The first week of testimony in the Trump trial in New York shows the world of hush money

NEW YORK – Donald Trump fought mightily before and after his election to the presidency to keep the embarrassing details of his private life secret, but often failed, even though he a fat checkbook and a well-connected tabloid editor under his belt, according to the first week of evidence at his trial.

Former presidents typically spend their post-White House years writing memoirs, giving high-paying speeches and cementing their place in history. By becoming the first former president to face criminal charges, Trump will instead sit in court and watch someone else try to define his legacy, even as he campaigns for a second term in the Oval Office.

During four days of testimony this week, former National Enquirer director David Pecker told the jury more than just how deeply involved Trump's team was in use the supermarket tabloid to fuel his 2016 presidential campaign, but also how celebrities and politicians generally try to buy, trade or talk their way out of scandalous stories.

Prosecutors sought to show that Trump was well aware of the machinations perpetrated on his behalf by the tabloid director and Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and fixer. After Pecker's testimony concluded Friday, jurors heard from Trump's longtime aide and Cohen's former banker.

Evidence suggests that shortly before the 2016 election, Cohen paid $130,000 in hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter she had with Trump years earlier. Trump is on trial for allegedly falsifying business records related to his reimbursement to Cohen of that payment; Prosecutors allege he categorized the payments as legal fees, rather than campaign expenses, to prevent them from being made public.

The transactional tabloid dynamic was laid out in crude terms in text messages from Dylan Howard, one of Pecker's top deputies and a former Enquirer editor. The The most targeted of those messages were submitted to the presiding judge, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, but are unlikely to be seen by jurors because Howard is in Australia and cannot appear at the trial to testify for health reasons .

“Information is powerful and I collect a lot,” says one text Howard to a close family member in June 2016. At the time, Howard had assessed the credibility of several people who came forward with scandalous stories about candidate Trump.

“Mind you, if he gets elected, it won't hurt any favors I've done, provided it's kept secret,” Howard texted. “If he wins, at least I'll get a pardon for election fraud.”

Pecker told the jury for years that he and his friend Trump — then a reality TV star — had a mutually beneficial relationship involving information sharing in the world of celebrity. When Trump When he decided to run for president, that relationship accelerated as the supermarket tabloid published glowing stories about the brash tycoon, along with many others attacking his political rivals.

Yet the first week of the lawsuit showed that the arrangement was far from watertight.

Just four days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal revealed that The Enquirer had secretly paid a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, for the rights to her story about an affair with Trump. The Enquirer subsequently refused to publish the story, a practice known as “catch and kill.”

After the Journal wrote about the arrangement, Trump called Pecker in anger. “How could this happen? I thought you had this under control,” Trump said, according to Pecker. “He was very excited.”

At the time, Pecker's company publicly denied buying McDougal's story to keep her quiet. However, after being granted immunity from prosecution, he testified that this was exactly what he had done.

Cohen promised him he would get compensation for paying McDougal, Pecker said, but his lawyers later warned him that such compensation might be a crime — and said he may have already violated campaign finance law by paying McDougal .

And so, Pecker testified, he again refused to pay when a lawyer for Daniels came forward to sell her story about a sexual tryst with Trump.

“I don't believe this story. I'm not going to be involved with a porn star, and I'm not a bank,” Pecker told Cohen.

Trump ultimately ordered Cohen to pay Daniels $130,000 for her silence, according to evidence from this case and an earlier federal investigation. The The resulting refunds are the reason Trump is now on trial on 34 charges of falsifying company records. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Manhattan district attorney charges that Trump wanted such stories suppressed to support his presidential campaign, especially after The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that Trump had bragged on tape about grabbing women by their genitals. Trump's defense team has argued that most of what prosecutors show the jury is not criminal conduct, saying that if a crime was committed, it was by Cohen, not Trump.

Prosecutors say Trump's main motive for keeping the scandalous stories quiet was to help his campaign, but evidence they obtained from Pecker shows Trump still tried to keep those secrets after he won the election.

Trump also raised concerns about boxes of documents about him that the Enquirer had acquired over the years. Pecker testified. The director tried to reassure his friend and Cohen that the boxes of files were harmless – just a collection of old news stories.

Nevertheless, during a meeting at Trump Tower in late 2016, Cohen urged Pecker to let him go through the boxes. Pecker refused, he said.

At the same meeting, Cohen complained to Pecker that Trump had yet to pay him back the money he paid to Daniels, and that he had also not received his Christmas bonus from his boss. “He asked me to speak to Donald Trump,” Pecker said in court.

So Pecker urged Trump to pay Cohen his bonus, to which the president-elect responded, “Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it.”

Once Trump became president, it became harder to keep his skeletons in the closet, Pecker testified.

Pecker's deal with McDougal was supposed to keep her quiet, but after the election he changed the deal so she could talk to the press — a move that prompted Trump to call him in anger.

“Did you pay her?” Trump asked in surprise, according to Pecker. “He was very upset. He didn't understand why I did it.”

Pecker went even further: he extended McDougal's contract to create pieces for his various publications, reasoning that keeping them under contract would ensure that “she would no longer give interviews, talk to the press or make negative comments would make.”

The executive testified that he explained his reasons for doing so in a phone call with Trump's White House advisers Hope Hicks and Sarah Huckabee Sanders — now the Republican governor of Arkansas. “They both said they thought it was a good idea,” Pecker said.

The efforts of all of the president's subordinates failed to allay Pecker's growing concerns that he had put himself in legal jeopardy by helping Trump in the 2016 election.

In their cross-examination, Trump's lawyers tried to show the jury that the deal between the National Enquirer and Trump was not unique to that political campaign but was part of a long history of buying and sometimes suppressing celebrity stories.

Pecker testified about a deal he made with movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger before running for governor of California. at sometime to put aside embarrassing stories about the actor. In return, Schwarzenegger lent his name to Pecker's training magazines.

The now-retired CEO said he used photos of Tiger Woods having an extramarital affair to convince Woods to give an interview and cover photo for a fitness magazine published by Pecker's company; and helped suppress negative stories about actor Mark Wahlberg and politician Rahm Emanuel.

But with Trump the stakes were suddenly much higher, Pecker realized.

He said he received an alarming letter from the Federal Election Commission in early 2018 and immediately called Cohen.

“Why are you worried?” Cohen responded, according to Pecker. “Jeff Sessions is the attorney general, and Donald Trump has him in his pocket.”

Pecker said he was not comforted by that claim, and Trump attorney Emil Bove tried to use that conversation to argue that Cohen — who is expected to testify as the prosecution's star witness later in the trial — was simply unreliable .

“You were concerned,” Bove asked Pecker, “that Michael Cohen had said something to you that wasn't true because President Trump didn't have Jeff Sessions in his pocket?”

The lawyer asked Pecker if Cohen was “prone to exaggeration.”

“Yes,” Pecker replied.

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