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David Pecker testified on secret payments and buried stories in Trump hush money case


Inside a New York courthouse today, jurors got an inside peek at Donald Trump's world in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election. They heard details of secret payments, buried stories and, most of all, a firsthand look at how Trump acted to control information about his past. NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in the courthouse today and is now just outside it. Hey, Andrea.


DETROW: So David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, continued his testimony today. What did we learn?

BERNSTEIN: Pecker really lifted the veil on the seamy world of tabloid publishing and how they get stories from information brokers. So when one of these brokers, Keith Davidson, came forward in June of 2016 with the story of a playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Trump, the National Enquirer was inclined to believe her. Pecker sent a top editor to speak to her. And there was testimony about Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, calling repeatedly during this meeting and then how, after the meeting, Trump himself called Pecker.

DETROW: And this is 2016. Trump, at this point, is the presumptive nominee. And so Pecker spoke directly with Trump about Karen McDougal at this point?

BERNSTEIN: That is what Pecker testified. Pecker said Trump told him, Karen is a nice girl, and then asked Pecker, what should I do? And Pecker said you should buy the story and take it off the market. Pecker says Cohen promised to reimburse him, telling him, don't worry. I'm your friend. The boss will take care of it - so all of this evidence of Trump's intimate knowledge of the hush-money payments from the get-go.

DETROW: And did the publishing company make this payment?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, it did. Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass walked Pecker through a number of machinations he made to keep it secret. And how Pecker was getting more and more nervous because his plan had been for Trump to reimburse him before the end of the quarter - by September 30, 2016 - that way it would never show up on the books. Pecker said he understood it could be viewed as an illegal corporate campaign contribution if Trump never paid him. So September turns to October - the other shoe drops.

DETROW: Yeah, and that's where, you know, Stormy Daniels - the person who's gotten a lot more attention in all of these payments - emerges.

BERNSTEIN: Right. That's right. And she comes to the Enquirer through the same information broker who brought them Karen McDougal. And Pecker says he did not want his company associated with a porn star - that he told Cohen, I am not doing it, period. And then Cohen's subsequent payment of Stormy Daniels himself and the way Trump reimbursed him becomes the basis for the 34 accounts of falsifying business records in this case.

DETROW: Right, allegedly disguised them - disguising them as straightforward legal payments. You mentioned some phone calls. Were there other contacts between Pecker and Trump?

BERNSTEIN: There was a dinner at the White House in 2017 which Pecker said Trump called a thank-you dinner to Pecker. Prosecutors showed a picture of the two walking outside the White House, taken at the moment, Pecker says, when Trump asked him, how's Karen?

DETROW: So Pecker has been testifying all week. Cross examination began today. Did Trump's lawyers shake his story at all?

BERNSTEIN: One of the key points defense attorney Emil Bove hit on was that AMI, National Enquirer's parent company, long practiced checkbook journalism - that this was just standard operating procedure - that the company would purchase negative stories about celebrities, like, say, Tiger Woods, and then promise to kill the story to get Woods to agree to be on a cover. Bove mentioned other politicians the National Enquirer caught stories for, like Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. And Pecker said the relationship with Trump had been mutually beneficial long before the campaign - that he was their most popular celebrity.

DETROW: That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Bernstein
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