Tabloid boss testifies to Trump’s plan to bury Playboy model’s affair allegations: ‘The boss will take care of it’

Michael Cohen assured David Pecker that Donald Trump would ‘take care’ of a $150,000 payment to kill a story from Karen McDougal, the former National Enquirer publisher testified on Thursday

Alex Woodward
in New York County Supreme Court, Criminal Term
Thursday 25 April 2024 22:19 BST
Donald Trump meets New Yorkers before resuming hush money trial

A former tabloid publisher has testified that he agreed to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy and then bury politically compromising stories about Donald Trump with the assurance that “the boss will take care of it”.

That promise, allegedly from Mr Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen, gave former American Media Inc chief David Pecker the green-light to pay a former Playboy model $150,000 to buy the rights to her story of an alleged affair, he testified in a Manhattan criminal court on Thursday.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m your friend. The boss will take care of it,” Cohen allegedly told Mr Pecker, apparently referring to Mr Trump.

The details emerged as the former publisher of tabloid giant the National Enquirer returned to the witness stand on Thursday for a third day of testimony during Mr Trump’s historic criminal trial.

The former president is accused of orchestrating a scheme to cover up hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels to silence her about an alleged affair – a scheme which was ultimately for the purpose of influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Mr Pecker testified that the plan developed from a “catch and kill” campaign to suppress negative stories about the then-presidential candidate, including his $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy the rights to her story about an affair she claims she had with Mr Trump in 2006.

Mr Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied the affairs.

But the agreement with Ms McDougal appeared to continue to haunt Mr Trump’s campaign and the early months of his administration, when he allegedly called Mr Pecker to the White House to ask about her while his chief aides set up calls about extending a non-disclosure agreement with her.

Former President Donald Trump watches as David Pecker testifies during Trump’s criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016
Former President Donald Trump watches as David Pecker testifies during Trump’s criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 (REUTERS)

Even one year into his administration, after her interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Mr Trump was fuming, according to Mr Pecker.

“I thought you had, and we had, an agreement with Karen McDougal that she can’t give any interviews or be on any television shows,” he told Mr Pecker, according to his testimony on Thursday.

“I said yes, we had an agreement, but I amended it to allow her to speak to the press,” he added. “Karen has a two-year agreement. She was flooded with requests from the press. … And I amended her agreement at the time.”

Mr Trump “was very upset,” Mr Pecker said. “Couldn’t understand why I did it.”

Ms McDougal was ultimately released from the contract with Mr Pecker’s American Media Inc after Mr Trump won the 2016 election.

While Mr Pecker testified about his involvement in the so-called “catch and kill” scheme involving Ms McDougal’s story, when it came to the allegations from Ms Daniels just weeks before Election Day, he said he wanted nothing to do with them.

“Michael Cohen asked me to purchase the story,” Mr Pecker testified on Thursday. “I said I am not going to purchase the story. I am not going to be involved with the story. … I am not going to be a bank. We’re not paying out any more monies.”

Mr Pecker said he feared that getting involved with an adult film star would compromise the distribution of his publications in major retailers such as Walmart.

“Cohen was upset, he said the boss would be furious with me, and that I should go forward in purchasing it myself,” Mr Pecker said.

‘Karen is a nice girl. What do you think I should do?’

The former tabloid mogul testified earlier this week that he helped arrange the “catch and kill” plan during an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower with Cohen and Mr Trump – shortly after the then-presidential candidate launched his campaign.

Mr Pecker said he joined a three-way call in June 2016 with Cohen and American Media Inc’s then-chief content officer Dylan Howard, who had interviewed Ms McDougal about her alleged one-year affair with Mr Trump.

Karen McDougal attends Playboy’s Super Saturday Night Party in February 2010
Karen McDougal attends Playboy’s Super Saturday Night Party in February 2010 (Getty)

Ms McDougal turned down an initial offer of $10,000 to buy the rights to her story, according to Mr Pecker.

“She said she didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky,” Mr Pecker said. “He felt that she had been more interested in having American Media buy the story than anyone else.”

Mr Trump then called Mr Pecker himself, he said.

“I spoke to Michael,” Mr Pecker recalled Mr Trump saying at the time. “Karen is a nice girl. … What do you think I should do?”

