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Trump trial hears testimony from David Pecker about "catch and kill" scheme

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Jurors in former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York heard testimony Tuesday from David Pecker, a former media executive who described his efforts to use the National Enquirer to bury negative stories about Trump and attack his rivals during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Pecker, who was the CEO of the Enquirer's parent company at the time, testified that he agreed to be Trump's "eyes and ears" in 2015 and alert Trump's attorney Michael Cohen to damaging stories that might hurt the campaign. He described using a tactic known as "catch and kill" to buy the rights to the stories and decline to publish them, effectively keeping them hidden.

Prosecutors allege a $130,000 "hush money" payment Cohen made to the adult film star Stormy Daniels in the days before the election was part of the scheme. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to reimbursements Cohen received and has pleaded not guilty.

Pecker's testimony on Tuesday afternoon came after a contentious hearing in the morning over whether Trump had violated a gag order imposed by Judge Juan Merchan. The order limits what Trump can say publicly about many of those involved in the case, including witnesses like Cohen and Daniels.

Attorneys from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office asked Merchan to find Trump in contempt for 10 social media posts, many of which mentioned Cohen or Daniels. They said he should impose a $1,000 fine for each post and order Trump to take them down.

"His attacks on witnesses clearly violate the order, willfully and flagrantly. The court should now hold him in contempt for each of the 10 posts," prosecutor Chris Conroy said. "No one is off limits to the defendant. He can attack and seek to intimidate anyone he wants to in service to himself."

Todd Blanche, an attorney for Trump, argued that his client was responding to political attacks in his posts, and did not believe he was violating the order when reposting or quoting others. The judge seemed unpersuaded, but did not make a ruling immediately.

"Mr. Blanche, you're losing all credibility. I have to tell you that right now. You're losing all credibility with the court," Merchan said at one point.

Here are the highlights from what happened in the Trump trial on Tuesday:


Pecker details second use of "catch and kill"

David Pecker answers questions from prosecutors Joshua Steinglass in former President Donald Trump's trial in New York on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
David Pecker answers questions from prosecutors Joshua Steinglass in former President Donald Trump's trial in New York on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Jane Rosenberg

Pecker moved on to describe the second "catch and kill" story, which involved former Playboy model Karen McDougal. She alleged that she had an affair with Trump, which he denies. 

Pecker said that Dylan Howard, the Enquirer's editor, got wind of the story in early June 2016. Pecker sent Howard out to California to interview McDougal and told Cohen about her claims. The witness noted that he was speaking to Cohen almost every day, and sometimes several times a day, during this period.

Cohen at one point cautioned that they shouldn't be talking over a landline, so they switched to the encrypted app Signal, according to Pecker. Pecker said Cohen "explained to me that it was an encrypted app where nobody could trace it and that there's not a paper trail and nobody that can listen into the conversations. And the conversation is apparently destroyed after you have the call. I still to this day don't know if that's true or not."

They started using the app, but Pecker said, "Every time I used it, it dropped off after like 30 seconds."

Pecker said he knows that Cohen told Trump about the McDougal allegations because of a call he received while in New Jersey, where he was making a business presentation. Trump called and said that Cohen had told him about McDougal, he testified.

"What do you think?" Pecker said Trump asked. He replied that McDougal claimed she had offers from ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and a Mexican group that supposedly would pay her $8 million for the story.

"And I said, 'It's my understanding that she doesn't want her story published. I think the story should be purchased and I believe that you should buy it,'" Pecker recalled telling Trump. 

"Mr. Trump said, 'I don't buy any stories. Any time you do anything like this it always gets out.'"

Pecker said, "I still believe we should take this story off the market. [Trump] said, 'Let me think about it and I'll have Michael Cohen call you back in a few days.'"

When Howard went to California to talk to McDougal, Pecker said Cohen was calling him multiple times a day and "getting really agitated … He kept on calling and each time he called he seemed more anxious."

"I assumed that he had a conversation with Mr. Trump and Mr. Trump was asking Michael Cohen, 'Did we hear anything yet?' But this is only an assumption on my part," said Pecker.

The Enquirer ultimately secured the rights to McDougal's account for $150,000 and never published her story.

Pecker gestured with his hands on the stand as he recounted the story in a quintessential New York accent. His white hair was combed back, and he wore round spectacles.

