Former tabloid publisher testifies about scheme to shield his old friend Trump from damaging stories

NEW YORK (AP) — The former publisher of the National Enquirer testified Thursday at Donald Trump’s hush money trial about going to great lengths to help shield his old friend from potentially damaging stories using a catch−and−kill scheme prosecutors allege amounted to interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a different criminal matter involving Trump, who has claimed that he should be immune from prosecution over his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden.

Trump asked to skip his New York criminal proceedings for the day so he could sit in on the high court’s special session, where the justices appeared likely to reject his claim. But it seemed possible Trump could still benefit from a lengthy trial delay, possibly beyond November’s election.

His request to go to Washington was denied by Judge Juan M. Merchan, who is overseeing Trump’s trial on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments.

“I think the Supreme Court has a very important argument before it today,” Trump said outside the courtroom. “I should be there.”

Adding to the former president’s legal woes, his former lawyers and associates were indicted Wednesday in a 2020 election−related scheme in Arizona. And a New York judge rejected a request for a new trial in a defamation case that found Trump liable for $83.3 million in damages. The hush money case also includes a looming decision on whether he violated a gag order.

Trump has maintained he is not guilty of any of the charges. In New York, he says the stories that were bought and squelched were false.

“There is no case here. This is just a political witch hunt,” he said before court in brief comments to reporters.

Jurors heard from David Pecker, the longtime head of the tabloid, who described shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy up rights to potentially damaging stories for Trump, some in secret moves meant to avoid scrutiny from colleagues.

Trump watched intently as his friend spoke from the witness stand.

Pecker explained how he and his publication parlayed rumor−mongering into splashy stories that smeared Trump’s opponents and, just as crucially, leveraged his connections to suppress seamy stories about Trump, including a porn actor’s claim of an extramarital sexual encounter years earlier.

His testimony was a critical building block for the prosecution’s theory that the partnership was a way to illegally influence the election. Prosecutors are seeking to elevate the gravity of the history−making first trial of a former American president and the first of four criminal cases against Trump to reach a jury.

As Pecker testified in a calm, cooperative tone about risque tales and secret dealings, the atmosphere in the utilitarian 1940s courtroom was one of quiet attentiveness. Court officers warned audience members not to talk or make any noise.

He also testified that he put his foot down on additional payments after the magazine was $180,000 in the hole for Trump−related transactions. The publication bought up a sordid tale from a New York City doorman and purchased accusations of an extramarital affair with a former Playboy model in order to prevent the claims from getting out elsewhere.

The breaking point for Pecker came with Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who was eventually paid by Cohen to keep quiet over her claim of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. The ex−president denies it happened.

Pecker recalled to the jury that he was dining with his wife, the night after the public learned of the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump discussed grabbing women sexually without asking permission, when then−editor Dylan Howard called with an urgent matter.

Howard said he heard from Daniels’ representatives that she was trying to sell her story and that the tabloid could acquire it for $120,000 if it decided right away, Pecker told jurors.

Pecker was tapped out and later told Cohen so.

“I am not paying for this story. I didn’t want to be involved in this from the beginning,” he said he told Cohen.

At the same time, Pecker advised that someone — just not him — should do something to prevent the story from going public. “I said to Michael, ‘My suggestion to you is that you should buy the story and you should take it off the market because if you don’t and it gets out, I believe the boss will be very angry with you.’”

The 12−person panel watched attentively, with some appearing to take notes. Pecker also recalled receiving a telephone call from Trump during the tabloid’s pursuit of former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s claims of an extramarital affair with Trump.

In other developments, prosecutors also argued Thursday that Trump had again violated a gag order. Merchan was already considering whether to hold Trump in contempt and fine him for what prosecutors say were 10 different violations of the order that barred the GOP leader from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and others connected to the case. Then the prosecution ticked off fresh instances of suspected breaches.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy pointed to additional remarks that Trump made about Cohen, a key prosecution witness when talking to reporters outside the courtroom and in other interviews. He also noted a comment Trump made about the jury being composed of “95 percent Democrats,” among other things.

Trump was dismissive about the looming decision. When asked by reporters if he would pay the $1,000 fine for each of 10 posts if he so ordered, he replied, “Oh, I have no idea.” He then said, “They’ve taken my constitutional right away with a gag order.”

A conviction by the jury in the hush money probe would not preclude Trump from becoming president again, but because it is a state case, he would not be able to pardon himself if found guilty. The charge is punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if the judge would seek to put him behind bars.

In Washington, the Supreme Court is moving faster than usual in taking up the Trump case, though not as quickly as special counsel Jack Smith wanted. The court’s pace has raised questions about whether there will be time to hold a trial before the November election, if the justices agree with lower courts that Trump can be prosecuted.

Though entirely separate cases, the proceedings were jumbled together in one big legal and political puzzle that had implications not just for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee but for the American presidency writ large.

In both instances, Trump is trying to get himself out of legal jeopardy as he makes another bid for the White House. But the outcome of the Supreme Court case will have lasting implications for future presidents, because the justices will be answering the never−before−asked question of whether and to what extent does a former president enjoy immunity from prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his time in office.

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Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.

Jennifer Peltz, Michael R. Sisak, Colleen Long And Jake Offenhartz, The Associated Press

Photo: AP