Skip to Content

Trump Trial: David Pecker’s Testimony and the Long Life of a Media Bromance

Taking the stand in Donald Trump’s historic hush money trial, the former National Enquirer publisher described how the supermarket tabloid became a campaign instrument—and rehashed his glory days.

Image may contain Donald Trump Face Frown Head Person Sad Photography Portrait Accessories Formal Wear and Tie
Former US President Donald Trump at Manhattan criminal court in New York, US, on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.By Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

David Pecker appeared to be in a breezy mood this week. The former National Enquirer publisher was describing the inner workings of his trade—“checkbook journalism,” he called it on Monday—without needing much prompting from the district attorney who was questioning him. Pecker, a longtime friend and ally of Donald Trump’s, was the state’s first witness in the that began last week, and while he was on the stand, he often turned to the jury to gesticulate.

“The only thing that’s important,” Pecker said with a proud air of authority, “is the cover of the magazine.”

Trump is accused of falsifying business records, charges which he has pleaded not guilty to and which, in the strict sense that his lead lawyer Todd Blanche invoked in his earlier that day, amount to a matter of paperwork. But the prosecution is seeking to paint a broader picture of how these records were used to cover up an alleged affair with the porn star Stormy Daniels (which Trump has denied) and related interference in the 2016 presidential election. And in these early days of a trial that is expected to last six weeks, the case has accrued some narrative flourish, taking jurors into the almost comically sordid world of supermarket tabloids and a man who has loomed large over them.

Pecker and Trump met in the late ’80s. They were both outer-borough-born aspirants, though Pecker, the Bronx son of a bricklayer, grew up with considerably less means. He started out as an accountant but made a mark in media when, while working as president of magazine publisher Hachette, he invested in the short-lived (and briefly celebrated) politics-lifestyle magazine George, launched by John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1995. During an early visit to Mar-a-Lago to pitch advertisers, he saw Trump’s then wife. “I have never in my entire life seen a more beautiful woman in a bodysuit than Marla Maples,” Pecker The New Yorker in 2017. “I mean, seriously, out of ten she was a fifteen.”

The pair’s kinship developed into a business partnership when Pecker proposed starting Trump Style, a magazine for guests at the future president’s properties. In 1999, acquired American Media, which owned the Enquirer. The tabloid’s audience followed Trump “religiously,” Pecker testified this week, with his hair combed back and a thick mustache. By 2003, he was a member at Mar-a-Lago, where he attended Trump’s wedding to Melania Knauss two years later. The press surrounding The Apprentice, he said, “and the incredible ratings that [The Celebrity Apprentice] had,” were a boon for him too.

Witness David Pecker, far right, talks on the witness stand while Donald Trump, far left, looks on as assistant district attorney Joshua Steingless asks questions with Judge Juan Merchan presiding in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York.

Pecker as CEO of AMI in 2020, essentially ending his empire. His testimony this week has given him a chance to explain, for a rapt audience including an international press corps, how he reached the media heights that he did. The Enquirer got its stories, Pecker said, by cultivating sources at the fringes of celebrity—limo drivers, hotel workers. Any stories costing more than $10,000 would require his sign-off. Some of his testimony embodied the “saying the quiet part out loud” trope. In describing how Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen fed him tips for stories on the candidate’s political rivals in the lead-up to the 2016 election, Pecker said, “That was the basis of our story, and then we would embellish it from there.”

“Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!” read one representative headline displayed for the jury.

The coziness between Cohen, Pecker, and Trump is at the heart of the case. In 2015, at a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement, “those three men formed a conspiracy.” Pecker elaborated in his testimony.

“I was the one who thought a lot of women would come out to try to sell their stories,” Pecker said, with Trump occasionally gazing over at him. “Mr. Trump was well known as the most eligible bachelor and dated the most beautiful women.” Cohen and Trump asked Pecker, he said, what he and his magazines could do “to help the campaign.” After they met for about 20 to 25 minutes, he went on, they reached an “agreement among friends”: Pecker would act as the “eyes and ears” of the campaign, alert to any stories about him on “the marketplace.”

“Holy shit, I thought Pecker would be the last one to turn,” a friend of Trump’s Vanity Fair in 2018 when news broke that the publisher, who would receive immunity from prosecution, had agreed to cooperate with authorities. Pecker said on Thursday that Trump called him “very upset” when the first hush money payment related to this case, an agreement between AMI and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who has claimed to have had an affair with Trump, came to light just before the 2016 election. (Trump has denied the affair.) “I thought you had this under control,” he said, according to Pecker, and hung up without saying goodbye.

Still, their relationship has seemed to withstand even Pecker’s gregarious testimony this week. On Thursday morning, before heading to the trial, Trump made a campaign stop at a Manhattan construction site, where he hoisted a welding mask, that “David’s been very nice,” and called him a “nice guy.” (This, prosecutors argued after he arrived at the courthouse, constituted a violation of his gag order insofar as it communicated to witnesses that they needed to be “nice” or else risk his Truth Social wrath.)

A few hours later, Pecker described Trump on the stand as his “mentor.” Passing by their table during a break in the proceedings, he flashed the defendant and his lawyers a toothy grin.