The jurors were watching him in rapt attention during his testimony, with some turning to the prosecutor Joshua Steinglass, or perhaps to look toward Trump at times. 

Merchan leaned back as Pecker told his story, with his head propped on his hand listening.

By Katrina Kaufman

Pecker recalls the first use of "catch and kill" to bury a Trump story

Pecker described reaching out to Cohen after a National Enquirer editor received a tip that a Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell "a story that Donald Trump fathered an illegitimate girl with a maid at Trump Tower."

Pecker later concluded that the story was not true. As he described the allegation in court, Trump could be seen shaking his head, turning to Blanche and mouthing "no."

Pecker said when he first learned of the story in 2015, "I immediately called Michael Cohen and described exactly what I was told." He gave Cohen the doorman's name, Dino Sajudin, and that of the maid, and asked Cohen to verify they worked at Trump Tower.

"Immediately, Michael Cohen says to me, 'Absolutely not true, but I'll check it out,'" Pecker testified.

Pecker later called Cohen and told him a National Enquirer editor negotiated to buy the story for  $30,000. It was the first time the publication had ever decided to purchase a story about Trump, he testified. The price was far more than what the tabloid typically paid, which he said was up to $10,000 for the stories about the biggest celebrities.

"I said I'll pay for it, this is a very big story and it should be removed from the market," Pecker said he told Cohen.

"He said, 'Thank you,' and, 'The boss will be very pleased,'" Pecker testified, later clarifying that it was apparent "the boss" was Trump.

Jurors were shown the "source agreement" for the story, signed by Sajudin, who is among those who might testify during the trial.

It included the following provision, and a warning that Sajudin could be sued for $1 million if he violated it:

"Source shall provide AMI with information regarding Donald Trump's illegitimate child, and any and all documentation, including but not limited to letters and any legal documents, and photographs in Source's possession relevant to the Exclusive," the document said.

Pecker said he told Cohen that if the story was true, he would consider publishing it after the election, when it would not "embarrass the campaign."

"I thought if the story was true … it would be probably the biggest story for the National Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley," Pecker testified.

The Enquirer never published the story. An invoice for payment to Sajudin was described internally as "regarding 'Trump' non-published story."

By Graham Kates

Pecker describes publishing negative stories about Trump's opponents

Pecker was shown a series of National Enquirer headlines about candidates who ran against Trump in the 2016 election: Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio. The stories featured outrageous and salacious allegations that included claims of affairs and ties to the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.

Pecker said Cohen personally directed him at different times about which candidates should be attacked, typically when they were doing well in the polls. Pecker said he would send Cohen copies of stories before publication and Cohen "would comment on them," sometimes offering suggestions.

Asked if Pecker remembered Cohen saying he shared these stories in advance with "the boss," Pecker said he couldn't recall him doing that.

Pecker said in October 2016 that Trump introduced him to Steve Bannon, who was the chief executive of Trump's campaign. 

"He said to me, 'I believe that you and Steve would get along really well,'" Pecker said.

Pecker said Bannon reviewed recent articles about Hillary Clinton, then Trump's Democratic opponent in the election.

"He liked them very much, he had some other ideas," Pecker said.

By Graham Kates

Pecker describes 2015 meeting where he agreed to be Trump's "eyes and ears"

Pecker said that in 2015, he received a call from Cohen, Trump's longtime personal attorney, telling him that "the boss wanted to see me."

At a meeting in August 2015 with Trump, Cohen and Hope Hicks, Pecker said he told them he would publish positive stories about Trump, as well as negative stories about his opponents for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

"I said, 'I would be your eyes and ears,'" Pecker told the court. "And then I said that anything that I hear in the marketplace, if I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear anything about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen."

Pecker said he thought there would be "a lot of women com[ing] out to try to sell their stories because Mr. Trump was well-known as the most eligible bachelor, and dated the most beautiful women." He said the arrangement was "a mutual benefit — it would help his campaign, it would also help me."

Asked how Trump reacted, Pecker said, "As I recollect, he was pleased. Michael Cohen was pleased." He said nothing was put into writing, describing it as "an agreement among friends."

