacted The Enquirer to sell their stories “on different relationships or contacts and sexual harassment that they felt Arnold Schwarzenegger did,” Mr. Pecker said. “And I ended up acquiring, buying them for a period of time.”

It was his first so-called catch-and-kill for a politician. His staff called it “The David Pecker Project.” Mr. Pecker testified that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars killing such stories, mostly in small increments. Eventually, The Los Angeles Times reported on some of Mr. Pecker’s dealings involving Mr. Schwarzenegger, who denied knowledge of them.

State officials investigated his hiring of Mr. Schwarzenegger as an editor, who had to resign, Mr. Pecker said. He testified that the episode had alerted him to the possible dangers of violating election laws. (A decade later, after Mr. Schwarzenegger left office, Mr. Pecker protected him again, paying for a photocopy of a nude picture of him as a young bodybuilder.) A representative for Mr. Schwarzenegger could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Pecker is no longer publisher of The Enquirer but remains a consultant to American Media. His once booming industry declined over the years as mainstream outlets expanded their gossip coverage and the internet eroded tabloid readership.

Mr. Pecker explained the methods he described this week as beneficial to business, but he did not invent them. They dated virtually to The Enquirer’s birth. Its founder, Generoso “Gene” Pope Jr., bought the weekly New York Enquirer in 1952 with an interest-free loan from his godfather, the mobster Frank Costello, and agreed not to write critical stories about organized crime, Mr. Pope’s son Paul has said. He transformed it into a national tabloid and moved it to Florida in 1971, poaching British reporters trained in hard-charging coverage of crime and the glitterati.

Mr. Pope and those who followed him at the paper sometimes killed negative stories in exchange for interviews or a different scoop, or holding on to them as chits to be repaid later. But those were usually stories that were not quite right for the publication anyway.

The Enquirer aggressively covered Mr. Trump during his rise as a celebrity developer in New York, chronicling “The Donald’s” romantic flings, marriages and divorces.

Mr. Pecker said he met Mr. Trump in part through Ronald Perelman, a businessman and big advertiser whom The Enquirer had also protected. Mr. Pecker later created a magazine called Trump Style, glorifying the mogul’s brand, and held a launch party at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for George, a political magazine he published that was founded by John F. Kennedy Jr.

“He was very helpful in introducing me to other executives and other people in New York,” Mr. Pecker testified of Mr. Trump. “And he would always advise me of parties or events or things that I would either go to or send, at that time, my editors to.”

When Mr. Pecker and investors bought The Enquirer, he said, Mr. Trump was among the first to call and congratulate him.

From then on, Mr. Pecker said, Trump was protected by his tabloid company. Mr. Pecker also promoted his presidential flirtations before the elections of 2000 and 2012. Mr. Trump became even more important to Mr. Pecker with his rise as a reality star on “The Apprentice.” Mr. Trump sent him the ratings and other content for free, and he would publish it.

“It was a great mutual, beneficial relationship,” Mr. Pecker said.

Questioning Mr. Pecker on Thursday, Mr. Bove, the lawyer for Mr. Trump, ticked through others who had received his protection. He asked about compromising photographs that Mr. Pecker had purchased of Tiger Woods, whose affairs were tabloid fodder, that were used to get Mr. Woods to sit down for an interview, despite his exclusive relationship with another publication.

“The purpose of buying the photographs was to leverage them against Tiger Woods to get him in the magazine, right?” Mr. Bove asked, and Mr. Pecker agreed. A representative for Mr. Woods could not be reached.

Mr. Pecker also testified that he had suppressed stories to aid Ari Emanuel, a prominent talent agent whom Mr. Pecker said he had known since the 1990s.

The actor Mark Wahlberg, a client of Mr. Emanuel’s, once had a dispute with his wife that was “bubbling and going to come out,” Mr. Pecker testified, adding that he told Mr. Wahlberg’s representatives where to buy the story. The Enquirer never published it.

And Mr. Pecker said he spent $20,000 to buy and quash the story of an affair involving Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Emanuel’s brother, who was running for mayor of Chicago in 2011 after having served as then President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Representatives for Ari Emanuel and Mr. Wahlberg could not be reached for comment. A representative for Rahm Emanuel declined to comment.

Early in the week, Mr. Pecker testified that as Mr. Trump sought the presidency in 2016, he had offered to be the candidate’s eyes and ears, and later advised Mr. Trump to buy one story, a Playboy model’s account of their affair, to “take it off the market.”

Mr. Pecker ended up doing that himself, for $150,000. That later led to his company admitting it had tried to influence the election in a nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in 2018.

After Mr. Trump’s lawyers sought to compare that deal to what Mr. Pecker had done so many times before, one of the prosecutors, Joshua Steinglass, tried to make a distinction.

He asked Mr. Pecker how many of the hundreds of nondisclosure agreements that his company had reached over the years had been coordinated by him as the chief executive officer “with a presidential candidate for the benefit of the campaign.”

“It’s the only one,” Mr. Pecker said.

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