The playmate, the doorman, and the tabloid mogul: Key takeaways from Trump’s day in court

It is only day two of testimony in Donald Trump’s New York “hush money” trial — though the sixth day in court including jury selection — but we are already hearing tawdry details of how tabloid journalism was weaponised to sway the result of the 2016 presidential election.

While it was an abbreviated session due to the Passover holiday with court ending at 2pm, the three hours of testimony from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker doubtless proved eye-opening to the panel of jurors hearing the case.

The tabloid mogul and friend of the former president walked the court through his relationship with Mr Trump; the arrangement concocted during the 2016 campaign to ensure unflattering stories died; and how in two instances that was put into practice — with Mr Pecker calling one instance potentially the biggest story since the death of Elvis Presley.

Ahead of that, Judge Juan Merchan held a hearing concerning whether or not the defendant had violated his gag order on 10 separate occasions by attacking trial witnesses and jurors on Truth Social.

Court resumes on Thursday at 9.30am ET.

In the meantime, here are today’s key takeaways from the former president’s first criminal trial:

Judge scolds Trump team over gag order arguments

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has accused Mr Trump of violating his court-imposed gag order in at least 10 different posts on his Truth Social platform and campaign website targeting Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels – likely witnesses in the so-called hush money trial.

Defence attorney Todd Blanche argued that Mr Trump’s posts were responding to “political” attacks but failed to offer up any examples of what, exactly, Mr Trump was responding to.

“You presented nothing,” Justice Merchan said after an hour-long hearing on Tuesday, as he grew increasingly frustrated with Mr Blanche’s defence. “You’re losing all credibility, I’ll tell you that right now.”

The judge also warned Mr Trump directly against intimidating jurors in his courtroom.

Prosecutors want the judge to hold Mr Trump in contempt, fine him $10,000, and order him to remove the offending posts. They are “not yet” asking for jail time.

A ruling on whether Mr Trump can be held in contempt of court and fined is expected soon.

Former President Donald Trump appears outside the courtroom during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on 23 April 2024 (Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump appears outside the courtroom during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on 23 April 2024 (Getty Images)

Lifting the lid on tabloid journalism

In his testimony, Mr Pecker outlined a “mutually beneficial” scheme to keep the supermarket tabloid loaded with stories boosting Mr Trump’s election chances in 2016 while ensuring “negative” stories never saw the light of day.

As part of the arrangement, Mr Pecker would tip off Cohen, then Mr Trump’s personal attorney, to “negative” stories about the candidate – particularly those involving women.

The former American Media Inc CEO joined Cohen and Mr Trump for a now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan in August 2015.

Mr Pecker testified that, during that meeting, he asked: “What can I do and what could my magazines do to help the campaign?”

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

“Because Mr Trump was well known as the most eligible bachelor, dating the most beautiful women, and it was clear based on my past experiences that when someone is running for office like this, it is very common for these women to call up a magazine like the National Enquirer to try and sell their stories.”

“It would help him and it would help me,” he continued. “Writing positive stories about Mr Trump and covering the election, and writing negative stories about his opponents, is only going to increase newsstand sales.”

The court was treated to a selection of positive headlines and covers about Mr Trump (“DONALD TRUMP: HEALTHIEST INDIVIDUAL EVER ELECTED!”) and negative ones about his opponents in the Republican primaries (“BUNGLING SURGEON BEN CARSON LEFT SPONGE IN PATIENT’S BRAIN!” and “SHADY LADY WHO COULD RUIN MARCO RUBIO!”).

In one especially infamous example, the Enquirer published the headline: “DONALD TRUMP BLASTS TED CRUZ’S DAD FOR PHOTO WITH JFK ASSASSIN.”

Mr Pecker explained: “We mashed the photos and the different picture with Lee Harvey Oswald. And mashed the two together. And that’s how that story was prepared — created I would say.”

Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s 2016 Democratic rival, was targeted closer to the presidential election with the publisher saying the Clintons were big sellers for the magazine and Mr Trump was “pleased” at the suggestion of negative stories about them.

Love child story that would have been ‘bigger than Elvis’ death’

The agreed strategy of buying up a negative story and burying it — “catch and kill” — was first put into practice as Mr Trump ran for the White House in 2015, following an allegation that he had a love child with a Trump Tower maid.

The story was being touted around by a former Trump World Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin.

“[Dylan Howard, editor of the National Enquirer,] came to me [with] a tip, a source, that Dino was in the market for selling a story that Donald Trump fathered an illegitimate girl with a maid at Trump Tower,” Mr Pecker testified.

The publisher told the court that he then called Cohen and “I described to him exactly what I heard from Dylan,” gave him Dino’s name and the name of the penthouse housekeeper. Cohen said it was “absolutely not true” but would check it out.

