Takeaways from the Trump hush money trial: Ex-publisher details tabloid tactics

Takeaways from the Trump hush money trial Ex-publisher details tabloid tactics

Former American Media Inc. chairman David Pecker took jurors in Donald Trump’s hush money case inside how he paid for Karen McDougal’s story to keep her quiet about her alleged affair with Trump – and how his decision not to pay for Stormy Daniels’ story led to Michael Cohen ultimately paying for it.

Prosecutors on Thursday wrapped up their direct testimony with Pecker, who was on the stand for three days describing in detail how he worked with Trump and Cohen to buy up damaging stories about Trump throughout the 2016 campaign. His testimony laid the foundation for the rest of the Manhattan district attorney’s case against Trump that focuses on the payment to Daniels.

The former president, who has denied affairs with both McDougal and Daniels and pleaded not guilty in this case, didn’t want to be in the downtown Manhattan courtroom on Thursday. But Judge Juan Merchan last week rejected his request to be in Washington for Supreme Court arguments on presidential immunity – so Trump instead went to a New York campaign stop Thursday morning, and he attacked the case when he left the courtroom at the end of the day, while calling the testimony “breathtaking and amazing.”

Later Thursday, when Trump was asked on Newsmax if he was now “more or less likely” to testify, the former president said he would “if it’s necessary” – softening his earlier, more definitive statements about taking the stand.

On Thursday, Merchan did not issue his ruling on whether Trump has violated the judge’s gag order. But prosecutors provided four more examples to the judge of alleged violations – including one when he commented on Pecker Thursday morning before he went to court.

Trump’s attorneys began their cross-examination of Pecker Thursday afternoon and will continue on Friday.

Here are the takeaways from Thursday in the hush money trial:

Pecker details conversations with Trump about McDougal payment

Pecker’s testimony included the nuts and bolts of how AMI paid McDougal on Trump’s behalf, Pecker’s private conversations with Trump about the catch-and-kill deal and the fallout when her story became public.

Pecker’s testimony to prosecutors spanned more than seven hours over three days. He described how he put up the money for a catch-and-kill scheme to suppress McDougal’s story – and it was Pecker’s refusal to pay for Daniels’ story that led to Michael Cohen, Trump’s then-fixer, doling out $130,000 himself.

Pecker also testified that he and his top editor initially alerted Trump and Cohen to the fact that Daniels was shopping her story, and that he refused Cohen’s efforts to get him to buy Daniels’ story, too.

After Trump was elected, Pecker testified that Trump asked him at least twice how McDougal was doing, including at what Pecker described as a “thank you dinner” at the White House in 2017.

“As we walked out, President Trump asked me, ‘How’s Karen doing, how’s Karen doing?’ So, I said, ‘She’s doing well, she’s quiet, everything’s going good.’” Pecker said.

Pecker also described how Trump was angry when the McDougal story went public. Trump called him on November 5, 2016 – three days before election day – when the Wall Street Journal published a story about the AMI agreement.

Pecker said that Trump was very upset when they spoke, saying, “How could this happen? I thought you had this under control.”

Pecker also received a call from Trump after McDougal was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in March 2018.

Pecker told Trump on the call that he had amended McDougal’s agreement on speaking to other media. Trump was angry, Pecker testified.

“He was very upset, he couldn’t understand why I did it,” Pecker said.

No gag order decision yet

Merchan had spent Tuesday morning hearing arguments on Trump’s alleged violation of the gag order – which limits the former president from publicly discussing witnesses, the jury, the district attorney’s staff or Merchan’s family – but he did not issue a ruling on Thursday when court came back into session.

Instead, prosecutors submitted another motion to hold Trump in contempt for additional violations of the gag order over the past three days – including comments he made Thursday morning.

Prosecutor Chris Conroy cited Trump’s comments at his event in New York City where he spoke about Pecker and said that he was “nice.”

“This is a message to Pecker. Be nice. It’s a message to others,” Conroy said.

