Trump feared for campaign, not family, as sex scandals were caught and killed, ex-Enquirer CEO tells hush-money jury

  • A key "catch-and-kill" witness testified for a third day on Thursday in Trump's NY hush-money trial.

  • Ex-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker described scrambling to bury Trump's secrets.

  • When a porn star and Playboy Bunny both came forward, Trump feared for voters, not family, Pecker told jurors.

First, up popped a doorman with a tale — false, it turned out — of an illegitimate child. Then, in swift succession and with the 2016 election just months away, a Playboy Bunny and a porn star appeared with more sex scandals.

Throughout their decadeslong friendship, Donald Trump worried about his family hearing these kinds of unsavory stories, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker told a Manhattan jury on Thursday.

But in the months before the 2016 election, all Trump worried about was his voters, Pecker testified on his third day on the stand in the GOP frontrunner's Manhattan hush-money trial.

"Prior to the election, if a negative story was coming out with respect to Donald Trump, and we spoke about it, he was concerned about Melania and Ivanka, what the family might hear or say about it," said the former publisher.

He pronounced the former first lady's name, "Millenia."

Then came the 2016 election, Pecker said — and first Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, then Playboy Bunny Karen McDougal, then porn star Stormy Daniels tried to sell their stories to the supermarket tabloid.

"In the conversations with Mr. Trump about these stories, his family was never mentioned," Pecker said, under direct examination by prosecutor Joshua Steinglass.

"I thought his concern was with the campaign," Pecker added.

In directing Pecker to describe Trump's priority of campaign over family, Steinglass was pursuing a legal point, not a moral one.

All three stories — doorman, bunny, and porn star — would be deep-sixed by the Enquirer as part of what Manhattan prosecutors call an illegal conspiracy to influence the 2016 election.

Trump falsified 34 Trump Organization business documents — invoices, checks, ledger entries — to disguise the $130,000 in hush money paid to Daniels just 11 days before the election as legal fees to then-attorney Michael Cohen, prosecutors say.

The falsifications are felonies, District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged, because the $130,000 was actually an illegal campaign expenditure.

Trump's books were cooked, Bragg alleges, to hide an underlying campaign finance crime.

Pecker and his top lieutenant, National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard, knew that in catching and killing Trump's trio of sex scandals, they could be seen as contributing to his campaign in violation election law, Thursday's testimony suggests.

Pecker told jurors he had been investigated by California officials for just this sort of thing more than a decade before Trump's 2016 campaign.

He had a similar catch-and-kill arrangement with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the runup to the star's successful 2003 run for governor.

"A number of women called up the National Enquirer about stories that they have to sell on different relationships, or contacts, and sexual harassments, that they felt that Arnold Schwarzenegger did," Pecker testified.

"The deal I had with Arnold was that I would call him and acquire them," he said of these stories.

Pecker told jurors that his publishing empire, American Media International, or AMI, was not charged with campaign finance violations.

Still, "it was very embarrassing to me and the company," he testified of the investigation.

His lieutenant, Howard, crossed his fingers extra hard on election night, a text message suggested.

"At least if he wins," Howard texted a relative as Trump's electoral college votes rolled in, "I'll be pardoned for electoral fraud."

The text was not shown to jurors after a successful challenge by the defense.

Prosecutors have said Howard is unable to appear as their witness because he is in Australia with a spinal injury. Defense lawyers complained they could not question Howard about the text if it were admitted as evidence.

Pecker's testimony continues Friday with cross-examination.

So far, he has spent three days describing a secret and complex catch-and-kill infrastructure that spanned the highest levels of both his tabloid empire and the Trump campaign, involving multiple attorneys and carefully worded contracts.

McDougal's August 5, 2016, catch-and-kill contract was "bulletproof" after being reviewed by a Trump campaign attorney, Pecker said, in some of the most damaging testimony on Thursday.

Trump was calling the shots, though often from the shadows, using Cohen as an intermediary, the testimony suggested.

"Karen is a nice girl," Trump told Pecker in a phone call in the summer of 2016, when McDougal surfaced as a scandal threat, claiming a nearly year-long affair with Trump from ten years prior.

"What do you think I should do?" Pecker, who believed McDougal was telling the truth, said Trump then asked him.

"I think you should buy the story and take it off the market," Pecker said he responded.

"He said to me that Michael Cohen would be calling me back," Pecker added.

"Go ahead and buy the story," Pecker said Cohen soon told him.

When Pecker asked, "Who's going to pay for it?" Cohen responded, "Don't worry. I'm your friend. The boss will take care of it."

Asked who he understood "the boss" to be, Pecker answered, "Donald Trump."

Trump wound up not reimbursing Pecker for McDougal's $150,000 non-disclosure agreement, the former tabloid executive testified.

And despite the so-called "bulletproof" contracts, Pecker said, he received an unpleasant letter from the Federal Election Commission in 2018.

"I called up Michael Cohen immediately," Pecker said.

"I said, 'Michael. I just received this letter.' He said, 'So did I.'"

Pecker testified that he responded with prescient concern.

The McDougal hush-money payment would be deemed an illegal campaign contribution by the feds.

Cohen would plead guilty to making the payment. Pecker wound up cooperating and signing a non-prosecution agreement, he testified Thursday.

"I said, 'I'm very worried,'" Pecker told jurors of his conversation with Cohen.

"And Michael Cohen said to me, 'Why?' He said Jeff Sessions is the attorney general and Donald Trump has him in his pocket.'"

Pecker was not convinced: "I said, 'I'm very worried,'" he told jurors.

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