Former National Enquirer Publisher David Pecker Details “Catch And Kill” Strategy To Save Donald Trump From Potentially Damaging Stories — Update

UPDATE: National Enquirer Publisher David Pecker, on the witness stand today in Donald Trump’s hush money trial, detailed the tens of thousands of dollars the tabloid shelled out to “catch and kill” potentially embarrassing stories during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Pecker, who counted Trump as a friend and an asset, told jurors of paying $30,000 to bury an “untrue” claim that The Apprentice host had fathered a child out of wedlock. Pecker made clear to jurors that the purpose of the payment was to protect Trump and his 2016 GOP presidential campaign from “potential embarrassment.”

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With Trump looking on, the former CEO of National Enquirer parent company American Media (AMI), testified that in 2016 he bought exclusive rights to — and then killed — the story being shopped by a Trump Tower doorman in New York who claimed the real estate mogul had a child with his housekeeper. Pecker said that when he told Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, of the deal, Cohen replied, “The boss will be very pleased.”

It was the first of three times in 2016 that Pecker would employ a “catch and kill” strategy to contain stories that could have been politically damaging to Trump, according to prosecutors.

The last payment, $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels, was not made by Pecker but by Cohen. Trump’s repayment to Cohen is at the heart of the Manhattan District Attorney’s case that Trump and his allies broke state business and campaign finance laws to carry out “a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.”

Trump, through his lawyers in court and in testy remarks outside the courtroom, has denied that he paid Cohen for anything other than routine legal work. He has also denied ever having a sexual encounter with Daniels.

Trump on Tuesday called a gag order barring him from criticizing likely witnesses, including Cohen, “a disgrace” and “totally unconstitutional,” and waved a stack of white papers that he said were reprints of articles calling the hush-money case a “sham,” per media pool reports.

“I’m not allowed to talk but people are allowed to talk about me,” Trump said after court was finished for the day. Judge Juan Merchan is also deciding whether Trump violated the judge’s gag order —  as prosecutors allege — against attacks on trial witnesses, jurors and others working on the case, and whether to hold him in contempt and fine him for social media and campaign website posts targeting Cohen, Daniels and jury candidates.

Trump complained to hallway reporters that he’s not even sure he can repost published critiques of the case without violating the gag order.

Pecker, a reluctant witness testifying under subpoena, today gave jurors a long look at “checkbook journalism” as practiced by National Enquirer and other American Media celebrity news and gossip publications he oversaw that paid anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000 or more to sources and tipsters.

Pecker described the “great, mutually beneficial relationship” he had with Trump, who he said he met in the late 1980s at Trump’s Mar-a-lago estate in West Palm Beach. Trump’s image helped sell newsstand copies of National Enquirer, especially after the Trump-hosted NBC reality shows, The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, became hits in the 2000s and 2010s.

Trump would share exclusive information with Pecker about ratings and Apprentice contestants vying for a Trump Organization job — or famously being told “You’re fired” on air by Trump. The intel boosted National Enquirer sales — “and I needed the help,” Pecker added during questioning by Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass.

When Trump began flirting with a run for president, the National Enquirer ran a poll of its readers saying 80 percent of them liked the idea, Pecker testified. When Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, riding down the escalator at Trump Tower with his wife, Melania Trump, Pecker was among the invited guests watching inside the Fifth Avenue building’s atrium.

“No one deserves to be there more than you,” Pecker testified that Cohen told him.

Cohen became an intermediary between Pecker and Trump and the pace of their calls picked up as Trump’s campaign got underway, Pecker said.

When he was summoned to Trump Tower for a meeting in August of 2015, “I assumed I was going to be asked for something,” Pecker said, because that was typically why Cohen called.

Prosecutors say the catch and kill scheme was hatched at that meeting between Pecker, Trump, Cohen and Hope Hicks, the campaign spokesperson who previously worked for a Pecker-owned media relations company as a press contact for Star magazine.

Before Pecker paid the Trump Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, he asked the Enquirer editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, to vet the story. Howard hired a private investigator and administered a polygraph test to Sajudin and concluded his story was “1,000 percent, absolutely untrue,” Pecker said.

