Pecker at hush money trial says Trump feared trysts would hurt image, but didn’t mention Melania

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Donald Trump never mentioned worrying about his wife getting wind of his alleged trysts with porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal — only his future in politics, a Manhattan jury heard Thursday during explosive testimony at the former president’s hush money trial.

During his third day on the witness stand, the former CEO of American Media, David Pecker, said the “catch-and-kill” scheme he helped carry out for Trump had one goal: to help win him the White House.

Pecker described a high-stakes scramble to silence women who claimed Trump cheated on his wife with them in the lead-up to the election and being showered with gratitude from the then-president after it appeared to succeed. The hush-money scheme was part of a broader effort to use stories in The National Enquirer and other AMI publications to advance Trump’s political brand, prosecutors allege.

Pecker answered with a simple “no” when Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass asked him if the defendant ever expressed concern about what Melania Trump would think of his affairs.

Prosecutors displayed a January 2017 black-and-white photo of Pecker and Trump walking by the White House Rose Garden, where Pecker testified the then-president invited him as a “thank you” and asked him how “our girl” was doing in reference to the former Playboy model Pecker paid $150,000 to silence.

“As we walked out, President Trump asked me, ‘How is, eh, how is Karen doing?” Pecker recalled. “So I said, ‘She’s doing well. She’s quiet. Everything’s going good.”

The longtime publisher walked the jury through how he worked closely with Trump’s ex-fixer, Michael Cohen — arranging for his company to pay off McDougal and for Cohen to pay him back through a shell company and making it look like a contract for McDougal’s services. The model has long claimed she and Trump had a 10-month affair in 2006 and 2007, shortly after his third marriage to Melania and the birth of their son, Barron Trump.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, alleging he covered up hush money payments as part of a sweeping scheme to defraud voters. He has pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this week, Pecker said the scheme to bury unflattering stories about presidential candidate Trump and elevate hit jobs about his opponents was devised at an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower attended by him, Trump and Cohen. Pecker agreed to publish pro-Trump stories while working to hide unsavory ones, taking them “off the market” by purchasing the exclusive rights to ensure they never got published in a scheme known as “catch-and-kill.”

On Thursday, Pecker, who kept calling Trump “the boss,” said that as the election grew near and women came out of the woodwork with stories about Trump, he began to worry about his legal liability.

Steinglass displayed for the jury an invoice dated Aug. 6, 2016 that listed Pecker’s AMI as the subsidiary and McDougal’s lawyer, Keith Davidson, as the vendor. Pecker said the deal was fashioned like a professional contract with McDougal. In it, the rights to McDougal’s story were assigned to Cohen’s shell company for $125,000.

Pecker voiced worries about the arrangement.

“Why worry? I’m your friend. The boss will take care of it,” the witness quoted Cohen telling him.

Pecker said his fears grew deeper in 2018 when he got a letter from the Federal Election Commission asking about AMI. Cohen again tried to assuage his concerns, with Pecker acknowledging in court, “We committed a campaign violation.”

“Jeff Sessions is the attorney general and Donald Trump has him in his pocket,” Pecker quoted Cohen telling him.

Pecker said though the payback deal was signed, it was never executed. After speaking with AMI’s general counsel, the publisher decided it was legally too risky and Pecker would, instead, eat the debt.

“He was very angry … screaming basically,” Pecker recalled Cohen’s reaction in October 2016, quoting the fixer telling him, “The boss is going to be very angry at you.”

But Pecker said he didn’t budge, nor would he comply with Cohen’s wishes to pay off a second woman who came forward after McDougal — Daniels — as he was afraid the association with her would hurt his media brand.

“I am not a bank,” Pecker recalled telling Cohen, who said Trump would be furious.

Taking Pecker’s advice, Cohen ultimately paid Daniels $130,000, and when he hadn’t been reimbursed by his boss months later, Pecker put in a good word for him at Trump’s office at Trump Tower.

During that meeting, Pecker said Trump explicitly thanked him for paying off McDougal.

“I wanted to thank you for taking care of the (Karen) McDougal situation,” Pecker quoted Trump as saying.

Pecker told the court he felt Trump “was thanking me for buying (their) stories and not publishing them.”

Pecker said he amended AMI’s deal with McDougal after The Wall Street Journal published details of the payoff to her on Nov. 4, 2016 — days before the election — saying she was getting “bombarded” with media interview requests and that he didn’t want her to levy accusations against AMI.

“Mr. Trump got very aggravated when he heard that I’d amended it and he couldn’t understand why,” Pecker testified, later saying he released her from their agreement when she filed suit to exit the contract, which Trump was “very upset” about.

Pecker first admitted to his role in the hush-money scheme when the feds brought campaign finance charges against Cohen in summer 2018, leading to the fixer’s conviction, and cooperated over a period of months in exchange for dodging prosecution. He discussed that case and an agreement made with the Manhattan DA’s office in 2019, which provided him immunity to testify to truthfully in Trump’s case.

The publisher said he hadn’t spoken to Trump since that year. But when asked whether they had fallen out, he said “quite the contrary,” adding that Trump had been his “mentor.”

“I still consider him a friend,” he said.

Prosecutors finished questioning Pecker toward the end of the day’s proceedings, and he spent about an hour on cross examination with Emil Bove. The Trump lawyer pressed him on AMI’s other arrangements with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, golfer Tiger Woods and actor Mark Wahlberg, which Pecker called “mutually beneficial.” He said it had been “standard practice” to give Trump a heads-up about harmful stories for about 17 years.

Pecker said he never heard the phrase “catch-and-kill” before this investigation.

“The first time you heard that phrase was from a prosecutor, right?” Bove said.

“That’s correct,” Pecker said.

Amid news that New York’s top appeals court had overturned disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s conviction — which played out in 2020 in the same courtroom where Trump is on trial — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was notably not in attendance Thursday morning.

Before the jury was brought in Thursday, prosecutors told Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan that Trump had violated his gag order another four times in three days. Prosecutors previously that Trump be held in contempt and fined $10,000. Merchan said Thursday he’d address the matter next week.

Outside the courtroom, Trump described the day as “breathtaking.”

“Breathtaking and amazing testimony. So, this is a trial that should’ve never happened, this is a case that should’ve never been filed and was really an incredible, an incredible day,” Trump said.