Donald Trump trial offers insight to world of supermarket tabloid checkbook journalism

Former US president Donald Trump.
Donald Trump appears in court for his Hush Money trial. Credit: AP

A retired tabloid-publishing executive has lifted the veil on how weekly supermarket tabloids routinely pay for stories and did so in an unprecedented manner during the 2016 presidential campaign to protect Donald Trump.

David Pecker, who previously ran the National Enquirer and The Star, made the revelations on Tuesday, as Mr Trump's hush money case continues to rumble on in New York.

Earlier in the day, arguments were presented over a prosecution motion to sanction Mr Trump for repeatedly violating the judge's gag order against disparaging remarks.

Mr Pecker, the former President and CEO of American Media, Inc, which owned the tabloids, told the jury he first met Mr Trump at his Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, between 1988 and 1989, that they had a "great relationship", spoke every month and saw each other several times a year before Mr Trump's first White House run.

Mr Trump, a real estate developer best known for hosting the reality TV show The Apprentice, was such a popular celebrity with his tabloid readers, Mr Pecker said, that 80% of them wanted him to seek the presidency.

Two months after attending Mr Trump's June 2015 campaign launch announcement, Mr Pecker said, Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, summoned him to a meeting at the Trump Organisation office along with "the boss" and Trump communications aide Hope Hicks.

The Trump team asked him "what I could do and what my magazines could do to help the campaign", according to Mr Pecker.

"I said I would run or publish positive stories about Mr Trump and publish negative stories about his opponents."

Mr Pecker told Mr Trump: "I would be your eyes and ears."

"I said anything I hear in the marketplace - if I hear anything negative about yourself, or if I hear anything about women selling stories - I would notify Mr Cohen," Mr Pecker continued,

"And he could have them killed."

That's exactly what Mr Pecker did a few months later when Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin was shopping a story that the married Mr Trump had fathered a girl with his penthouse housekeeper.

Mr Pecker called Mr Cohen, who verified the woman's employment, and said the story was false and Trump would take a DNA test to prove it.

"We discovered it was absolutely 100% untrue," Mr Pecker said, after he and his editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, hired a private investigator. Mr Trump didn't take a paternity test.

But Mr Pecker and Mr Howard still offered to pay Sajudin $30,000 (£24,100) "to buy the story and take it off the market", Mr Pecker said.

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Cohen told him: "The boss will be very pleased."

It was the first time Mr Pecker had conducted a so-called "catch and kill" to protect Mr Trump, and the sum was much greater than the fee most tipsters received, which ranged from $50 (£40) to $10,000 (£8,000).

Mr Pecker said: "I made the decision to buy the story because of the potential embarrassment it would have to the campaign and Mr Trump."

Mr Pecker told the jury, if the story had been true, he would have held it until after the election and published it then, because he felt it would be the biggest selling issue of the Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley.

AMI amended its contract with Mr Sajudin to hold his exclusive rights in perpetuity - "which means that we own the story forever" - to impose a $1,000,000 (£803,000) penalty were he to sell it elsewhere - "a lever over him" Mr Pecker said.

AMI rescinded those terms after the election.

When the trial reconvenes on Thursday, Mr Pecker will resume testifying about a second "catch and kill", involving former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

In June 2016, Mr Howard got a tip about her wanting to sell her story alleging a one-year romantic and sexual relationship with Mr Trump.

Again, Mr Pecker called Mr Cohen, who told him her story was "absolutely not true", but agreed Mr Pecker should vet it, so the publisher sent Mr Howard to California to interview Ms McDougal.

The jury will hear how AMI eventually paid $150,000 (£121,000) to censor her.

Former US president Donald Trump. Credit: AP

Mr Pecker said he anticipated women coming forward with such stories, because Mr Trump had been "well known as the most eligible bachelor and dated the most beautiful women".

Mr Pecker's assistance also involved publishing positive stories about Trump, such as DONALD TRUMP: THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND, and a series of negative ones about his Republican primary opponents, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Dr Ben Carson, who became Housing Secretary in the Trump cabinet.

The latter stories sometimes originated with information supplied by Mr Cohen.

"That was the basis of our story, and we would embellish it from there," Mr Pecker said.

Some examples of headlines shown to the jury:







The National Enquirer published those articles in the Spring 2016, as each candidate was gaining popularity in polls.

The tabloid also kept a drumbeat of negative stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton - depicting the former president as a womaniser and the former first lady, Mr Trump's eventual general election opponent in 2016, as an enabler.

Mr Pecker told Mr Trump he would continue running those kinds of stories in the Enquirer.

"He was pleased," Mr Pecker said.

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