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Ex-National Enquirer publisher says he pledged to be Trump's 'eyes and ears'

Former President Donald Trump watches as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass questions David Pecker before Judge Juan Merchan during Trump's criminal trial in Manhattan on Tuesday.
Jane Rosenberg
Former President Donald Trump watches as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass questions David Pecker before Judge Juan Merchan during Trump's criminal trial in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Updated April 23, 2024 at 14:44 PM ET

NEW YORK — David Pecker, once the publisher of one of America's largest tabloids, testified on the witness stand Tuesday about his history and relationship with former President Donald Trump and how he manipulated coverage of the then-GOP candidate ahead of the 2016 election.

Pecker is the former CEO of American Media Inc., which until 2019 was the publishing company of the National Enquirer magazine. He is now the first witness to testify against Trump, the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee, in a trial accusing the former president of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records with the intent to further other crimes. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Pecker's testimony resumed Tuesday after a short time on the stand on Monday and lasted until mid-afternoon when jurors were dismissed for the day. The trial is set to pick back up on Thursday morning.

As Trump watched from the defense table, Pecker detailed his history and relationship with the former president dating back to the '90s, how he first came to meet former Trump lawyer and potential other witness Michael Cohen, and his invitation to attend Trump's 2016 presidential bid announcement.

Pecker testified to attending a mid-August 2015 meeting where Trump and Cohen asked him what he could do to help the campaign. Pecker agreed to "run or publish positive stories about Mr. Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponents. And I said, 'I will be your eyes and ears.' "

The prosecution's opening statements told the story of how they believe Pecker, Trump and Cohen conspired using a so-called "catch and kill" scheme in August 2015 to bury negative stories that could be damaging to Trump's 2016 electoral prospects and promote articles in the tabloid that were negative about his opponents.

Pecker also testified he specifically promised to look out for potentially damaging stories from women. Recalling that process, Pecker discussed how he found out about key stories — such as the claim of an affair with Playboy model Karen McDougal — and that he'd had a private conversation with Trump about purchasing the story to avoid it being published.

On Tuesday morning, just ahead of the second day of testimony, prosecutors asked Judge Juan Merchan to fine Trump $10,000 for violating a gag order and rule Trump in contempt of court for 10 posts made on Truth Social, Trump's social media platform, and his campaign website. Weeks before the trial began, Merchan issueda gag order on Trump that specifically bars him from making or directing others to make public statements about potential jurors, court staff or family members of staff.

A decision could come later Tuesday.

Prosecutors set up Pecker's testimony on Monday

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in opening statements that the evidence will show that Pecker found potentially damaging info through his tabloid network and then reported back to Trump and Cohen.

This includes payments to McDougal, who was going to allege publicly she had an affair with Trump, and allegations of an affair by adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Pecker's testimony could corroborate Cohen's, which the defense is already seeking to discredit. Pecker is also likely to testify about the plan for him to pay McDougal, which Trump did not reimburse him for. This sets up the context for Cohen paying Daniels, which the prosecutors argue happened because Pecker wouldn't pay a second time.

Pecker also testified to the editorial structure of his magazine and about the level of oversight he had on the stories. He also confirmed his phone numbers, which the prosecution suggested could be relevant later on.

In 2018, Pecker was granted immunity in exchange for providing federal prosecutors with information about the payments. American Media, Inc. at the time admitted that it helped arrange payments to McDougal and later was sold amid the scandal of their involvement with the Trump campaign and federal investigations.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.