Arnold Schwarzenegger, concerns about Melania, and ‘mentor’ Trump: Key takeaways from Trump’s day in court

‘I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor. He helped me throughout my career,’ testified David Pecker on latest day of hush money trial

Kelly Rissman
Friday 26 April 2024 00:34 BST
Donald Trump meets New Yorkers before resuming hush money trial

Donald Trump’s hush money trial heard wide-ranging testimony from former American Media Inc. chief David Pecker during his third day on the stand.

The former tabloid chief divulged background into the infamous “catch-and-kill” scheme and his time at a “thank you dinner” hosted by then-President Trump for his efforts to block compromising stories about Mr Trump from being published.

On Thursday, lawyers also told the judge about four more potential breaches of the gag order — against the criminal defendant. Judge Juan Merchan still has to make a decision about previous claims that Mr Trump violated the gag order.

Here are some of the key moments from the Manhattan courtroom:

Four more potential gag order violations

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy divulged several instances in which his team alleges that Mr Trump breached the gag order, barring him from making public statements about potential witnesses or staff members of the DA’s office or the judge.

Two alleged violations happened as recently as Monday, Mr Conroy told the judge. The former president spoke about Michael Cohen in a “nine-minute rant” in which Mr Trump claimed that the former fixer “got caught lying, pure lying, when are they going to look at that?”

Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen stands behind Trump as he runs for president in 2016
Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen stands behind Trump as he runs for president in 2016 (REUTERS)

Later that night, Mr Trump said “I can’t get away from the trial. He’s rushing the trial like crazy … jury was picked so far, 95 per cent Democrat.”

In a separate remark the following day, Mr Trump claimed that “Cohen is a convicted liar and he’s got no credibility whatsoever.”

These allegations arrived after the judge held a hearing on Tuesday related to at least 10 allegations that Mr Trump violated the gag order — before the new incidents shared in court today.

‘The boss will take care of it’

The former tabloid chief testified that he had agreed to spend tens of thousands to acquire — and then bury — politically damaging stories about Mr Trump, being assured that “the boss” would handle it.

Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s attorney at the time, authorised Mr Pecker to pay the former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story of an alleged 10-month affair with Mr Trump, he said on the stand.

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

The former AMI chief also told the court about interactions between him and Mr Trump, directly linking the defendant to the scheme.

Former President Donald Trump watches as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass questions David Pecker, former publisher of The National Enquirer
Former President Donald Trump watches as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass questions David Pecker, former publisher of The National Enquirer (REUTERS)

On one occasion, Mr Trump asked him: “How’s our girl?” and thanked him for handling the McDougal story and “the doorman situation.”

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

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked if he believed Mr Trump was concerned about his family.

“In conversations I had with Michael Cohen with respect to both of these stories, his family was never mentioned. Conversations I had directly with Mr Trump, his family was never mentioned,” Mr Pecker told the court. “The concern was the campaign.”

Pecker testifies Trump invited him to White House for ‘thank you dinner’ for killing stories

After he won the election, Mr Trump invited Mr Pecker to the White House for a “thank you dinner” for killing compromising stories about the then-2016 presidential candidate.

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.”

“He invited myself and my wife. She didn’t want to go to Washington.”

So, he brought the then-editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer Dylan Howard.

“Mr Trump asked me to join him in a walk from the Oval Office to the dining area … as we walked out, President Trump asked me how is Karen doing. So I said she’s doing well, she’s quiet, things are going good.”

Mr Howard texted Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal’s attorney on 12 July 2017: “Surreal last night”.

Playboy model said she ‘didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky’

On the stand, Mr Pecker recounted what the National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard told him about his interview with Karen McDougal.

“He described to me who Karen McDougal was … She claims that she had a year-long relationship with Mr Trump, a sexual relationship … He said that she was a 12 out of 10,” Mr Pecker told the court.

While Mr Howard said there was “no corroborating evidence” he “believed the story to be true.” So, he had offered $10,000 to buy the story “and it was refused.”

Howard later told Mr Pecker that ABC was interested in acquiring the story, and mentioned that a Mexican group made an offer for $1m. “Michael [Cohen] and I both said we didn’t believe a Mexican group was going to buy the story,” Mr Pecker said.

Karen McDougal speaking to CNN about Donald Trump
Karen McDougal speaking to CNN about Donald Trump (CNN)

“I knew from my experience that ABC doesn’t buy stories,” Mr Pecker testified.

Mr Howard also told him that Ms McDougal “didn’t want the story to be published. She said she didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky,” he added.

