Trump’s hush-money trial: National Enquirer publisher says he was ‘eyes and ears’ of 2016 campaign

<span>Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush-money payments at Manhattan criminal court in New York City.</span><span>Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush-money payments at Manhattan criminal court in New York City.Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

A former tabloid publisher testified on Tuesday in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial that he promised to be the “eyes and ears” of the 2016 presidential campaign, helped to suppress harmful stories and even arranged to purchase the silence of a doorman.

David Pecker, the ex-president’s longtime ally and ex-publisher of the National Enquirer – who prosecutors contend was integral in illicit, so-called catch-and-kill efforts to prevent negative stories about Trump from going public – was on the stand again as a prosecution witness after a brief appearance on Monday following opening statements.

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He told the court about being invited to a meeting with Trump and his then lawyer, Michael Cohen, in New York in 2015 after Trump had just declared his candidacy for president and was seeking a friendly and powerful media insider.

“They asked me what can I do – and what my magazines could do – to help the [election] campaign … I said what I would do is I would run or publish positive stories about Mr Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponents, and I said that I would also be the eyes and ears because I know that the Trump Organization had a very small staff,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, however, Judge Juan Merchan heard arguments about a request from prosecutors to hold Trump in contempt of court. They said he repeatedly violated a gag order barring him from publicly attacking witnesses in the trial.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lawyer, argued that his client was just responding to political attacks, not flouting the judge’s order, and that seven of the instances cited were reposts of other people’s content on social media, which “we don’t believe are a violation of the gag order.”

Merchan asked whether there was any case law on it. Blanche replied: “I don’t have any case laws, your honor, it’s just common sense.”

As Blanche continued to repeat that claim, the judgesaid:

“Mr Blanche you’re losing all credibility … with the court. Is there any other argument you want to make?”

Merchan on Tuesday did not announce a decision on the contempt issue.

Trump’s criminal hush-money trial: what to know

Pecker first took the stand on Monday and provided brief testimony of his work as a tabloid honcho. “We used checkbook journalism and we paid for stories. I gave a number to the editors that they could not spend more than $10,000 to investigate or produce or publish a story, anything over $10,000 they would spend on a story, they would have to be vetted and brought up to me, for approval.”

Related: Trump’s hush-money trial: key takeaways from opening statements

Pecker said he had final say over the content of the National Enquirer and other AMI publications.

Prosecutors contend that Pecker was at the center of a plot to boost Trump’s chances in the 2016 election. The alleged plan with Trump and Cohen was, if Pecker caught wind of damaging information, he would apprise Trump and Cohen, so they could figure out a way to keep it quiet. That collusion came to include AMI’s $150,000 payoff to the Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed to have had an extramarital affair with Trump, prosecutors have said.

This kind of “catch-and-kill” tactic did not happen with Trump before he ran for president, Pecker said.

The alleged plot to cover up a claimed sexual encounter between Daniels and Trump is the basis of prosecutors’ case.

In October 2016, the Washington Post published a video featuring Trump’s hot-mic comments during an Access Hollywood taping, in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. The comments, which Colangelo read to jurors, included “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

After they surfaced, the campaign went into panic mode, Colangelo said. It worked to characterize these comments as “locker room talk”, but, when Daniels’ claim came across Trump and his allies’ radar, they feared the backlash: people would see these ill-behaved ways were not mere talk.

“Another story about infidelity, with a porn star, on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, would have been devastating to his campaign,” Colangelo said in his address to jurors. “Cohen carried out a $130,000 payoff to Daniels which Trump allegedly repaid him in checks that he listed as legal services in official company records.

“Look, no politician wants bad press, but the evidence at trial will show that this wasn’t spin or communication strategy,” Colangelo continued. “This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures – to silence people with something bad to say about his behavior.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Trump denies the charges. On Tuesday afternoon, Steinglass asked why Pecker said he would notify Cohen if he heard “anything about women selling stories”.

Pecker said: “In a presidential campaign, I was the person that thought that there would be a lot of women that would come out to try to sell their stories because Mr Trump was well-known as the most eligible bachelor and dated the most beautiful women.”

In fact, Trump was at the time married to Melania, his third wife. He was also accused of sexual assault and harassment by a series of women. In a civil case, Trump was found liable last year for having sexually abused the New York writer E Jean Carroll in the 1990s.

Pecker said he ran negative stories about Trump rivals, including presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and GOP rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

He said he paid $30,000 to catch and kill a story from a doorman purporting that Trump had fathered an illegitimate child with a woman who cleaned his New York penthouse.

The trial is due to resume on Thursday.