After the meeting, which lasted 20 or 25 minutes, Pecker said he told his editors to be on the lookout for stories about Trump: "I want you to vet the stories, I want you to bring them to me, and then we'll have to speak to Michael Cohen." He said he told Dylan Howard, the editor in chief of the Enquirer, that they were "going to try to help the campaign, and to do that, we are going to keep this as quiet as possible."

By Katrina Kaufman

Pecker describes origin of relationship with Trump

Under questioning by prosecutor Joshua Steinglass, Pecker said he first met Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 1988 or 1989. They soon collaborated on a quarterly magazine.

"I had an idea of creating a magazine called Trump Style, and I presented it to Mr. Trump," Pecker said. "He liked the idea a lot, and just questioned me who was going to pay for it, because magazines are pretty expensive."

When Pecker acquired American Media Inc., the National Enquirer's parent company, he said Trump called him to offer congratulations for buying a "great magazine."

He recalled that Trump's reality show "The Apprentice" was an "instant success" and led to a "great mutually beneficial relationship," in which Trump would send him details about the show to publish in the Enquirer. The relationship deepened once Trump launched "The Celebrity Apprentice." 

Pecker said Enquirer's audience "loved Mr. Trump as a major celebrity and they followed him religiously, I should say."

After Trump announced his run for president in 2015, Pecker said he would see him more frequently, about once a month. They would speak on the phone "maybe once every couple of weeks."

He said he would describe Trump as "very knowledgeable" and "very detail oriented." He said Trump was "almost a micromanager" and "very cautious and very frugal" when it came to money.

By Katrina Kaufman

Court resumes with David Pecker on the stand

After a short break, David Pecker, the former CEO of the National Enquirer's parent company, has retaken the stand for a second day of testimony. 

"Welcome back, Mr. Pecker," Merchan told him as he walked in, wearing a gray suit and blue shirt.

Court is set to adjourn at 2 p.m. today. Trump has been intensely talking to his attorneys, Blanche and Emil Bove, during the break.

By Katrina Kaufman

Trump lashes out at judge on Truth Social after contempt hearing

During a brief break in Tuesday's proceedings, Trump found time to post about Merchan on his social media site, Truth Social.

"Highly conflicted, to put it mildly, Judge Juan Merchan, has taken away my constitutional right to free speech," Trump wrote in all-caps.

Merchan has not yet ruled on the motion, which asks him to fine and warn Trump over 10 instances in which prosecutors say he violated a gag order in the case. 

Most of the instances were posted on Truth Social, where posts are called "truths." Blanche said Tuesday that Trump "truths repeatedly, all day virtually, seven days a week."

By Graham Kates

Judge to Trump lawyer: "You're losing all credibility"

A court sketch showing Todd Blanche addressing Judge Juan Merchan during a hearing in former President Donald Trump's New York criminal trial on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
A court sketch showing Todd Blanche addressing Judge Juan Merchan during a hearing in former President Donald Trump's New York criminal trial on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Jane Rosenberg

Merchan is growing increasingly frustrated with Blanche's attempts to explain Trump's inflammatory posts.

Merchan brought up a Trump post quoting Jesse Watters, the Fox News host. It was a quote, not a repost, the judge pointed out. 

Merchan said Trump had to "manipulate" a keyboard, "use the shift key" and "put it in quotes" to post Watters' statement about a potential juror. He again asked what political attack Trump was responding to, and receiving no clear example from Blanche.

"It's worth ending on this point, which is that, this gag order, we are trying to comply with it," Blanche told the judge. "President Trump is being very careful to comply with your honor's rules."

"Mr. Blanche, you're losing all credibility. I have to tell you that right now. You're losing all credibility with the court," Merchan responded. "Is there any other argument that you want to make?"

The judge indicated he would reserve judgment for now on whether to hold Trump in contempt.

By Graham Kates

Blanche defends Trump reposts, saying he didn't think he was violating order

Blanche argued that Trump reposting others' content or linking to news articles is not a violation of the gag order.

"Tell me what case law you have to support that," Merchan asked.

"I don't have any case law to support that, it's just common sense," Blanche responded. He said Trump did not believe he was violating the gag order when reposting others' content.

"Are you testifying under oath that that's his position?" Merchan asked. "I'd like to hear that. I'd like to hear that. Or do you want me to accept it just because you're saying it?"

