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Former tabloid publisher details actions on behalf of Trump ahead of 2016 election

Former President Trump talks to reporters after his hush-money trial in New York adjourned for the day Thursday.
Mark Peterson
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Former President Trump talks to reporters after his hush-money trial in New York adjourned for the day Thursday.

NEW YORK — The former publisher of the National Enquirer told prosecutors in New York that he killed stories that potentially could have hurt Donald Trump during the former president's run for the White House in 2016.

David Pecker, the tabloid's former publisher, detailed how Keith Davidson, an information broker, came forward in June 2016 with the story of Karen McDougal, a playboy model, who said she'd had an affair with Trump. The Enquirer was inclined to believe her, Pecker said, and sent a top editor to speak to McDougal.

Pecker said Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney at the time, called repeatedly during the meeting with McDougal, and Pecker himself called Trump after the meeting.

Pecker's testimony Thursday came on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard argumentson whether Trump enjoys absolutely immunity from prosecutions for his actions in the White House.

Jurors in Trump's hush-money trial in New York heard details Thursday from Pecker of secret payments, buried stories and most of all, a first-hand look at how the former president acted to control information about his past in the run up to the 2016 presidential election.

Pecker said Trump told him, "Karen is a nice girl," and asked him what he should do? Pecker said that he told Trump: "You should buy the story and take it off the market."

American Media Inc., which then published the Enquirer, made the payment. Pecker says Cohen promised to reimburse him for his actions, telling him: "Don't worry, I'm your friend. The boss will take care of it." Pecker's account suggests Trump's intimate knowledge of the hush-money payments from the start.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass walked Pecker through a number of machinations the publisher made to keep the payments secret, and how Pecker was getting increasingly nervous, because his plan had been for Trump to reimburse him before the end of the quarter — by Sept. 30, 2016 – so it would never show up on the books.

Pecker said he understood it could be viewed as an illegal corporate campaign contribution. But when September turned to October, the other shoe dropped – in the form of Stormy Daniels.

The adult film star came to the Enquirer through the same information broker who brought them McDougal. Pecker says he did not want his company associated with a porn star.

"I am not doing it, period," he recalled saying.

Ultimately, Cohen paid Stormy Daniels himself. Trump's reimbursement of Cohen became the basis for the 34 counts of falsifying business records in this case. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Pecker claimed that his actions resulted in a "thank you" dinner hosted by Trump at the White House in 2017. Prosecutors showed a picture of the two walking outside the White House, taken at the moment, Pecker says, when Trump asked him: "How's Karen?"

Pecker was cross-examined by Emil Bove, the defense attorney. Bove noted that AMI, National Enquirer's parent company at the time, had long engaged in checkbook journalism. He said the tabloid purchased negative stories about celebrities, say, golfer Tiger Woods, and promised to kill the story to get Woods to agree to being on a cover.

Bove mentioned other politicians National Enquirer caught stories for, like former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder and movie star.

Pecker said the relationship with Trump had been "mutually beneficial" long before the campaign – that he was their most popular celebrity.

In 2018, Pecker was granted immunity in exchange for providing federal prosecutors with information about the payments. American Media, Inc. at the time admitted that it helped arrange payments to McDougal and later was sold amid the scandal of their involvement with the Trump campaign and federal investigations.

Pecker's cross-examination continues Friday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 26, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Karen McDougal's last name as MacDougal multiple times.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]