“So why are we paying $30,000 for an untrue story,” Steinglass asked him.

“I made the decision to buy the story because of the potential embarrassment it would have to the campaign and Mr. Trump,” Pecker said,

Pecker said he also amended the company’s standard source payment agreement to give AMI ownership of the story in perpetuity and, on the advice of Cohen, added a clause requiring Sajudin to pay $1,000,000 in damages if he ever broke the agreement. Jurors saw a screenshot of the amended agreement.

Pecker said he eventually released Sajudin from the agreement because, as he told Cohen, he was “difficult to deal with” and was becoming a “problem,” and still might attempt to sell the story even in the face of a seven-figure penalty. Cohen persuaded Pecker to wait until after the election. Jurors then saw an email to Sajudin dated December 9, 2016, releasing him from the agreement.

The process repeated when Howard, the Enquirer editor, got wind of a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, shopping a story in early 2016 about a yearlong romantic affair she said she had with the married Trump. Pecker again assigned Howard to dig into the allegation, and Howard conducted a 2-3 hour interview with McDougal in Los Angeles in June 2016, and reported back that McDougal claimed to have an offer of $8 million for her story from another outlet.

Pecker doubted it, but as the vetting process played out, he sensed worry from the Trump camp. “Michael was very agitated,” Pecker said of Cohen. “It looked like he was getting a lot of pressure to get the answer right away. He kept on calling and each time he seemed more anxious.”

Pecker said he assumed the pressure was coming from Trump but he didn’t know for sure until one day, with Pecker at an event in New Jersey, Trump called him directly to talk about McDougal and asked, “What do you think?”

Pecker paid McDougal $150,000 to catch and kill the story — and prosecutors say he was was still waiting to be reimbursed for that expense when the Daniels allegation surfaced a month before Election Day.

Pecker is expected to resume his testimony on Thursday. The trial is not in session on Wednesdays.

PREVIOUSLY: David Pecker, the former CEO of National Enquirer parent company American Media, told jurors today how the tabloid assisted Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign with positive stories on the candidate and negative, sensationalized articles on his rivals.

At an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower, Pecker pledged the resources of his tabloid publishing empire to help Trump, his friend and frequent cover-story subject, get elected president.

“They asked me what can I do and what the magazines could to do to help the campaign,” Pecker said on the stand, recalling a meeting with Trump, lawyer Michael Cohen and Trump 2016 presidential campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks.

“I said what I would do — I would publish positive stories about Mr. Trump and I would run negative stories about his opponents,” Mr. Pecker told jurors under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass in a second day of testimony in the hush money trial against Trump.

Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, said he also told Trump, “I would be your eyes and ears,” explaining, “If I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear anything about women telling stories, I will notify Michael Cohen.”

In some cases, Pecker said that they would send stories to Trump’s then-attorney, Michael Cohen, for review before publication.

Pecker said he told AMI’s chief content officer and Enquirer editor in chief, Dylan Howard, to notify the east and west coast bureaus that they should flag Trump stories for his review. “I said that any stories that are out there commenting about Donald Trump, commenting about his family, commenting about the election, I want you to vet the stories, and bring them to me… and then I said we’ll have to speak with Michael Cohen.”

If any story needed to be kept out of public view, Pecker said he would help his friend Donald Trump by buying sole rights to the unflattering information from the source and then burying the story.

That arrangement emerged from the meeting that lasted 20-25 minutes and it was never committed to writing, Mr. Pecker said,

“It was just an agreement among friends,” Mr. Pecker testified.

The result was a steady diet of stories in Pecker’s tabloid, National Enquirer, praising Trump and skewering his opponents based on information fed to Pecker by Cohen, the former publisher testified.

Jurors saw a collection of all-cap Enquirer headlines shown on a video screen. including “MELANIA TRUMP: HOW SHE HOPED DONALD WOULD RUN FOR PRESIDENT,” and  “DONALD TRUMP BEATING HILLARY IN KEY SWING STATE POLL.”


Ted Johnson contributed to this report.

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