The Trump trial turns tabloid

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John F. Kennedy’s “secret son” and a sponge left in a patient’s brain have become evidence, of a sort, in the first criminal trial of an American president.

Those were some of the subjects in an array of sensationalist headlines the National Enquirer published in 2016. And on Tuesday, Manhattan prosecutors displayed them to the jury in splashy, all-caps font as they sought to show how the tabloid tried to help Donald Trump win the election that year.

Their witness was David Pecker, the tabloid’s mustachioed former publisher, testifying for the second straight day. For three hours, he explained how he agreed to use the pages of the notorious tabloid, sold at supermarket checkout lanes across America, to promote positive stories about Trump and drag his opponents in the 2016 Republican primary. Crucially, Pecker also agreed to buy and bury stories that could harm Trump in his campaign.

That “catch and kill” scheme is the foundation of the prosecution’s case, because their 34 felony charges against Trump may hinge on their ability to persuade jurors that Trump ordered the payment of hush money to illegally influence the 2016 election.

“I would be your eyes and ears,” Pecker testified, recounting what he told Trump in a pivotal 2015 Trump Tower meeting that was also attended by Trump’s fixer at the time, Michael Cohen.

“Anything that I hear in the marketplace, if I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen,” Pecker said he told Trump.

Prosecutors have described that agreement as the genesis of a “conspiracy” to deprive voters of important information.

But the details, as Pecker recounted them under direct examination, are tawdry. He discussed Cohen’s escalating agitation after Playboy model Karen McDougal claimed to Pecker’s deputy that she had a yearlong affair with Trump. And Pecker detailed the efforts of American Media Inc., the former parent company of the National Enquirer, to pay $30,000 to bury a rumor that Trump had fathered a love child with a housekeeper at his Trump Tower penthouse.

Had the love-child rumor been true, it would have been the most lucrative story for the tabloid “since the death of Elvis Presley,” Pecker added. But, of course, he wouldn’t have published it until after the election, he said.

Pecker did publish some other wild tales in his bid to help Trump. One headline that prosecutors showed to jurors blared: “John F. Kennedy’s Secret Son Endorses Donald Trump.” Another knocked one of Trump’s opponents in the primary: “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!”

Prosecutors haven’t even asked Pecker yet about the “catch and kill” deal at the heart of the case: the hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. They’re sure to turn to that subject on Thursday, when Pecker returns to the stand (after the trial takes its customary midweek break on Wednesday).

Meanwhile, the presiding judge, Justice Juan Merchan, is still mulling a different source of sensationalist soundbites: Trump’s own statements about the case, which at times seem as though they were ripped straight from supermarket tabloids, too.

Prosecutors say the former president has violated Merchan’s gag order 11 times this month by publicly criticizing potential witnesses and jurors.

“Two sleaze bags,” Trump wrote in one Truth Social post, referring to Cohen and Daniels.

“Has disgraced attorney and felon Michael Cohen been prosecuted for LYING?” he wrote in another.

“They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury,” Trump claimed in a third.

It’s been eight days since prosecutors first brought Trump’s alleged violations to Merchan’s attention (although the total of alleged violations keeps growing). On Tuesday morning, outside the presence of the jury, the judge held a 90-minute hearing on whether to hold Trump in contempt — an outcome that could carry small fines or, much less likely, jail time.

Merchan grilled Trump lawyer Todd Blanche when Blanche maintained that Trump had not, in fact, violated the gag. And when Blanche claimed Trump was going to great pains to comply with the gag, the judge wouldn’t hear it.

“You’re losing all credibility, I have to tell you right now,” he told Blanche.

But the judge has not yet ruled on prosecutors’ contempt request. He could do so at any time.

Erica Orden and Ben Feuerherd contributed to this report.