Publisher says he pledged to be Trump campaign’s ‘eyes and ears’ in 2016 race

David Pecker recounted how he promised the then-candidate that he would help suppress stories that had the potential to harm his election bid.

Former US president Donald Trump returns to the courtroom after a recess in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday (Yuki Iwamura/AP)
Former US president Donald Trump returns to the courtroom after a recess in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday (Yuki Iwamura/AP) (Yuki Iwamura/AP)

A veteran tabloid publisher told a court in New York on Tuesday that he pledged to be Donald Trump’s “eyes and ears” during his 2016 presidential campaign.

David Pecker recounted how he promised the then-candidate that he would help suppress stories that had the potential to harm the Republican’s election bid and even arranged to purchase a doorman’s silence.

With Trump sitting just feet away in the courtroom, Mr Pecker detailed his intimate, behind-the-scenes involvement in Trump’s rise from political novice to the Republican nomination and then the White House.

The evidence from Mr Pecker was designed to bolster prosecutors’ assertions of a decades-long friendship between Trump and the former publisher of the National Enquirer that culminated in an agreement to give the candidate a heads-up on negative tips and stories so they could be quashed.

Mr Pecker is the first witness in Trump’s historic hush money trial in Manhattan, where he faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with payments meant to prevent harmful stories from surfacing during the final days of the 2016 campaign.

The stories included an adult film actor’s claims of an extramarital sexual encounter a decade earlier.

The effort to suppress unflattering information was designed to influence the election, prosecutors have alleged in seeking to elevate the gravity of the first trial of a former American president.

Mr Pecker traced the origins of their relationship to a 1980s meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and said the friendship bloomed alongside the success of the real estate developer’s TV show The Apprentice and the programme’s subsequent celebrity version.

Mr Pecker described for jurors a pivotal August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump, his lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen, and another aide, Hope Hicks, in which he was asked what he and the magazines he led could do for the campaign.

He said he volunteered to publish positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his opponents. But that was not all, he said, telling jurors how he told Trump: “I will be your eyes and ears.”

“I said that anything I hear in the marketplace, if I hear anything negative about yourself, or if I hear about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen,” so that the rights could be purchased and the stories could be killed.

“So they would not get published?” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked.

“So they would not get published,” Mr Pecker replied.

Judge Juan Merchan presides over Donald Trump’s trial in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
Judge Juan Merchan presides over Donald Trump’s trial in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday (Elizabeth Williams via AP) (Elizabeth Williams/AP)

To illustrate their point, prosecutors displayed for the court a screenshot of various flattering headlines the National Enquirer published about Trump, including: “Donald Dominates!” and “World Exclusive: The Donald Trump Nobody Knows”.

The jury was also shown disparaging and outlandish stories about Trump’s opponents in the race, including the surgeon Ben Carson and Republican Sen Marco Rubio.

Mr Pecker painted Cohen as a shadow editor of the National Enquirer’s pro-Trump coverage, directing the tabloid to go after whichever Republican candidate was gaining in momentum.

“I would receive a call from Michael Cohen, and he would direct me and direct Dylan Howard which candidate and which direction we should go,” Mr Pecker said, referring to the tabloid’s then-editor.

He said he underscored to Mr Howard that the agreement he struck with the Trump operation was “highly, highly confidential”. He said he wanted the tabloid’s bureau chiefs to be on the lookout for any stories involving Trump and said he wanted them to verify the stories before alerting Cohen.

“I did not want anyone else to know this agreement I had and what I wanted to do,” the ex-publisher added.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to his role in the hush money payments.

A onetime confidant of Trump, their relationship has deteriorated in spectacular fashion, with Cohen expected to be a star government witnesses and routinely posting profane broadsides against Trump on social media.

Trump’s lawyers are expected to make attacks on Cohen’s credibility a foundation of their defence, but in opening with Mr Pecker, prosecutors hope to focus attention on a witness with a far less volatile backstory.

Mr Pecker’s resumption of evidence on Tuesday followed a hearing earlier in the day in which prosecutors urged Judge Juan Merchan to hold Trump in contempt and fine him 1,000 dollars for each of 10 social media posts that they say violated an earlier gag order barring attacks on witnesses, jurors and others involved in the case.

Judge Merchan did not immediately rule, but he appeared sceptical of a defence lawyer’s arguments that Trump was merely responding in his posts to others’ attacks and had been trying to comply with the order.

Adult film actor Stormy Daniels (Markus Schreiber/AP)
Adult film actor Stormy Daniels (Markus Schreiber/AP) (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Mr Pecker’s testimony began on Monday after opening statements that offered the 12-person jury — and the voting public — radically divergent roadmaps for a case that will unfold against the backdrop of a closely contested White House race in which Trump is not only the presumptive Republican nominee but also a criminal defendant facing the prospect of a felony conviction and prison.

Prosecutors allege that Trump sought to illegally influence the 2016 race through a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill” — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

In this case, that included a 130,000-dollar (£105,000) payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels to silence her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter that Trump denies.

In another instance, Mr Pecker recounted a 30,000-dollar (£24,100) payment from the National Enquirer to a doorman for the rights to a rumour that Trump had fathered a child with an employee at Trump World Tower.

The tabloid concluded the story was not true, and the woman and Trump have denied the allegations.

As Mr Pecker described receiving the tip in court, Trump shook his head.

Mr Pecker said upon hearing the rumour, he immediately called Cohen, who said it was “absolutely not true” but that he would look into whether the people involved had indeed worked for Trump’s company.

“I made the decision to purchase the story because of the potential embarrassment it had to the campaign and to Mr Trump,” Mr Pecker said.

In response to the prosecutor’s question about who he understood the boss to be, Mr Pecker replied: “Donald Trump.”

Explaining why he decided to have the National Enquirer foot the bill, Mr Pecker said: “This was going to be a very big story. I believe it was important that this story be removed from the marketplace.”

If he published the story, Mr Pecker said it would be “probably the biggest sale of the National Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley”.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.