Tabloid publisher details fake news collusion to protect Donald Trump during 2016 campaign

Former US president Donald Trump. Credit: AP

Over the course of three days, a Manhattan jury has heard a detailed expose of secret fake news collusion to protect Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign and censor stories about his alleged extramarital affairs.

The cover up of hush money payoffs around one of those alleged dalliances, with pornographic movie actress Stormy Daniels, in 2006, is the basis of 34 criminal charges against the former US president.

The revelations from retired National Enquirer publisher David Pecker during testimony that neared completion Thursday in New York State Supreme Court form a foundation of the prosecution’s narrative - not only the falsification of business records to hide the Ms Daniels payment, but also a wider conspiracy to interfere in the election that sent Mr Trump to the White House.

Previously on the witness stand, Mr Pecker described the genesis of the partnership - a summer 2015 Trump Tower meeting, two months after the real estate developer and reality TV star launched his campaign, where Mr Pecker agreed to publish positive stories Mr Trump and negative stories ones about his opponents, while keeping his eyes and ears open for womanizing stories for sale that he would kill.

The pledge yielded fictitious stories with comical headlines about Mr Trump’s 2016 rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, such as TED CRUZ SEX SCANDAL - 5 SECRET MISTRESSES: The romps that are rocking his presidential campaign and ‘FAMILY MAN’ MARCO RUBIO’S LOVE CHILD STUNNER.

Mr Pecker, then Chairman & CEO of the tabloid’s parent company, American Media, Inc. (AMI). explained his promise to help Mr Trump’s campaign to his editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, and to prevent leaks from their 700 employees.

“I told him this concept and agreement that I made had to be highly, highly confidential,” Mr Pecker recalled. “I want to keep this as quiet as possible.”

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In late 2015, Mr Pecker and Mr Howard suppressed a story they deemed to be untrue proffered by a Trump Tower doorman who alleged Mr Trump had fathered a child with his penthouse housekeeper.

They bought the doorman’s silence by paying his $30,000 for the exclusive rights to his story, which AMI had no plan to publish, a scheme known as “catch-and-kill.”

On Thursday, Mr Pecker detailed a costlier catch-and-kill in the summer of 2016 to squelch a more explosive story – that former Playboy centerfold model Karen McDougal, then 47, had a nearly year-long affair with Mr Trump in 2006, while his wife, Melania, was pregnant and raising with their newborn son, Barron.

Mr Pecker and Mr Howard held a three-way phone call with Trump attorney Michael Cohen to discuss Ms McDougal, as Mr Cohen preferred, over the voice-encrypting app Signal.

“Immediately, Michael Cohen said it was not true, which was what he always said,” Mr Pecker testified.

But Mr Cohen wanted AMI to buy the story, with Ms McDougal attorney Keith Davidson having claimed ABC had offered her a slot on the TV show Dancing with the Stars, and a Mexican group supposedly bidding to buy it.

Mr Howard told them: “She didn’t want the story to be published. She didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky,” referring to the White House intern who had a relationship with Bill Clinton when he was president.

A few days later, Mr Trump called Mr Pecker. “Karen is a nice girl. Is it true that a Mexican group is looking to buy her story for $8 million?” Mr Pecker recalled Mr Trump saying.

No, Mr Pecker told him.

“What did you think I should do?” Mr Trump asked.

“I think you should buy the story and take it off the market,” Mr Pecker replied. He told the jury: “I believed the story was true. It would be very embarrassing to himself and his campaign.”

No cameras are allowed inside the Manhattan courtroom where Trump's hush money trial is underway. Credit: CNN

The negotiated price was $150,000 (£120,000), and Mr Pecker expected to be reimbursed by Mr Trump or his company for orchestrating the deal inked in August 2016.

Mr Cohen assured him: “The boss will take care of it.”

In addition to the exclusive rights to her story about “any romantic, personal and/or physical relation Ms McDougal has ever had with any then-married man,” AMI agreed to give Ms McDougal opportunities to author, with the help of ghostwriters, fitness articles for its celebrity magazines, appear on magazine covers, and anchor red carpet events.