By Katrina Kaufman

Judge gets heated as Blanche defends Trump

Merchan, the judge, questioned Blanche about his contention that many of Trump's posts were him responding to political attacks. He asked Blanche to identify what those attacks were.

Blanche said Cohen and Daniels had repeatedly criticized Trump politically in the lead-up to the trial. 

"Give me one, give me the most recent one that he is responding to," Merchan asked, a version of a question he asked several times.

"I don't have a particular tweet that is dispositive," Blanche said, asking why the example had to be "recent."

Merchan's voice raised in reply. 

"I'm asking the questions, OK? I'm going to decide whether your client is in contempt or not, so please don't turn it around," Merchan said.

By Graham Kates

Trump attorney: "No willful violation" of gag order

Todd Blanche, Trump's defense attorney, is now addressing the court. He told the judge there was "no willful violation" of the gag order.

"President Trump does in fact know what the gag order allows him to do and not allow him to do," he said.

Blanche is arguing that Trump should be allowed to respond to what he believes are statements about politics, even if made by a witness.

By Katrina Kaufman

Prosecutors don't want Trump jailed if found in contempt

Despite saying Trump crossed "crystal clear, unequivocal lines" in his posts, Conroy said prosecutors are not asking Merchan to jail Trump.

"We are not yet seeking an incarceratory penalty, though the defendant seems to be angling for that," Conroy said. "Remind him that incarceration is an option, should this continue."

By Graham Kates

Prosecutor ties Trump post about Fox News segment to juror's exit

Conroy pointed to a segment on Fox News by host Jesse Watters last week about jurors who were being interviewed to sit on the jury. In a post, Trump quoted Watters as saying "undercover liberal activists" were "lying to the judge" to get on the jury.

"The defendant took something that Jesse Watters said, added to it and posted it. And it came from a segment specifically discussing juror profiles in this case. He did it about 40 minutes after Jesse Watters said part of the statement," Conroy said. "To me that shows very clear deliberation and willfulness in making the post."

The next day, one of the jurors asked to be dismissed, citing fears about being identified. She said her friends and family had already asked if she was selected to serve.

"What happened here is precisely what this order was designed to prevent and this defendant doesn't care," Conroy told the court. "He violates the order when he posts about known witnesses, or reasonably foreseeable witnesses … and he violates the order when he posts about a juror, or prospective juror."

By Katrina Kaufman

Prosecutor: Trump "willfully and flagrantly" violated gag order

A court sketch shows prosecutor Chris Conroy in court during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
A court sketch shows prosecutor Chris Conroy in court during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Jane Rosenberg

Prosecutor Chris Conroy kicked things off for the state, submitting 10 of Trump's recent posts to the court. He said they each violated the order restricting Trump's comments on those involved in the case. 

"His attacks on witnesses clearly violate the order, willfully and flagrantly. The court should now hold him in contempt for each of the 10 posts," Conroy said. "No one is off limits to the defendant. He can attack and seek to intimidate anyone he wants to in service to himself."

Trump, seated at the defense table, appeared to be staring straight ahead during Conroy's presentation.

Conroy is now going through each of the posts, one by one. Most of them appeared on Trump's Truth Social platform, and many attacked Cohen's credibility as a witness. 

By Katrina Kaufman

Contempt hearing gets underway

Former President Donald Trump and lawyer Todd Blanche appear in court for Trump's trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 23, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump and lawyer Todd Blanche appear in court for Trump's trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 23, 2024. Timothy A. Clary-Pool/Getty Images

After a brief sidebar with lawyers for both sides, Judge Juan Merchan turned to the matter at hand: whether Trump has violated the judge's gag order by posting about witnesses on social media, and whether he should be punished for the violations.

"The purpose of this hearing is to find out whether the defendant, Mr. Trump, should be held in contempt of court for one or all of these alleged violations," the judge said.

By Katrina Kaufman

Trump arrives at courtroom for contempt hearing

Wearing a red tie and dark suit, the former president spoke before entering the courtroom, where the judge will hear arguments over whether he violated the gag order.

He did not address the proceedings in the courtroom, but took the opportunity to urge Pennsylvanians to go to the polls in the state's primary and blame President Biden for his handling of protests on college campuses and the Middle East.

