Tabloid Publisher Says He Spoke to Trump Before Buying Model’s Story

(Bloomberg) -- Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker told a New York jury that he promoted Donald Trump and shielded him from unflattering stories long before the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Under cross-examination, Pecker said that Trump, a television personality and real estate developer before running for the White House, was “good for business” at the tabloid newspaper. In addition, Pecker said he gave similar favorable treatment to a range of other prominent figures in and out of politics.

The testimony came Thursday at the hush-money trial of Trump, where prosecutors claim Pecker conspired to boost his candidacy by lauding him in print, punishing his rivals, and buying and burying accounts of his extramarital affairs. But defense attorney Emil Bove suggested that the arrangement was hardly sinister and had nothing to do with politics.

Trump was “someone who could help the National Enquirer make money, right?” Bove asked. Pecker, the former chief executive officer of American Media Inc., agreed.

Pecker, 72, was the first witness at the first of four criminal trials for Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee seeking the White House. In Washington on Thursday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on whether he is immune from prosecution on charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election results.

Before Bove’s questions, Pecker bolstered allegations by Manhattan state prosecutors that Trump falsified records to cover up a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors say former Trump attorney Michael Cohen paid her to keep quiet about her claims of a sexual relationship with Trump.

Pecker testified that he agreed to pay $150,000 in 2016 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy and bury her claims that she had an affair for nearly a year with Trump.

Trump, who denies he had affairs with Daniels and McDougal, argues he didn’t falsify records to boost his 2016 campaign. During his opening statement earlier this week, another Trump lawyer said that Cohen was a liar and was acting on his own.

‘Breathtaking’ Testimony

The former president listened intently to the proceedings, telling reporters afterward that the testimony was “breathtaking.”

At the end of his questioning by prosecutors, Pecker made clear that he’s always admired Trump.

“I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor,” Pecker said. “Even though we haven’t spoken, and I haven’t seen him, I still consider him a good friend.”

Bove questioned Pecker about his previous relationships with celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tiger Woods in which he bought the rights to stories to protect them.

The defense lawyer also sought to suggest that Pecker tailored his testimony about events nearly a decade ago to please Manhattan prosecutors who gave him an immunity agreement. He suggested Pecker’s interactions with Trump were standard operating procedure in the business of checkbook journalism.

After hearing about McDouglal’s claims, Pecker said, he dispatched the tabloid’s editor to interview her. After discussing the story with Cohen, who has since had a spectacular falling out with the former president, the candidate himself called to ask about McDougal’s demands.

“When Mr. Trump said on the phone that she was a ‘nice girl’ I believed he knew who she was,” said Pecker. “I believed the story was true and it would have been embarrassing to himself and also to his campaign.”

‘Go Ahead’

Pecker said he advised Trump to “buy the story and take it off the market.” Pecker said Cohen called back and told him to “go ahead and buy this story.”

When Pecker asked who would pay, he said Cohen said: “Don’t worry, I’m your friend, the boss would take care of it.”

AMI bought the rights to McDougal’s relationship with “any then-married man,” a reference to Trump, Pecker said. The firm promised that McDougal would appear on magazine covers and would run articles under her name in AMI magazines.

In testimony earlier this week, Pecker also recounted that AMI paid $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman to “catch and kill” another story involving Trump. Pecker said his concerns about getting repaid for the McDougal and the doorman stories colored his reaction to the Daniels story.

Pecker said he resisted pressure by Cohen to buy the porn star’s story after the release of the now famous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women.

“I said, ‘I am not purchasing the story,”’ Pecker said. “I am not going to be involved with a porn star. I am not a bank,” and after “paying out the doorman and paying out Karen McDougal, we’re not paying anymore.”

Pecker said he was alarmed by a Wall Street Journal story published just before the election that said the National Enquirer bought McDougal’s story and didn’t publish it. AMI then put out a false statement denying the account, he said.

“I wanted to protect my company, I wanted to protect myself and I also wanted to protect Donald Trump,” Pecker said.

Pecker also recounted a discussion he had with Trump at Trump Tower in January 2017, after he had won the presidency. Trump introduced Pecker to several people who would be part of his administration including Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and Mike Pompeo.

“They were finishing up their meeting and Mr. Trump introduced me to each of them. He said, ‘Here’s Mr. Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, probably knows more than anybody else in this room.’”

None of them laughed, Pecker said.

(Updates with cross-examination of Pecker)

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