“I said, ‘You should buy the story and take it off the market,’” Mr Pecker said. “I believed the story was true. I think it would have been very embarrassing for himself and for his campaign.”

Cohen then called Mr Pecker to negotiate a deal, according to Mr Pecker.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” he asked Cohen. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m your friend, the boss will take care of it.’”

A subsequent contract with Ms McDougal granted her a monthly column on aging and fitness for Star magazine, another one for Ok magazine, four posts a month on Radar Online, and an agreement that Mr Pecker’s American Media Inc would provide her with ghost writers, according to an agreement shown in court on Thursday.

But it granted the company “limited life story rights” that are limited to “any romantic, personal and/or physical relationship McDougal has ever had with any then-married man.”

Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courtroom on 25 April
Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courtroom on 25 April (EPA)

“I wanted to substantiate the $150,000 payment,” Mr Pecker testified. “With respect to campaign, uh, laws, I wanted to have the contract be a record that stipulates that – for the services that she was going to perform for American Media – has a basis for it.”

Asked whether the principle purpose of the arrangement was “to suppress her story as to prevent her from influencing the election,” Mr Pecker confirmed: “Yes, it was.”

According to Mr Pecker, Mr Trump invited him to dinner at the White House after he won the 2016 election to say thank you.

During that visit, Mr Trump allegedly asked him “How’s our girl?” in an apparent reference to Ms McDougal.

Mr Pecker testified that Mr Trump thanked him for handling Ms McDougal’s contract and “the doorman situation” – a salacious and false story alleging Mr Trump fathered an illegitimate child with a maid.

“He said the stories would be very embarrassing,” Mr Pecker said, “to him, his family and the campaign.”

‘I wanted to protect Donald Trump’

Mr Trump’s trial has so far offered a sobering glimpse of the inner workings of a dubious tabloid and the former president’s role in shaping his own public image ahead of the 2016 election.

But Mr Pecker’s testimony has also revealed how he made it his business to be the “eyes and ears” of Mr Trump’s campaign, going beyond what he called “checkbook journalism” to give Mr Trump a direct line for propaganda designed to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

In the wake of Cohen’s plea deal with federal prosecutors for campaign finance and tax violations in 2018, American Media entered an agreement that states that the government “will not criminally prosecute” Mr Pecker or the company for any crimes allegedly committed from that Trump Tower meeting up until the 2016 election, for actions that could be considered unlawful campaign contributions and expenditures.

He also entered into an agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in 2019 to testify about those dealings in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

When the Wall Street Journal published an article just days before Election Day in 2016 revealing Ms McDougal’s story, Mr Trump called Mr Pecker.

“He was very upset, saying, ‘How could this happen? I thought you had this under control,’” Mr Pecker said.

Mr Pecker authorised public statements from his company about the true nature of American Media’s contract with Ms McDougal.

“I wanted to protect my company, I wanted to protect myself, and I wanted also to protect Donald Trump,” he said.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters before entering a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 25 April
Donald Trump speaks to reporters before entering a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 25 April (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Pecker stressed that he worked with Cohen to buy the rights to Ms McDougal’s story “so it wouldn’t be published by any other organisation”.

“We didn’t want the story to embarrass Mr Trump or embarrass or hurt the campaign,” he added.

When Mr Trump requested that American Media transfer the rights to Ms McDougal’s story in September 2016, Cohen established a shell company that sent an invoice for the “agreed upon ‘flat fee’ for advisory services”.

Mr Pecker admitted that the transaction was not for that at all.

“It was for the lifetime rights to the Karen McDougal story,” he said.

Mr Pecker told Cohen that the deal was off after his conversations with counsel about the transaction, according to Mr Pecker.

“He was very, very angry, very upset, screaming basically at me,” Mr Pecker said.

“Michael Cohen said ‘the boss will be very angry with you.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going forward, the deal is off,’” he added. “He said, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m the lawyer, I’m your friend.”

American Media has never been reimbursed for the payment, according to Mr Pecker.

Asked whether he has any “bad” feelings agbout Mr Trump all these years later, Mr Pecker said “on the contrary.”

“I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor. He helped me throughout my career,” he said. “I have no ill will at all. Even though we haven’t spoken, I still consider him a friend.”

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