Howard “felt that she had been more interested in having American Media buy the story than anyone else,” Pecker added.

Trump was ‘concerned Melania would hear about alleged affairs’

The ex-tabloid chief also testified about a detected difference in Mr Trump’s reactions to the bombshell stories before and after the 2016 election.

“Prior to the election, if a negative story was coming out with respect to Donald Trump, and he spoke about it, he was concerned about Melania … What the family might hear,” Mr Pecker recalled of Mr Trump.

Melania Trump speaks to Fox News
Melania Trump speaks to Fox News (Screenshot / Fox News )

By contrast, “After the campaign when I was in his office and we were discussing this, he was concerned about the doorman story with respect to, if the story came out, which wasn’t true, about him having an illegitimate child, I didn’t hear or discuss his concern what would Melania say or what Ivanka would say.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger is dragged into trial

Mr Pecker testified about how he was initially wary of the idea of purchasing politically linked stories, citing his experience with The Terminator actor.

The former tabloid boss said he had an arrangement back in 2002 when Schwarzenegger asked Mr Pecker to name him an editor-at-large of some fitness publications that were up for sale, which AMI was poised to acquire.

Mr Pecker testified that Schwarzenegger also asked for an “agreement” regarding the tabloids Globe and National Enquirer because the actor had endured legal battles with those magazines over unflattering stories about him.

“I plan on running for governor and I would like you to not publish any negative stories about me now and in the future, and I’ll continue being the editor of Muscle & Fitness and Flex and be a spokesperson,” Mr Pecker recalled Schwarzenegger saying.

Mr Pecker said he agreed to the arrangement.

The actor announced his gubernatorial bid on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in August 2003. After this, Mr Pecker testified that “a number of women called up the National Enquirer” claiming they had stories to sell on “different relationships, or contacts, or sexual harassment that they felt that Arnold Schwarzenegger did”.

Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed in Trump hush money trial
Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed in Trump hush money trial (Getty)

“The agreement I had with Arnold is I would call him and advise him of other stories that were out there and I would acquire them, buy them for a period of time,” the former publisher told the court.

After Schwarzenegger was elected governor, one of the women whose story had been acquired by American Media took her story to The Los Angeles Times.

“It was very embarrassing,” Mr Pecker testified. “Most of the press approached Arnold when he was governor. And his comment was: ‘Ask my friend David Pecker.’”

The ordeal “made me sensitive about buying any stories in the future. That’s how I became sensitive about this topic,” Mr Pecker told the court.

Former president called him ‘very upset’ when Playboy model affair story broke

Despite extensive efforts to prevent any other publication from getting its hands on the Karen McDougal story, it did become public.

On Thursday, Mr Pecker divulged that he had 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 told the court.

During his testimony, the former publisher recalled the Wall Street Journal publishing an article just days before Election Day in 2016 revealing the blockbuster story.

Mr Pecker recalled Mr Trumpcalling him, being, “very upset, saying, ‘How could this happen? I thought you had this under control.’”

The executive said he 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.

When Mr Trump requested that AMI 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 said.

In court, he clarified that the transaction was “for the lifetime rights to the Karen McDougal story.” Mr Pecker said he then told Cohen that the deal was off after his conversations with counsel about the transaction.

“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.”

The publisher has never been reimbursed for the payment, according to Mr Pecker.

Stormy Daniels payments mentioned for first time

Jurors heard an allusion to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claims she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006, just one year after he married his now-wife Melania. The $130,000 so-called hush money payments made to Ms Daniels are at the heart of this criminal case.

On Thursday, Mr Pecker said that Cohen asked him for his help to get Trump to pay him his bonus.

“I understood he was complaining that he has not been repaid,” Mr Pecker says.

He said, “Michael Cohen had paid Stormy Daniels out of his own funds, which is the first time that I had heard of that. I wasn’t involved in that transaction.”

In a conversation with Trump, Pecker told him: “I said, Michael Cohen is very concerned about this bonus this year and I want you to know he’s very loyal, he’s been working very hard from my perspective, I believe he’d throw himself in front of a bus for you.”

The former publisher said “Mr Trump told me, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He said Michael Cohen has multiple apartments in my buildings. … He owns 15 taxi medallions.”

Mr Pecker recalled Mr Trump saying: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

Pecker describes Trump as his ‘mentor’ who ‘called him if he needed help’

Repeatedly on the stand, Mr Pecker relayed his efforts to “protect” Mr Trump.

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

He went so far as to say: “I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor. He helped me throughout my career.”

The former publisher added, “I have no ill will at all. Even though we haven’t spoken, I still consider him a friend.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in