Trump used White House to manage blowback from Karen McDougal allegations, tabloid boss testifies

Donald Trump is accused of helping to bury a story that he had a nearly one-year-long affair with a former Playboy model, in order to secure his election to the presidency in 2016.

But he continued to keep tabs on the story and Karen McDougal’s contractual agreement to keep quiet through at least his first year in office, according to testimony from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who claimed to buy her silence.

Mr Pecker allegedly purchased exclusive lifetime rights to Ms McDougal’s affair claims for $150,000 in 2016 with no intention of publishing the story. Instead, he was tasked with killing the story to support Mr Trump’s election chances, he testified in the former president’s hush money trial on Thursday.

The contract was part of an alleged “catch and kill” scheme Mr Pecker arranged with Mr Trump and his then-personal attorney Michael Cohen in 2015 to identify politically compromising stories and buy the rignts to them during his 2016 campaign.

Mr Trump is criminally charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records for allegedly falsely covering up payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels as “legal expenses” after she claimed to have had an affair with him in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty and denies the affair.

According to Mr Pecker’s testimony in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday, after taking office, Mr Trump his position in the White House to manage blowback from the scheme.

Mr Pecker recalled in court a time when then-president-elect asked him “how’s our girl?” during a meeting at Trump Tower in January 2017, making an apparent reference to Ms McDougal.

He also thanked him for handling Ms McDougal’s “situation,” and said the story “would be very embarrassing … to him, his family and the campaign,” according to Mr Pecker.

After he entered the Oval Office, Mr Trump invited Mr Pecker to the White House for a “thank you dinner” for his help in killing the stories, he testified. That night, the then-president brought up the Ms McDougal claims again.

“Mr Trump asked me to join him in a walk from the Oval Office to the dining area,” he said. “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.’”

But after CNN aired an interview with Ms McDougal in March 2018, more than one year after Mr Trump entered office, an outraged president Trump allegedly called Mr Pecker to complain.

“He said, ‘Did you see the interview last night with Anderson Cooper and Karen McDougal? ... 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,” Mr Pecker recalled Mr Trump saying at the time.

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

Following The Wall Street Journal’s November 2016 interview with Ms McDougal about the American Media Inc arrangement, and after the 2016 election, Mr Pecker had amended her contract to allow her to speak to the press. Mr Trump, of course, had already won the election by this point.

“Mr Trump got very angry that I amended it and he couldn’t understand why,” Mr Pecker said on Thursday.

The tabloid mogul testified that Mr Trump and his White House aides – then-White House communications director Hope Hicks, and then White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – later called him to discuss the contract.

“On that call, what I was planning to do, and I mentioned on a previous call with Mr Trump, I was going to extend Karen McDougal’s contract… He thought that was also a bad idea,” Mr Pecker testified.

“So when I received the second call, when I got the call back, and Hope Hicks and Huckabee, when she was on the call, I explained to them, to the two of them, why I was going to extend her agreement,” he added. “And both of them said that was a good idea.”

Ms McDougal ultimately sued American Media Inc to retain her lifetime rights to the story, and Mr Pecker settled.

Prosecutors questioned the former tabloid mogul, the first witness in the hush money case, for three days in Manhattan criminal court.

Defence attorney Emil Bove began cross examination on Thursday afternoon. Mr Pecker’s testimony is expected to continue on Friday.