Not long after he met Donald Trump in the mid-1990s, the publishing executive David Pecker came up with an idea that seemed perfectly designed to appeal to the future US president’s ego and penchant for self-promotion.
The glossy Trump Style magazine breathlessly touted Trump’s brands and properties, from the “swaths of rose marble” at Trump Tower to the “glamour and fun” of the Trump Taj Mahal casino and hotel. During its five-year life, the magazine was “very successful,” Pecker told The New Yorker in 2018.
It was just the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Pecker and Trump.
After Pecker bought the National Enquirer tabloid in 1999, he and Trump became even closer, sharing plane rides between their homes in Florida and New York. Pecker enjoyed the sales boost that came from having Trump stories on the cover of the Enquirer. And once Trump set his sights on the White House, he benefited from its fawning coverage, while it also dutifully trashed his rivals on the campaign trail, including stories linking the father of Senator Ted Cruz and John F Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
But this week, the foundations of their long business relationship collapsed as Pecker emerged as a key witness in the landmark case against Trump for his alleged role in a “catch and kill” media strategy to bury damaging stories.
Pecker and his then company, American Media Inc, suppressed stories that could be damaging to Trump three times, according to the statement of facts released along with the indictment by the Manhattan district attorney’s office this week.
During Trump’s 2016 election campaign, AMI paid $150,000 to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, for the rights to a story about her affair with Trump, and made sure it never ran, the statement of facts says. The company reached a similar deal with Stormy Daniels, the porn film actor who also said she had a sexual relationship with Trump. And it paid $30,000 to a former doorman at Trump Tower who claimed to have information about a child Trump had fathered outside marriage, a story AMI later concluded was not true, but still suppressed.
Trump has denied having sex with either woman and has denied any wrongdoing.
But according to the statement of facts, the deals proved that Pecker had kept a promise made to Trump during a meeting at Trump Tower in the summer of 2015 to be the “eyes and ears” of his friend’s presidential campaign. Pecker, the statement says, agreed to look out for negative stories about Trump — and to publish negative stories about his opponents in the campaign.
The agreement was an extension of a “symbiotic relationship” that Pecker and Trump had for years, said David Cay Johnston, a Trump biographer and investigative journalist.
“As Trump becomes better known, he helps sell copies of the National Enquirer,” he said. “And [the Enquirer] then in return had this written agreement to catch and kill stories. This relationship made sure that stories that would be damaging to Trump’s election prospects would vanish because they would pay people off.”
Pecker was granted immunity by federal prosecutors in 2018 for admitting his company had made illegal payments to influence the 2016 election. This means he is co-operating in the case against Trump, a man whose wealth and power he had long seemed to admire. If the case does go to trial, it would not be until 2024 at the earliest, just as the next presidential election gets going. Trump is currently seen as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Like Trump, Pecker is an “outer borough” New Yorker who grew up outside Manhattan. But their upbringings were completely different: Trump’s father was a wealthy property developer who raised his family in Queens. Pecker’s father was a labourer in the Bronx.
Pecker trained as an accountant and worked his way up through the ranks of the magazine unit of the CBS broadcasting network. Eventually the CBS group ended up in the hands of media company Hachette Filipacchi, which appointed Pecker as president of the division in 1990.
Though he was always considered a bean counter, Pecker made an impression in the New York media world in 1995, when Hachette backed a new magazine launched and edited by John F Kennedy Jr. At a press conference announcing the publication, the scruffy, moustachioed Pecker took the stage with movie-star handsome Kennedy and declared his intention to create a magazine with a “fresh, non-partisan” perspective.
“David Pecker insisted that he have pictures of himself with JFK Jr,” said veteran New York media columnist Keith Kelly in the documentary Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer. “He definitely knew that he was latching on to something bigger than himself.”
With its bold covers and celebrity editor, George initially generated a buzz in New York media circles, but soon lost its way — which Pecker blamed on Kennedy’s failure to take risks as an editor. Kennedy died in a plane crash in 1999 and the magazine folded two years later.
Pecker met Trump around the time of the George launch, and their friendship intensified once Pecker acquired American Media Inc, which owned the National Enquirer, in 1999. This represented another opportunity for Pecker to latch on to “something bigger”, for better or worse.
Trump was already a known quantity in the Enquirer, which had assiduously covered his divorce from Ivana Trump and assigned two reporters to write about his wedding to Marla Maples. But under Pecker, the coverage of Trump grew friendlier, former editors have said.
As a brash young property developer in the 1970s, Donald Trump learnt the dark arts of using the tabloid press from one of the masters: mob lawyer and Trump mentor Roy Cohn, who was known to dictate items to reporters down to the punctuation marks. Early in his career, Trump would call reporters with tips about himself using an assumed name, “John Barron”.
“Donald would plant a story sometimes with his ‘John Barron’ character before his voice was well known,” Cay Johnston said. “And if he could get a story into certain publications — the National Enquirer or New York Post being key examples — then the story becomes legitimate.”
Now, as Trump faces 34 felony charges associated with falsifying business records and alleged hush money payments, he can no longer depend on such close relationships with the tabloid press to help him.
Earlier this year A360Media, which in 2020 took control of the company that owned the Enquirer, said it had agreed to sell the company to VVIP Ventures for an undisclosed price.
Meanwhile, Trump’s longtime friend and tabloid ally is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution in any potential trial of the ex president. “Pecker is going to testify that they had this [catch-and-kill] agreement,” Cay Johnson said.