Who is David Pecker, first witness in Trump New York hush money case?

Donald Trump built his celebrity-businessman reputation in the pages of New York’s tabloids. Now, in the former president’s criminal hush money trial in Manhattan, a former tabloid publisher who helped burnish Trump’s image is the prosecution’s first witness. David Pecker, former publisher of the National Enquirer, took the stand Monday afternoon to talk about his relationship with the former president and the tactics he used to keep negative stories about Trump from surfacing.

He testified for less than 30 minutes before court adjourned so a juror could deal with a medical issue, but he is expected back on the stand Tuesday.

Trump is charged with falsifying business records in connection with a $130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election. Prosecutors allege Trump classified the records as a legal expense, rather than a campaign expense, to keep voters in the dark about Daniels’s allegation that she and Trump had a sexual tryst years earlier. Trump denies the allegation and has pleaded not guilty.

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In his opening statement Monday, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo focused on Pecker’s interactions with Trump.

Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, is alleged to have helped broker the payment to Daniels in his role at the time as chief executive of American Media Inc., the tabloid publisher. It was part of a practice known as “catch-and-kill,” in which the National Enquirer sought to bury negative stories about Trump to help his presidential bid.

Prosecutors say Pecker and a National Enquirer editor contacted then-Trump attorney Michael Cohen — another key witness in the case — shortly before the 2016 election and told him Daniels was shopping around a story alleging a tryst with Trump. Soon after, Cohen reached out to Daniels offering the $130,000 payment.

In his brief time on the stand Monday, Pecker explained basics about his former business, including how the company used “checkbook journalism” to pay for stories.

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He said he “gave a number to the editors, that they could not spend more than $10,000 to investigate or publish a story.”

“To pay more, it would have to be vetted and brought up to me.”

Trump watched him with a stony face for most of the questioning.

Jurors are expected to hear evidence of a meeting at Trump Tower in summer 2015 involving Pecker, Cohen and Trump in which Pecker agreed “to use his media empire to help the defendant’s campaign,” Colangelo said in court Monday.

The three men, the prosecutor said, “struck an agreement at that meeting together — they conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election.” He said Pecker would act as “eyes and ears for the campaign,” attacking Trump’s political opponents and seeking out positive coverage as the election progressed.

Colangelo said there were two other “catch-and-kill” stories involving Pecker and the National Enquirer.

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One involved Dino Sajudin, a Trump Tower doorman who reportedly tried to sell a story alleging that Trump had a child out of wedlock.

Pecker paid Sajudin $30,000 for the story, according to Colangelo, marking the first time he paid for a story without investigating it. The tabloid later determined the claim wasn’t true. Still, Cohen insisted that Pecker add a $1 million “nondisclosure agreement” and require that Sajudin keep quiet until after the 2016 election, the prosecutor said.

American Media Inc. also previously admitted, in a 2018 agreement with federal prosecutors, to buying the silence of Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Trump, to “suppress” that allegation and “prevent it from influencing the election.”

Pecker left the publishing company in 2020.

In the defense’s opening statement, Trump attorney Todd Blanche said that the payment to Daniels was aboveboard and that Trump was not “criminally responsible for something Mr. Cohen may have done years after the fact.”

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election; it’s called democracy,” Blanche said. “They put something sinister on this idea as if it was a crime. You’ll learn it’s not.”

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