Merchan announced at the end of the day that he would hold a hearing on that motion next Wednesday – the day that court is supposed to be dark for the Trump trial.

A Wednesday hearing would mean that Trump would be spending his off day in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, rather than having a full day to leave New York to campaign – or to golf, as Trump did this Wednesday at his club in Bedminster, CNN’s Kristen Holmes reported. Trump has two campaign events scheduled for next Wednesday.

If Merchan finds Trump in contempt for violating the gag order, he can fine Trump $1,000 per violation, the maximum under state law, or he could jail him up to 30 days. Forcing him to appear an extra day in court seemed like it could have been another way for Merchan to take action against the former president’s gag order transgressions – but by the evening, the hearing had shifted to next Thursday, May 2, at 9:30 a.m. instead.

Trump wanted to be elsewhere Thursday, too

Trump’s attorneys had asked for his appearance Thursday to be waived so he could attend the Supreme Court arguments on presidential immunity. The judge denied that request.

In Washington on Thursday, the Supreme Court appeared ready to reject Trump’s claims of sweeping immunity and the broad protections he has sought to shut down his federal election subversion case, but the justices also seemed willing to embrace a result that could jeopardize the ability to hold a trial in that case before the November election.

Leaving the Manhattan courthouse on Thursday, Trump also commented on the Supreme Court case.

“I was forced to be here, and I’m glad I was because it was a very interesting day in a certain way,” Trump said. “But the US Supreme Court had a monumental hearing on immunity and the immunity having to do with presidential immunity. I think it was made clear, I hope it was made clear, that the president has to have immunity, or you don’t have a president, or at most you could say it would be a ceremonial president.”

Pecker agrees in cross-examination that suppressing stories was ‘standard operating procedure’

Trump’s attorney Emil Bove cross-examined Pecker for about an hour Thursday.

Quizzing Pecker with rapid-fire leading questions, Bove got the witness to confirm to the jury that Trump’s symbiotic relationship with Pecker and his tabloids was not unusual and long pre-dated Trump’s run for office.

Pecker confirmed source agreements like the ones used to suppress stories from McDougal and former Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin are “standard operating procedure” for AMI to give the company control of how the information might be released, if at all.

Pecker also acknowledged that Trump was understood to be a top seller for AMI publications.

Especially around the time of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” company research showed that Trump could drive the most sales for the National Enquirer.

“So, you ran articles about President Trump because it was good for business?” Bove asked.

“That’s correct,” Pecker said.

Pecker also confirmed that he had a standard practice of not publishing negative stories about Trump since the 1990s.

“Because it was not good for business?” Bove asked.

“Yes,” Pecker said.

Bove confirmed with Pecker that “many politicians work with the media to promote their image” and “including sometimes to win elections.”

Trump’s attorney asks Pecker about tactics National Enquirer used for other celebrities

Bove’s cross-examination of Pecker elicited testimony about other celebrities whom Pecker had purchased stories about so they wouldn’t be published, offering a fascinating glimpse into the celebrity tabloid world while he was chairman of the publisher of the National Enquirer.

Trump’s attorney sought to establish with Pecker that AMI used “checkbook journalism” to control narratives in the press and fostered mutually beneficial relationships with several celebrities – not just Trump.

Bove walked through Pecker’s earlier testimony with prosecutors about a catch-and-kill deal with Arnold Schwarzenegger shortly before he announced his run for California governor. Bove stated that 30 or 40 women ended up coming to AMI with stories about Schwarzenegger, and Pecker confirmed the statement.

Pecker also said that he helped agent Ari Emanuel get control over a story about the actor Mark Wahlberg, as well as suppress a negative story about allegations involving his brother, Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and current US ambassador to Japan.

Bove also had Pecker confirm that his company purchased photos of golfer Tiger Woods “to leverage them against Woods to get him in the magazine.”

CNN has reached out for comment from Schwarzenegger, Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel, Wahlberg and Woods.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.