27 Apr 2024

National Enquirer boss says he killed story of Trump's affair, even though it cost him

11:25 am on 27 April 2024
Former US President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 26, 2024. Trump's defense team vied to probe holes in tabloid publisher David Pecker's testimony during the trial on April 25, after jurors heard days of testimony regarding a plot to kill salacious stories that could have thwarted the Republican's 2016 White House bid. (Photo by JEENAH MOON / POOL / AFP)

Former US President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on 26 April 2024. Photo: JEENAH MOON / POOL / AFP

By Jack Queen, Jody Godoy and Andy Sullivan for Reuters

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified on Friday at Donald Trump's criminal trial that he suppressed a story about an alleged affair to help Trump's 2016 presidential bid, even though it would have boosted sales of his tabloid.

Testifying for a third day, Pecker, 72, agreed with a prosecutor who asked whether it would have been "National Enquirer gold" to publish the story of former Playboy model Karen McDougal's claim that she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.

But Pecker said he opted not to run the story after paying McDougal for it, because it would have hurt Republican Trump's chances of winning the election over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"You killed the story because it helped the candidate, Donald Trump?" prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked him.

Pecker said yes.

The exchange bolstered previous testimony in which Pecker said he worked with Trump's campaign to suppress allegations of adultery at a time when the then-presidential candidate was facing multiple accusations of sexual misbehaviour.

Pecker was the first witness in the case, which accuses Trump, 77, of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Pecker testified his tabloid paid for the rights to two such stories he never published, a tabloid practice referred to as "catch and kill". Pecker also alerted Trump that Daniels was looking to sell her story of a sexual encounter with Trump.

The defence argues the hush money payment was made to spare Trump's family embarrassment, not to protect his presidential campaign. Trump, a businessman whose first public office was the White House, denies an encounter took place.

After Pecker's testimony, prosecutors called two more witnesses to boost their case.

Rhona Graff, who worked as Trump's business assistant from 1987 to 2021, testified she once saw Daniels at Trump Tower before he ran for president. She said she heard Trump say he was interested in casting her on The Apprentice, the reality TV show he hosted.

She said the email addresses of Daniels and McDougal were stored in the computer systems of Trump's company.

Trump shook her hand when she left the witness stand.

Banker Gary Farro testified that Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, set up accounts with him shortly before the election for two shell companies, including one that was used to pay Daniels.

The trial was scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

'I know what I remember'

During cross-examination, Trump lawyer Emil Bove sought to undermine Pecker's credibility.

Bove asked Pecker whether he had inaccurately testified that Trump thanked him at the White House for handling the negative news stories. That conflicted with a report by FBI agents who previously interviewed Pecker, which said Trump had not expressed gratitude.

Pecker said the FBI report could be wrong.

"I know what I testified to, and I know what I remember," Pecker told the New York court's 12 jurors and six alternates.

Bove asked Pecker whether his statements aligned with facts contained in an agreement by the Enquirer's parent company to cooperate with legal authorities to avoid prosecution. Pecker denied any substantial mismatch.

Bove also sought to illustrate that Pecker's chequebook journalism was not confined to Trump.

Under questioning by Bove on Thursday, Pecker said the Enquirer paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain stories from women who came forward during Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 run for California governor to say they had affairs with him.

Pecker said the first time he gave Trump a heads up about a negative story was in 1998 in relation to Marla Maples, his wife at the time.

Prosecutors say Pecker's arrangement with Trump corrupted the 2016 election. He agreed to cooperate to avoid criminal charges.

Trump is the first former president to face criminal charges. The trial, which was expected to run through May, could be the only one of his four criminal prosecutions to be completed before his 5 November election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

One of those cases, which charges Trump with trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden, has been delayed for months by the US Supreme Court, which signalled on Thursday that it might be open to giving him some immunity from criminal charges.

Justice Juan Merchan, who is hearing the New York hush money case, has yet to rule on a request by prosecutors to punish Trump for allegedly violating a gag order that bars him from publicly criticising witnesses, some court officials and their relatives.

Merchan said he would hold a hearing next Thursday to examine what prosecutors say are further gag order violations. Trump could be fined $1000 for each violation or jailed, though prosecutors say they are not seeking imprisonment at this point.

- Reuters

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