Tabloid Publisher Describes Deals to Buy Silence at Trump Trial

In the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump called David Pecker, publisher of The National Enquirer. The candidate was seeking advice about a former Playboy model who was trying to sell her story of an affair with him, Mr. Pecker told jurors in Mr. Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial.

Mr. Pecker suggested a way to silence the model, Karen McDougal. “I think that the story should be purchased,” he said he told Mr. Trump. “And I believe that you should buy it.”

The episode involving Ms. McDougal led to the second of three hush-money deals that prosecutors say Mr. Trump and his allies arranged during the 2016 election to suppress negative news. Mr. Pecker was involved in all of them, including the final deal in which Mr. Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, a former porn star.

Mr. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up the Daniels payment as part of an effort to influence the election. It is the first criminal prosecution of an American president. Mr. Pecker, the trial’s first witness, began testifying about Ms. McDougal on Tuesday before the trial’s midweek break and continued Thursday.

The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., ended up paying $150,000 to buy the rights to her story and then bury it, a tactic known as “catch and kill.” In a deal to avoid federal prosecution, the company later admitted that it had illegally tried to influence the election.

Ms. McDougal had been Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for 1998. She has said she met Mr. Trump at the Playboy Mansion in June 2006, and they began a 10-month affair.

As Mr. Trump’s campaign gained steam, Ms. McDougal, living in Arizona, saw a chance to revive a flagging modeling career. In June 2016, she hired a lawyer to represent her in the sale of her story. The lawyer contacted Dylan Howard, The Enquirer’s editor, who alerted Mr. Pecker.

At the outset of the campaign, Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump had met at Trump Tower to discuss helping Mr. Trump in part by identifying and burying dirt about him. Mr. Pecker said he had promised to be the campaign’s “eyes and ears.”

After learning about Ms. McDougal’s claims, he called Mr. Cohen, who insisted her story was untrue. But Mr. Pecker suggested vetting it, and Mr. Cohen agreed, the publisher testified. Mr. Pecker sent his editor to meet with Ms. McDougal and her lawyer in Los Angeles.

Mr. Cohen was anxious for updates and asked Mr. Pecker to communicate via an encrypted messaging app to ensure secrecy.

“I had multiple calls every single day: ‘When is he going? When is he going to know? Is it done yet?’” Mr. Pecker testified. He added that he told Mr. Cohen to relax.

At their meeting, Mr. Howard debriefed Ms. McDougal, who now expressed reservations about coming forward and had no hard documentation of an affair. Mr. Pecker, in his testimony Thursday, recalled that Ms. McDougal had “said she didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky.”

In a call after the meeting, he testified, Mr. Cohen denied an affair had taken place but said he would look into it.

The Enquirer decided not to purchase her story — for the moment.

That changed. Mr. Trump called Mr. Pecker for advice, the publisher testified, but brushed off Mr. Pecker’s suggestion that he buy her story himself.

“I don’t buy stories,” Mr. Trump said, the publisher recounted, adding, “Any time you do anything like this, it always gets out.” Mr. Trump also described Ms. McDougal as “a nice girl,” suggesting he actually knew her, Mr. Pecker said Thursday.

Mr. Pecker recalled for the jury discussions with Mr. Cohen about who would pay Ms. McDougal for the rights to her story. At first, Mr. Cohen promised that Mr. Trump would pay, but then asked Mr. Pecker to do so, promising that he would later be made whole, the publisher said.

After conversations Ms. McDougal had started with ABC News about telling her story on air grew serious, American Media swooped in with an offer. His company agreed in early August 2016 to pay Ms. McDougal $150,000 for the rights.

Asked by prosecutor Joshua Steinglass on Thursday whether The Enquirer ever intended to publish Ms. McDougal’s story, Mr. Pecker answered, “No, we did not.”

But Mr. Pecker said that he wanted to be careful not to violate campaign finance law, after an experience years earlier when he had suppressed stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger during his successful run for California governor.

So Mr. Pecker was careful to ensure that the McDougal deal included services that she would perform for the company, he said. That was meant to camouflage its purpose. The contract guaranteed that American Media would put her on two magazine covers and have the right to publish her fitness columns.

Despite Mr. Pecker’s assertions that he had structured the deal to avoid violating campaign finance law, his company later admitted doing just that in a 2018 nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors.

After Ms. McDougal was paid, Mr. Cohen tried to fulfill his promise to repay the cost of the deal, negotiating for Mr. Trump to use shell companies to buy the rights to her story from Mr. Pecker’s company. Mr. Cohen secretly taped Mr. Trump talking about that prospect.

“So what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Mr. Trump asked on the recording. (The actual price would have been $125,000, reduced by the estimated value of the columns and magazine covers Ms. McDougal would do.)

One of Mr. Pecker’s lawyers advised against selling the rights to Mr. Trump, and the deal never went through.

The failure to reimburse him is ultimately what led Mr. Pecker to refuse in the weeks after to make another hush-money payment, to the porn star Stormy Daniels — pushing Mr. Cohen to do so himself.

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