Trump’s attorneys try to pick holes in David Pecker’s ‘catch and kill’ testimony

Donald Trump’s defence attorneys have tried to undermine trial testimony from one of the alleged architects of the scheme to buy up politically damaging stories about Mr Trump to boost his chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, the first witness in the former president’s historic hush money trial, faced a barrage of “yes” or “no” questions during cross-examination from Mr Trump’s lawyer Emil Bove on Thursday and Friday in an attempt to poke holes in his week-long testimony.

But Mr Bove’s attempts to impeach Mr Pecker’s credibility fell flat, as the former publisher repeatedly affirmed his under-oath descriptions of his meetings with Mr Trump.

At one point on Friday, Mr Bove tried to get Mr Pecker to admit that he either lied on the witness stand or to federal law enforcement about Mr Trump “thanking” him for his help burying stories of Mr Trump’s alleged affairs.

“Was that a mistake?” Mr Bove asked. “Do you believe Trump said that to you as we sit here right now?”

Mr Bove then handed Mr Pecker a report from his interview with federal prosecutors and the FBI in 2018, alleging that Mr Pecker’s prior testimony contradicted his earlier interview.

“This is the FBI’s interview, is that correct? These are the FBI notes? The FBI notes, some of these here, are wrong. I know what I testified to yesterday,” Mr Pecker responded.

“I know what the truth is,” he added. “I can’t state why it’s written this way.”

Mr Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, charges that stem from an alleged scheme to buy the rights to a story from adult film star Stormy Daniels, alleging she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testifies in Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York on 26 April (REUTERS)
Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testifies in Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York on 26 April (REUTERS)

The scheme, prosecutors allege, sought to block the release of politically compromising stories about Mr Trump in the days leading up to the 2016 election.

His then-attorney Michael Cohen has admitted to paying Ms Daniels off, while Mr Trump’s reimbursements were allegedly covered up as “legal expenses,” according to prosecutors.

Mr Pecker testified that he helped plan to use his tabloid empire to identify “negative” stories about Mr Trump involving women in an effort to boost Mr Trump’s election chances.

That so-called “catch and kill” scheme included a contract between Mr Pecker’s American Media Inc and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed to have had a nearly year-long affair with Mr Trump.

According to an August 2016 contract shown in court, Mr Pecker agreed to give her monthly columns in Star and Ok magazines, among other publishing perks – as well as the sole rights to her story about Mr Trump – for $150,000.

During the prosecution’s rebuttal of Mr Pecker on Friday, the tabloid mogul agreed that the “true purpose” of the deal was to give “plausible deniability” to the plan to buy the rights to a story he never intended to publish.

“It was included in the contract basically as a disguise of what the actual purpose of it,” Mr Pecker said on Friday. “The actual purpose of it was to acquire the lifetime rights … It would be published by American Media. It would not be published by any media source.”

Donald Trump returns to the Manhattan courtroom after a lunch recess during his trial (2024 Getty Images)
Donald Trump returns to the Manhattan courtroom after a lunch recess during his trial (2024 Getty Images)

Mr Pecker repeatedly testified that stories about Mr Trump were big sellers for the National Enquirer.

Burying Ms McDougal’s story was against his own business interest, prosecutors tried to point out.

“Had you published a story about a Playboy model having a year-long sexual affair while he was married … Would that have sold magazines?” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass asked. “That would be like National Enquirer gold.”

Mr Pecker agreed.

“At the time you entered into that agreement, you had zero intention of publishing that story,” Mr Steinglass said. “You killed the story because it helped candidate Donald Trump.”

“Yes,” Mr Pecker said.

Before concluding his testimony, Mr Steinglass asked Mr Pecker whether he had been truthful to federal law enforcement when he was questioned about a meeting at Trump Tower in 2017, where he testifies Mr Trump had “thanked” him for “handling” Ms McDougal and “the doorman”.

“Was that the truth then? Was that the truth now?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mr Pecker said.

“Do you believe you have ever been inconsistent on that point?” Mr Steinglass asked.

“No,” Mr Pecker said.

During the day’s proceedings, Mr Trump slouched in a red chair, popping mints from a white tin that he stacked on the defence table or pulled from his jacket pocket.

At other times, his eyes were closed, and he would tilt his head to the side as if he was trying to hear.

When Mr Pecker stepped off the witness stand before an afternoon lunch recess, he flashed a polite smile at the former president – a man he testified earlier this week he still considers a mentor-like figure.