"What's going on is a disgrace to our country, and it's all Biden's fault, and everybody knows it," he said.

By Stefan Becket

What David Pecker, the first witness, said on the stand

Jurors were told to be ready to return to the courtroom by 11 a.m. on Tuesday to resume hearing testimony by the trial's first witness, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Pecker was on the stand for about half an hour after attorneys for both sides presented their opening statements. He broadly described the operations of the National Enquirer's parent company American Media Inc., or AMI, which he left in 2020. 

Under questioning by prosecutor Joshua Steinglass, Pecker said he had final say over what Steinglass described as particularly "juicy" stories.

"We used checkbook journalism," Pecker said, describing how editors were empowered to spend up to $10,000 on sourcing for stories, but that larger expenses "would have to be vetted and brought up to me for approval."

He is expected to testify at length about an alleged "catch and kill" scheme, in which his company purchased the rights to unflattering stories about Trump, but never published them. A prosecutor said in court Monday that Pecker will also describe an effort to find and publish stories that would be damaging to Trump's opponents in the 2016 election.

By Graham Kates

What prosecutors said in their opening statement

Matthew Colangelo, a member of Bragg's team, kicked things off for the prosecution, laying out the central allegations in the case. 

Just days before the 2016 election, Trump's attorney at the time, Cohen, paid $130,000 to Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter she said she had with Trump years earlier. Trump denies the encounter.

Colangelo said Cohen made the payment "at the defendant's direction, and did it to influence the election." He portrayed the payment as part of a scheme concocted by Trump, Cohen and Pecker to bury negative stories about Trump and attack his rivals. The plan was hatched at a meeting at Trump Tower in 2015, Colangelo said.

"Together they conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election," Colangelo told the jury, saying Pecker agreed to act as Trump's "eyes and ears" during the 2016 campaign.

Colangelo laid out the "catch and kill" tactic allegedly used by Pecker and Dylan Howard, the Enquirer's editor, to shield Trump from negative stories. The practice involved buying the rights to someone's story and then declining to publish the account, effectively keeping it hidden. They also  published unflattering stories about Trump's rivals.

Prosecutors allege AMI, the Enquirer's parent company, employed the "catch and kill" tactic twice before the payment to Daniels. One instance involved a $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model to secure the rights to her story. The model, Karen McDougal, also alleged an affair with Trump, which he denies. Colangelo told jurors they would hear a recording of Cohen promising to set up a shell company to buy the rights to McDougal's story from the Enquirer to reimburse Pecker for the purchase.

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Daniels' lawyer approached the Enquirer about selling the rights to her story as well, Colangelo said. Howard put the lawyer in touch with Cohen, who negotiated the $130,000 payment, according to prosecutors. Colangelo said Trump hoped to delay the deal until after the election, and then not pay at all. Cohen ultimately transferred the money to Daniels' attorney just days before Election Day.

"This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election to help Donald Trump get elected," Colangelo told the jury. "It was election fraud, pure and simple."

By Graham Kates

What Trump's attorney said in his opening statement

Todd Blanche, an attorney for Trump, delivered the defense's opening statement after Colangelo. He said the jury is "going to learn that this was not a payback."

"Think for a moment of what the People just told you. President Trump did not pay Mr. Cohen back $130,000. President Trump paid Michael Cohen $420,000," Blanche said, as Trump watched him. "Would a frugal businessman, would a man who 'pinches pennies,' repay a $130,000 debt to the tune of $420,000?"

He said the $35,000 that Cohen received each month was for his services as Trump's personal attorney, not as reimbursement for the Daniels payment. He argued that Trump "had nothing to do with the 34 pieces of paper … except that he signed them in the White House, while he was running the country." Each charge in the indictment refers to a record created to document a payment to Cohen.

"There's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy. They've put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime," Blanche continued. "President Trump fought back like he always does, and like he's entitled to do. To protect his family, his reputation and his brand. And that is not a crime."

Blanche said Cohen is "obsessed" with Trump and has been for "many, many years." He argued that Cohen decided "to blame President Trump for all of his problems" when he was arrested on federal charges in 2018.

"He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison. He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump's family go to prison," Blanche said.

"He has a goal, and obsession, with getting Trump," he continued, adding later, "I submit to you that he cannot be trusted."

By Graham Kates
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