“We purchased the story so it wouldn’t be published by any other organization,” Mr Pecker said.

Mr Pecker valued Ms McDougal’s editorial services as worth $25,000 (£20,000), so he wanted to bill the Trump Organisation for the $125,000 (£100,000) balance and assign the rights to her story to the company. Mr Pecker changed his mind about that, and AMI was never reimbursed.

Mr Pecker and AMI brokered a third such deal in October 2016, when attorney Mr Davidson alerted editor Howard about the central figure in Mr Trump's indictment – Ms Daniels – who was shopping the rights to her story claiming a one-night stand with Trump in Lake Tahoe in 2006.

But Mr Pecker testified he did not want to buy a porn star’s story, because his largest distributor was conservative retailer Walmart, and because he had already paid $180,000 (£144,000) in hush money to censor the doorman’s and Ms McDougal’s stories.

“I am not a bank,” Mr Pecker recalled telling Mr Cohen.

Yet Mr Pecker felt Ms Daniels’ story was “very damaging,” and he told Mr Cohen in a call over Signal: “You should buy the story, and you should take it off the market, because if you don’t, and it gets out, I believe the boss will be very angry.”

Mr Cohen paid $130,000 (£104,000) to silence Ms Daniels with a non-disclosure agreement and later sought reimbursement from Mr Trump, according to prosecutors.

When Mr Trump invited Mr Pecker to a White House dinner in July 2017, during a private walk through the Rose Garden, Mr Pecker said, Mr Trump asked about Ms McDougal: “How is Karen doing?”

“She’s doing well. She’s quiet. Everything is going good,” Mr Pecker replied.

Nine months later, when CNN broadcast an Anderon Cooper interview with Ms McDougal, an aggravated Mr Trump called Mr Pecker the next day.

“I thought you had and we had an agreement with Karen McDougal that she can’t give any interviews or be on any television shows,” Mr Trump said, according to Mr Pecker.

“Yes, we have an agreement, but I amended it to allow her to speak to the press,” the publisher told him. “He was very upset. He couldn’t understand why I had did it.”

When Mr Cooper subsequently interviewed Daniels for CBS 60 Minutes, also in March 2018, Mr Trump called Mr Pecker again.

“We had an agreement with Stormy Daniels that she cannot mention my name or do anything like this, and each time she breaches the agreement, it’s a $1 million penalty,” Mr Trump said, according to Mr Pecker. The president calculated Ms Daniels owed him $24 million (£19 million).

In September 2018, Mr Pecker and AMI entered into a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in New York over the hush money payment to Ms McDougal.

“We admitted to a campaign violation,” Mr Pecker said.

In the first hour of cross examination, Mr Trump defense attorney Emil Bove elicited from Mr Pecker that doing favors for celebrities like Mr Trump before he was president was common for AMI. For example, Mr Pecker confirmed, AMI published only half of the stories it purchased from tipsters, and Mr Pecker had been giving Mr Trump a heads up on negative stories as far back as 1998 - 17 years before the agreement to boost and protect his campaign.

With an average paid circulation of $350,000 (£280,000) in 2016, with 70% from newsstand sales, celebrity relationships and cover stories drove the Enquirer’s business.

Mr Pecker described dealing to suppress negative stories for sale about movie-star-turned-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and stars represented by Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel like Mark Wahlberg.

In 2007, Mr Pecker said, AMI bought photographs of golfer Tiger Woods meeting a woman in a parking lot to use as leverage to pressure Mr Woods to sit for an interview and cover story for Men’s Fitness, an AMI magazine.

Throughout the day, Mr Trump sat at the defense table with his eyes closed for long stretches of testimony.

Before retiring in August 2020, the last time Mr Pecker spoke to Mr Trump was in early 2019.

“Donald Trump was my mentor,” Mr Pecker said. “He helped me through my career.”

After the lethal anthrax letter attack on AMI’s Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters, in October 2001, Mr Trump was the first person to call to offer help.

“I have no ill will at all,” Mr Pecker said. “Even though we haven’t spoken, I still consider him a friend.”

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