Tabloid Exec Lifts Curtain on ‘Catch and Kill’ Scheme to Boost Trump in 2016

Jurors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial heard testimony on Tuesday from the architect of a notorious “catch-and-kill” scheme that buried damaging stories about the former president in the run-up to the 2016 election: former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Pecker lifted the veil on the National Enquirer’s catch-and-kill arrangement with the Trump campaign and revealed just how involved Trump and his fixer, Michael Cohen, were in dictating the publication’s 2016 campaign coverage.

Manhattan prosecutors argued in their opening statement on Monday that while Pecker himself did not commit a crime, he formed an integral part of a “conspiracy” to “influence the presidential election” — and that Trump’s catch-and-kill arrangement with Pecker was directly related to his political ambitions. Pecker was “not acting as a publisher, he was acting as a co-conspirator,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said.

Pecker, former CEO of American Media, Inc. (AMI) acknowledged during his testimony that despite having been friends for a long time, his contact with Trump increased dramatically following the latter’s announcement that he would run for president. In 2015, Pecker was summoned to meet with Trump and Cohen, with then-Trump campaign Communications Director Hope Hicks working nearby where the rendezvous occurred. “At the meeting, Donald Trump and Michael [Cohen], they asked me, what can I do, and what my magazines could do, to help the campaign?” Pecker testified, adding that he agreed to use his media company’s vast network of sources to be the campaign’s “eyes and ears.”

“If there were any rumors in the marketplace about Mr. Trump, or his family, or any negative stories that were coming out or things that I heard overall that I would go through, I would call Michael Cohen directly,” Pecker said, adding that he kept the arrangement “highly confidential” given the prevalence of leaks within the campaign.

Pecker admitted under oath that he had never purchased a story on Trump in order to prevent its publication prior to his 2015 meeting with the former president.

The first such instance, Pecker recalled, came after he was informed that Dino Sajudin — a former doorman at one of Trump’s properties — was shopping out claims that the then-candidate had fathered an illegitimate, unacknowledged lovechild. Sajudin’s claims were ultimately proven false, but Pecker testified that — with the 2015 meeting in mind — he contacted Cohen and “made the decision to buy the story because of the potential embarrassment it could have to the campaign and to Mr. Trump.” He paid Sajudin $30,000 for the rights to publication before killing it.

Pecker testified that Cohen told him that “the boss” — in this case Trump — would be “pleased.” Pecker added that even if Sajudin’s claims were proven true, he would have held up the story’s publication until after the election.

Pecker also explained how he would often communicate with Cohen about upcoming stories bashing Trump’s rivals and that Cohen would “comment on them, so we would add content based on the information.”

“Michael Cohen would call me and say, ‘We would like you to run a negative article on a certain’ — let’s say for argument sake — on Ted Cruz then he — Michael Cohen — would send me information about Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Marco Rubio, and that was the basis of our story and then we would embellish it from there,” Pecker testified.

The prosecution at one point displayed a series of headlines published by the Enquirer lambasting his 2016 opponents:





Pecker testified that the Enquirer took a photo of Cruz’s father and “mashed the photo with one of Lee Harvey Oswald” just to “create” a story.

NBC News asked Cruz about Pecker’s testimony after the proceedings wrapped on Tuesday. “Not interested in revisiting ancient history,” said Cruz, now a devoted Trump supporter.

While Pecker’s tabloid hounding of Trump’s opponents was no doubt helpful to the presidential hopeful, his most notable contribution to the Trump campaign may have been purchasing and killing a story about an alleged affair between Trump and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Pecker testified in court that he personally spoke on the phone with Trump, and suggested purchasing the story to get it off the market. “I said we should take this story off the market, and [Trump] said ‘let me think about it,’ and he said Michael Cohen will call you in a couple of days,” Pecker testified.

AMI ultimately paid out $150,000 to McDougal, who was under the impression that the story would be published. It wasn’t, and McDougal found that the contract she signed prohibited her from discussing her allegations publicly.

Following AMI’s success in silencing McDougal, Cohen allegedly requested that Pecker and the National Enquirer purchase Stormy Daniels’ affair story. Pecker ultimately refused, according to prosecutors, because he was never reimbursed for the payment to McDougal.

In 2021, AMI settled a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that they unlawfully aided Trump in 2016. The FEC found that Pecker and AMI had violated federal election laws through a payment to McDougal regarding an alleged 2006 affair with Trump. Pecker entered a non-prosecution agreement in which he admitted that the payment — and subsequent killing of McDougal’s story — had been made in order to help Trump’s campaign.

Pecker testified on Tuesday that there were stretches when he was communicating with Cohen multiple times per day. One of the key questions in the case is exactly how much Trump knew about all of this. Cohen has said Trump personally directed the payment to Daniels, and Tuesday’s testimony isn’t likely to have dissuaded the jury of this possibility. Pecker described Trump as an “almost micromanaging” figure who was constantly “looking at all the aspects of whatever the issue was.”

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