“I asked Dylan to negotiate a price, negotiate a number, to buy the story and take it off the market,” Mr Pecker told the court.

When the figure of $30,000 was agreed, Cohen said that “the boss was very pleased”. The former publisher told the court that before that he had never paid a source to kill a story about Mr Trump.

David Pecker testifying at Trump’s hush money trial (REUTERS)
David Pecker testifying at Trump’s hush money trial (REUTERS)

“I thought it was very important that Dino wouldn’t be shopping the story to other media outlets,” he told the court, before explaining his more selfish motivation — that he would have later published the story himself if he found out it was true.

“It would probably be the biggest sale of the National Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley,” Mr Pecker said.

“I would’ve published the story shortly after it was verified,” he added. “I would’ve published it after the election … That was the conversation I had with Michael Cohen and that’s what we agreed to.”

Pressed as to why he paid $30,000 for an untrue story, he said that if it had got out in another publication it would have been very embarrassing for the Trump campaign.

Playboy model story surfaces

As Mr Pecker’s testimony builds toward Mr Trump’s alleged affair with Ms Daniels, he moved on to the deal arranged with 1998 Playboy playmate of the year, Karen McDougal.

“Dylan [Howard] came to me in early June 2016 and said he received a call from one of his major sources in California that there’s a Playboy model who is trying to sell a story about a relationship with Donald Trump,” Mr Pecker told the court.

“I called Michael Cohen and I told him exactly what Dylan told me about this Playboy model.”

“I think we should vet this story out first” and “Michael Cohen said ‘I think that’s a good idea … I’ll let you know what our next steps are gonna be,’” he added.

Ms McDougal allegedly had a nine-month affair with Mr Trump in 2006 and was paid $150,000 by AMI for the exclusive rights to her story before the 2016 election and to feature her on two magazine covers and publish over 100 articles she authored.

The story was then never published as part of the catch-and-kill scheme and Ms McDougal was not able to share it with anyone elsewhere.

This took place much closer to the election and, according to Mr Pecker, Cohen seemed “very agitated” during that period: “He kept on calling and each time he called he seemed more anxious.”

Asked where he thought that pressure came from, he said he assumed it came from his conversations with Mr Trump.

The McDougal story will continue on Thursday, and she will likely testify herself during the trial.

Donald Trump sits at the defence table in court (Getty Images)
Donald Trump sits at the defence table in court (Getty Images)

Trump rages against the system as Cohen vows ‘truth will prevail’

With no cameras in court and his 2024 presidential campaigning severely curtailed by having to sit at the defence table for four days a week, Mr Trump has learned to make use of the cameras and gathered media in the hallways outside of the courtroom.

His list of grievances regarding the gag order Judge Merchan imposed on him, the temperature of the courtroom, and the false claim that the criminal charges against him have been orchestrated by President Joe Biden, are already well-known. Nevertheless, he continues to bellow them down the hallway.

His other outlet is Truth Social. In a brief break following the morning hearing before Judge Merchan about his online attacks on witnesses and potential jurors in violation of his gag order, Mr Trump took to the social media platform… to attack Judge Merchan and Manhattan DA Bragg.

“Every single Legal Scholar and Expert said that Soros backed prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, has ‘no case,’” he posted, minutes after the hearing ended.

Mr Trump continued: “SO WHY WON’T THEY DROP THIS CASE? Alvin Bragg never wanted to bring it - thought it was a joke. Was furious at lawyer MARK POMERANTZ (will he be prosecuted?) for what he did!”

Three minutes later, the former president blasted in his signature all-caps style: “HIGHLY CONFLICTED, TO PUT IT MILDLY, JUDGE JUAN MERCHAN, HAS TAKEN AWAY MY CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH.”


There has been no reaction yet from the judge.

Cohen, as the former president’s nemesis and target of his online attacks, has also been busy on social media over the past 24 hours. He raged that “no one is above the law”, vowing that “truth will prevail” over the former president’s “incessant lying”.

Cohen then told The Independent by text message on Tuesday that – in the face of the attacks – he is “stronger than I ever imagined”.

He is expected to take the stand later in the trial.

Coming up on Thursday…

So, what can we look forward to later this week?

On Wednesday the court is dark, with the trial resuming on Thursday morning.

Expect Mr Pecker’s testimony to continue with the rest of the story of Ms McDougal with further details of how she was silenced by the Enquirer.

The tabloid mogul will then be quizzed on the story of the alleged affair with Ms Daniels, Cohen’s involvement in the hush money payment, and how those arrangements were agreed — which is how and why everyone is in court now.

Potentially we may even see the beginning of cross-examination of Mr Pecker by the defence team.

Judge Merchan will also rule soon on whether Mr Trump is in contempt of court following his violations of the gag order, what the punishment might be, and whether any further restrictions will be imposed.

Stay tuned.