Publisher David Pecker Testifies About Trump Team's Alleged Role in Burying Stories During 2016 Election

Pecker — who ran the media company behind the National Enquirer — detailed his efforts to help Trump win the 2016 election, alleging that his tabloid's editorial strategy was largely guided by Michael Cohen

<p>Elizabeth Williams/AP</p> A courtroom sketch of David Pecker on the witness stand on April 22, 2024

Elizabeth Williams/AP

A courtroom sketch of David Pecker on the witness stand on April 22, 2024

David Pecker, the first witness called to the stand in Donald Trump's Manhattan criminal trial, testified this week about his partnership with the Trump campaign to bury negative stories about the Republican presidential nominee ahead of the 2016 election.

Pecker was the CEO of American Media, Inc. at the time, which owned the National Enquirer. Between 2015 and 2016, he says he engaged in three "catch and kill" schemes on behalf of his longtime friend Trump, which involved buying exclusive rights to damning stories and then refusing to run them.

He also says that he ran negative stories on Trump opponents, claiming that Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, would call him frequently and tell him who to attack next, as well as look over hit pieces before they were published.

Pecker and Cohen, once among Trump's most loyal allies, will play a significant role in convincing the jury that Trump is guilty during the weeks-long trial. In 2018, Pecker was granted immunity from being prosecuted in exchange for providing details about the hush money agreements, so he has nothing to lose.

Here are the highlights of Pecker's testimony so far; he will return to court on Thursday, April 24, to detail the infamous Stormy Daniels hush money agreement.

Francois Durand/Getty David Pecker at a 2012 magazine event in Paris
Francois Durand/Getty David Pecker at a 2012 magazine event in Paris

Trump's 'Eyes and Ears'

On Tuesday, April 23, Pecker told the court that after Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015, he received a call from Cohen and was notified that "the boss wanted to see me."

Pecker claimed that he met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower for about 20 to 25 minutes in August 2015. Hope Hicks, Trump's campaign press secretary, was present for parts of the meeting, he said.

"They asked me, what can I do, and what my magazines could do, to help the campaign?" Pecker testified. "I said, 'I would be your eyes and ears.' ... And then I said that anything that I hear in the marketplace, if I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear anything about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen."

Pecker decided that in addition to looking out for people who wanted to sell damaging stories about Trump, he would publish positive pieces about Trump and negative pieces about his opponents during the election cycle.

When prosecutors asked Pecker how Trump reacted to his plan, he said, "As I recollect, he was pleased. Michael Cohen was pleased." Their alleged agreement was never put into writing.

AP/REX/Shutterstock Hope Hicks and Donald Trump in 2017
AP/REX/Shutterstock Hope Hicks and Donald Trump in 2017

Targeting Trump's Competition

During his testimony on April 23, Pecker gave a few examples of how he would cater his coverage to benefit Trump's campaign.

Immediately after his alleged meeting at Trump Tower, he said that he directed Enquirer editors to treat Trump stories with care, telling them, "I want you to vet the stories, I want you to bring them to me, and then we'll have to speak to Michael Cohen."

Pecker said that he told Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard that the brand was "going to try to help the campaign, and to do that, we are going to keep this as quiet as possible."

In the courtroom that day, the prosecution displayed a series of Enquirer headlines about Trump's primary opponents Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, which featured wild and unfounded allegations.

Pecker said that a popular 2016 conspiracy about Cruz's father being linked with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was completely made up by his tabloid. “We mashed the photos [of Cruz's father] 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," Pecker said.

Related: Accusations Fly in Trump vs. Cruz Feud: Questions of 'Temperament,' JFK Assassination and Zodiac Killer

He elaborated further on their election coverage strategy, saying that Cohen personally told him which candidates to attack and when, often to target the biggest threat to Trump in the moment. Cohen would allegedly see a copy of stories before they were published so that he could make comments or even propose edits.

Shortly before Election Day, when all eyes were on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's strong poll numbers, Trump allegedly introduced Pecker to his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, and said, "I believe that you and Steve would get along really well," according to the publisher.

Bannon then began reviewing the Enquirer's stories on the Clintons, Pecker alleged, adding, "He liked them very much, he had some other ideas."

Related: Trump Says He Had Nothing to Do with 'National Enquirer' Report Claiming Ted Cruz Had Multiple Affairs

<p>ANGELA WEISS/POOL/AFP via Getty</p> Former President Donald Trump sits in the Manhattan criminal courtroom where he is being tried on 34 felony counts


Former President Donald Trump sits in the Manhattan criminal courtroom where he is being tried on 34 felony counts

Their First Catch and Kill: The Doorman

In 2015, a National Enquirer editor got a tip that a doorman at one of Trump's buildings was shopping around a story claiming the presidential candidate fathered an illegitimate child with a maid at Trump Tower. Evidence that backs the allegation has still not surfaced, but regardless of the story's validity, Pecker said he wanted Trump to know.

"I immediately called Michael Cohen and described exactly what I was told," Pecker recalled, telling Cohen the doorman's name (Dino Sajudin) and the name of the maid that the rumor centered around.

Pecker followed up with Cohen later on, saying the Enquirer had negotiated to buy Sajudin's story for $30,000, which was still far above the $10,000 max that the tabloid adhered to, but worth the cost in Pecker's eyes. Cohen allegedly responded, "Thank you" and said, "The boss [Trump] will be very pleased," according to Pecker.

Sajudin signed the agreement — which jurors were shown — that stated, "Source shall provide AMI with information regarding Donald Trump's illegitimate child, and any and all documentation, including but not limited to letters and any legal documents, and photographs in Source's possession relevant to the Exclusive."

The signed document stated that Sajudin could be sued for up to $1 million if he broke their exclusive contract, and the story was never published.

Related: Former Trump Doorman Was Paid $30K for Story That the President Has a Love Child: Reports

CNN Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claimed to have a sexual relationship with Donald Trump
CNN Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claimed to have a sexual relationship with Donald Trump

The Second Silencing: A Former Playboy Model

Pecker testified that in June 2016, the National Enquirer's editor-in-chief Dylan Howard heard that former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal wanted to come forward with an allegation that she and Trump engaged in an affair early on in his marriage to Melania Trump.

Pecker said he flew Howard out to California to meet with McDougal and collect more information, then shared Howard's findings with Cohen. He said that around this time, he began speaking with Cohen at least once a day — up from a couple times a week — using the encrypted app Signal.

Perhaps more notably, Pecker claimed that he and Trump spoke directly about how to handle McDougal's allegations. Trump allegedly asked Pecker for his thoughts on the situation, and Pecker replied that they should get the rights to her story before other interested buyers.

"Mr. Trump said, 'I don't buy any stories. Any time you do anything like this it always gets out,'" Pecker testified, telling the court that he still insisted on taking McDougal's claims "off the market." Trump allegedly said he would think about it and have Cohen reach out when a decision was made.

In the end, the Enquirer secured the rights to McDougal's story for $150,000, and opted not to publish the details of the alleged affair (which Trump still denies).

Soon, another name would appear on the Enquirer's radar: Stormy Daniels. More on how that unfolded will be revealed in the coming days of Pecker's testimony.

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