Trump’s lawyers try to discredit testimony of prosecution’s first witness in hush money trial

Apr 26, 2024, 7:00 PM

Donald Trump's defense team tries to discredit testimony in trial...

Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Friday, April 26, 2024. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

(Dave Sanders/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s defense team attacked the credibility Friday of the prosecution’s first witness in his hush money case, seeking to discredit testimony detailing a scheme between Trump and a tabloid to bury negative stories to protect the Republican’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Returning to the witness stand for a fourth day, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker was grilled about his memory and past statements as the defense tried to poke holes in potentially crucial testimony for prosecutors in the first criminal trial of a former American president.

Two other witnesses followed Pecker as prosecutors built the foundation of their case involving a hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels. She allegedly had a sexual encounter with Trump.

Trump’s longtime executive assistant told jurors she recalled seeing Daniels in a reception area of Trump Tower, though the date of the visit wasn’t clear.

First witness talks about Trump allegedly hiding stories

Pecker’s testimony provided jurors with a stunning inside look at the supermarket tabloid’s “catch-and-kill” practice of purchasing the rights to stories so they never see the light of day.

He’s believed to be a key witness to bolster prosecutors’ theory that Trump sought to illegally influence the 2016 race by suppressing negative stories about his personal life.

Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, slammed the prosecution as he left the courthouse Friday after spending most of the week in his role as criminal defendant instead of political candidate. Trump seized on President Joe Biden’s remarks Friday that he’s willing to debate Trump. He told reporters he’s up for it anytime, anywhere.

Under cross examination, Trump’s lawyers appeared to be laying the groundwork to make the argument that any dealings Trump had with Pecker were intended to protect Trump, his reputation and his family — not his campaign.

The defense also sought to show that the National Enquirer was publishing negative stories about Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, long before an August 2015 meeting that is central to the case.

During that meeting, Pecker said he told Trump and then-Trump attorney Michael Cohen he would be the “eyes and ears” of the campaign, and would notify Cohen if he heard negative stories about Trump so they could be killed.

Under questioning by Trump lawyer Emil Bove, Pecker acknowledged there was no mention at that meeting of the term “catch-and-kill.” Nor was there discussion at the meeting of any “financial dimension,” such as the National Enquirer paying people on Trump’s behalf for the rights to their stories, Pecker said.

Donald Trump’s defense team accused witness of inconsistency

Bove also confronted Pecker with statements he made to federal prosecutors in 2018 that the defense lawyer said were “inconsistent” with the former publisher’s testimony.

Pecker told jurors that Trump thanked him during a White House visit in 2017 for his help burying two stories. But according to notes Bove read in court, Pecker told federal authorities that Trump did not express any gratitude to him during the meeting.

“Was that another mistake?” Bove asked Pecker.

Pecker stuck to the account that he gave in court, adding: “I know what the truth is.”

Prosecutors challenged the defense’s contention that Trump’s arrangement with the National Enquirer wasn’t unusual. Under questioning from a prosecutor, Pecker acknowledged he had not previously sought out stories and worked the company’s sources on behalf of a presidential candidate or allowed political fixers close access to internal decision-making.

“It’s the only one,” Pecker said.

Who was the second witness in the Trump hush money trial?

The second witness called to the stand was Rhona Graff, Trump’s longtime executive assistant. Graff, who started working for Trump in 1987 and left the Trump Organization in April 2021, has been described as his gatekeeper and right hand.

Graff testified that she believed she was the one who added contact information for Daniels and Karen McDougal to the Trump Organization’s computer system. The women’s listings were shown in court, with Daniels named in the system simply as “Stormy.” Graff later noted that Trump never used computers.

The two women were paid to prevent them from coming forward during Trump’s 2016 campaign with claims of sexual encounters with Trump. He says those claims were lies.

Trump spoke briefly to Graff as she left the witness stand. He appeared to reach out to her with his hand as an officer guided her away from the witness stand past the defense table. Trump’s lawyers were at the bench, talking with Judge Juan Merchan, when Trump stood up and engaged with Graff.

What’s next in the case?

The case will resume Tuesday with the third prosecution witness, Gary Farro, a banker. Farro testified Friday about helping Cohen form a bank account for the limited liability company he used to facilitate the Daniels payment. Farro said Cohen led him to believe the firm, Essential Consultants LLC, would be involved in real estate consulting.

Friday’s testimony caps a consequential week in the criminal cases the former president faces as he vies to reclaim the White House in November.

At the same time jurors listened to testimony in Manhattan, the Supreme Court on Thursday signaled it was likely to reject Trump’s sweeping claims that he is immune from prosecution in his 2020 election interference case in Washington.

But the conservative-majority high court seemed inclined to limit when former presidents could be prosecuted — a ruling that could benefit Trump by delaying that trial, potentially until after the November election.

Donald Trump’s defense team has many cases to juggle

In New York — the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial — the presumptive Republican presidential nominee faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments.

The charges center on $130,000 that Trump’s company paid to Cohen on Trump’s behalf to keep Daniels from going public with her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied the encounter ever happened.

Over several days on the witness stand, Pecker described how the tabloid parlayed rumor-mongering into splashy stories that smeared Trump’s opponents and, just as crucially, leveraged his connections to suppress seamy stories about Trump.

Trump’s attorney zeroed in on a nonprosecution agreement in 2018 between the federal government and American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer.

The company admitted to engaging in the “catch-and-kill” practice to help Trump’s campaign, and prosecutors agreed to not prosecute the company for paying $150,000 to McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump.

Trump’s attorney repeatedly suggested that Pecker may have felt pressured to accept an agreement in order to finalize a deal to sell his company to the newsstand operator Hudson News Group for a proposed $100 million.

“To consummate that deal, you knew you had to clear up the investigations,” Bove said.

After pausing for several seconds, Pecker replied in the affirmative. But Pecker also said he felt “no pressure” to finalize the nonprosecution agreement to complete the transaction.

In the end, the deal didn’t go through.

United States News

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Trump’s lawyers try to discredit testimony of prosecution’s first witness in hush money trial