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Tabloid publisher says he pledged to be Trump campaign's 'eyes and ears' during 2016 race

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A veteran tabloid publisher testified Tuesday that he pledged to be Donald Trump 's “eyes and ears" during his 2016 presidential campaign, recounting how he promised the then-candidate that he would help suppress stories that had the potential to harm the Republican's election bid.

The testimony from David Pecker was designed to bolster prosecutors' assertions of a decades-long friendship between Trump and the former publisher of the National Enquirer that culminated in an agreement to give the candidate a heads-up on negative tips and stories so they could be quashed.

Pecker is the first witness in Trump's historic hush money trial in Manhattan, where he faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with payments meant to prevent harmful stories from surfacing during the final days of the 2016 campaign. The stories included a porn actor’s claims of an extramarital sexual encounter a decade earlier.

The effort to suppress unflattering information was designed to influence the election, prosecutors have alleged in seeking to elevate the gravity of the first trial of a former American president.

Pecker described for jurors a pivotal August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump, his lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen, and another aide, Hope Hicks, in which he was asked what he and the magazines he led could do for the campaign.

Pecker said he volunteered to publish positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his opponents. But that wasn't all, he said, telling jurors how he told Trump: “I will be your eyes and ears.”

“I said that anything 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," so that the rights could be purchased and the stories could be killed.

“So they would not get published?” asked prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked.

“So they would not get published,” Pecker replied.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche, at podium, makes arguments challenging the contempt charges to Judge Juan Merchan , Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams / The Associated Press)

Pecker's resumption of testimony Tuesday followed a hearing earlier in the day in which prosecutors urged Judge Juan Merchan to hold Trump in contempt and fine him US$1,000 for each of 10 social media posts that they say violated an earlier gag order barring attacks on witnesses, jurors and others involved in the case.

Merchan did not immediately rule, but he seemed skeptical of a defence lawyer's arguments that Trump was merely responding in his posts to others' attacks and had been trying to comply with the order.

The hearing could result in additional financial punishment for Trump, who last year was fined US$15,000 for twice violating a gag order imposed at his New York civil fraud trial. But whether it deters him from future incendiary comments, or instead serves to provoke even more posts, is an open question. The presumptive Republican nominee has thrust his legal jeopardy into the center of his presidential campaign as he lambasts this case and the three others he faces as examples of political persecution.

Pecker's testimony began Monday after opening statements that offered the 12-person jury — and, just as important, the voting public — radically divergent roadmaps for a case that will unfold against the backdrop of a closely contested White House race in which Trump is not only the presumptive Republican nominee but also a criminal defendant facing the prospect of a felony conviction and prison.

Prosecutors allege that Trump sought to illegally influence the 2016 race through a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill” — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

In this case, that included a US$130,000 payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels to silence her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter that Trump denies.

Defence lawyer Todd Blanche countered by assailing the government's case and attacking Cohen's integrity.

“President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should never have brought this case,” he said.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if the judge would seek to put him behind bars. A conviction would not preclude Trump from becoming president again, but because it is a state case, he would not be able to pardon himself if found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Besides the payment to Daniels, Colangelo also described arrangements to pay a former Playboy model US$150,000 to suppress claims of a nearly yearlong affair with the married Trump. Colangelo said Trump “desperately did not want this information about Karen McDougal to become public because he was worried about its effect on the election.”

Tucker reported from Washington.

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