David Pecker Deflates as Trump Hush Money Trial Testimony Grinds Ahead

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters

As Donald Trump’s hush money trial resumed on Tuesday, David Pecker arrived without the improbable smile he had when he first took the witness stand the day before.

On Monday, the 72-year-old accountant-turned-supermarket sleaze had seemed delighted to appear on center stage, even if it was to testify against a man he had once called a friend. He appeared to be energized by the drama of a courtroom packed with reporters, uniformed court officers and Secret Service agents, and initially seemed completely comfortable to assume the high profile perch of a subpoenaed stool pigeon.

But he must have been more anxious than he at first appeared, for he erupted into a sudden, surprisingly loud laugh when he momentarily had trouble remembering his phone number and the New York address of American Media, Inc. (AMI), where he had been CEO. AMI owns the National Enquirer.

He did not appear disappointed when the first day of the first criminal trial of a former American president ended early because a juror had an emergency dental appointment. He stepped down after only 30 minutes, before his testimony went much beyond his basic biographical details. The most damning thing he had to say about himself was that he engaged in “checkbook journalism.”

As court resumed on Tuesday, Pecker began to give—under oath—a full account of his life manufacturing actual fake news while hiding the truth about Trump. Pecker looked worn and considerably less enamored with himself as he strode into the 15th-floor courtroom. He sat surrounded by dingy, off-white walls in a room that looked like it should have a musty smell even if you could not detect it.

Tabloid Boss David Pecker Dishes on Killing Trump Love Child Rumor

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass began by asking Pecker if he saw Donald Trump in the courtroom, Pecker said he did.

“Could you please point him out?” Steinglass asked.

Pecker gave a fleeting, uncomfortable version of the previous day’s smile as he pointed to a figure that much of humankind instantly recognizes.

“He’s sitting, wearing, I think, a dark blue suit,” Pecker said.

Trump responded with something between a nod and a smirk. His usual hue was drained to that of a sucked-out orange by the nine overhead light fixtures, two of which partially obscure the words, “In God We Trust,” high on the drab wood paneling behind the judge’s bench.

The former president’s coif was the same as it appears in any windless venue. The Queens-raised Trump and the Bronx-raised Pecker appear to use the same lacquer on their hair, which marks them both as natives of New York’s outer boroughs rather than blue bloods from Manhattan.

“How did you meet the defendant?” the prosecutor asked.

“I met him at Mar-a-Lago,” Pecker replied, his Bronx accent carrying a hint of his upbringing.

The prosecutor led him from that first encounter to what Pecker described as “a great, mutually beneficial relationship” in which they would boost each others’ endeavors, most notably Pecker’s National Enquirer and Trump’s star-turning TV show, The Apprentice, followed by Celebrity Apprentice. Pecker recalled that his top-selling issues were the ones featuring the reality show kingpin who decided the fate of his contestants, elevating some and famously telling others, “You’re fired!”

“Mr. Trump was viewed as The Boss,” Pecker said.

A measure of how friendly the two men had once been came when the prosecutor asked how Pecker addressed “Mr. Trump” privately.

“I would call him Donald,” Pecker said.

David Pecker is questioned during former U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial

David Pecker is questioned during former U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016.

Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

As his testimony continued, Pecker looked at the jury more than most witnesses, who generally address either the prosecutor or the judge. He may have done so because it allowed him to look away from Trump.

Pecker recalled telling Trump of an internal AMI poll that showed 80 percent of National Enquirer readers wanted Trump to run for president. Trump cited the number on The Today Show and suggested he might be running.

A surreal distillation of reality show celebrity into American political history came as the courtroom’s four large screens and various small screens before the jurors, lawyers and the judge showed an email from Trump fixer Michael Cohen inviting Pecker to be at Trump Tower when Trump formally announced he was running for president.

“I was there when Mr. Trump and Melania came down the staircase and went up to the podium,” Pecker recalled of the famous escalator ride.

Pecker said he was invited back to Trump Tower that same year, in 2015.

“I received a call from Michael Cohen telling me that the boss wanted to see me,” Mr. Pecker recalled.

What prosecutors call “The Trump Tower Conspiracy” began when Pecker met with Trump and Cohen. Hope Hicks, then a Trump publicist, came in and out of the meeting, enough that she is expected to be called as a witness at the trial.

By Pecker’s account, he agreed to be Trump’s “eyes and ears” and alert him through Cohen if he heard of anybody trying to sell negative stories, particularly if they were women.

“In a presidential campaign I was the person that thought that a lot of women would come out to sell their stories,” Pecker said.

Pecker testified that if he heard of any story that might name Trump, he was to call Cohen. They would then engage in “catch and kill,” buying the story to prevent it from ever being published.

At the same time, Pecker pledged to run negative stories against Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination. The prosecution entered into evidence a number of damaging stories, and the accompanying headlines from The National Enquirer appeared on the courthouse screens. The most bizarre concerned Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: “Donald Trump Blasts Ted Cruz’s Dad for Photo with J.F.K. Assassin.”

Another was particularly startling in the context of a Trump trial involving hush money for an adult film actress: “Ted Cruz Shamed by Porn Star.”

At several points in the proceedings, the lawyers on both sides stepped up to the bench for a sidebar with Judge Juan Merchan. Trump would sit alone in front of a small screen as the default courtroom video feed showed him looking at the screen, which showed him looking at the screen, and so on, smaller and smaller.

Despite the infinity-Trump on the screen, he looked particularly solitary when left to his own devices—because he does not seem to have any devices. The former president appears to be devoid of inner life when he is not being actively admired.

Toward the end of the day, he did have what appeared to be printouts of National Enquirer stories, as well as exhibits from a hearing at the start of the day to determine whether he had repeatedly violated a standing gag order. He appeared to be actually reading; something he is said to have failed to do with his daily intelligence briefs during his presidency. Maybe if he wins re-election, those top-secret reports should be written tabloid style: “Putin Shamed By Ukraine!”

There will be no trial on Wednesday, so the prosecution may have sought to leave the jury with something spicy.

Pecker testified that he learned in June 2016 that former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal was seeking to sell a story of a nearly year-old affair with Trump.

The tale, as told by Pecker, reached the point where Trump called him and said, “Don’t buy any stories. Any time you do something like this, it always gets out.”

Pecker said he told Trump to “take the story off the market” and Trump replied, “Let me think about it.”

The rest will be told when Pecker returns to the stand on Thursday—and the sordid drama in a courtroom so drab it seems the perfect antidote to Trump’s lifelong insistence that he deserves only the very best.

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