Trump's sordid hush-money defense: Tales from his sleazy past could hurt him doubly

Stories of Trump's relationship with an extortionist gossip monger should be enough to sink his chances

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 26, 2024 10:12AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump attends a pre-trial hearing at Manhattan Criminal Court on February 15, 2024 in New York City. (Steven Hirsch-Pool/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump attends a pre-trial hearing at Manhattan Criminal Court on February 15, 2024 in New York City. (Steven Hirsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump held a little rally at a construction site in New York before his trial commenced on Thursday morning. He glad-handed the workers and passed out pamphlets that claimed he would end Biden's electric vehicle mandate. They all seemed to like him but, of course, they would, as Fox News reported that the attendees were solicited and vetted by the Trump campaign. In fact one of the "workers" interviewed at the event was a former staffer of disgraced GOP congressman George Santos:

In other words, it was just another example of Trump fake news, which has been revealed in his Manhattan hush-money trial as a specialty of his going back decades. 

Trump was very upset that he had to attend Thursday's trial proceeding since his Supreme Court immunity case was being argued before the Supreme Court at the same time and he had wanted to attend. Unfortunately, he's a criminal defendant and doesn't get the privilege of making his schedule of court appearances around the country as he's used to doing. Instead, he had to face more testimony from his old friend, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, who took the stand for the second day. 

When asked about Pecker at his little astroturfed rally, Trump simply said, “David’s been very nice, he’s a nice guy," which is bizarre considering what Pecker is saying about Trump on the witness stand. It's always been curious as to why he's never had a bad word to say about Pecker when he always maliciously insults anyone he thinks has done him harm. But something Pecker testified to later in the day may just explain Trump's unusual silence.

Trump's squalid character seems to be a selling point. 

Apparently, once the campaign commenced, Trump had requested that Michael Cohen, his longtime fixer and liaison on the hush-money deals, retrieve boxes of information that Pecker had gathered about Trump over the years. Pecker told Cohen that he'd had an executive go through them and that there was nothing to be concerned about but that he wouldn't turn them over or let Cohen go through them. Knowing how Trump thinks — and assuming everyone else thinks the same way — he no doubt believes that it wouldn't be wise to antagonize this man with whom he once conspired to destroy people's reputations. Who knows what could be in those boxes? 

Over two days of Pecker's testimony, the prosecution has laid out the details of what they say was a conspiracy to "promote or prevent" the election of any person under state law. (Trump is actually charged with falsifying his business records to cover up the violation of that law, which is what makes his conduct a felony.) It's hard to argue that it isn't exactly what they were engaged in doing. Pecker admitted it repeatedly and Michael Cohen previously pleaded guilty to the same thing and will presumably testify to that effect when he's called in this trial. They were paying people off who were trying to come forward with negative information about Trump and then Trump and his company tried to hide the paper trail. 

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In his second day of testimony, Pecker told a number of anecdotes that implicate Trump in the scheme before, during and after — even during the transition and beyond — often quizzing Pecker about the status of the Karen McDougal matter. When the Wall St. Journal reported on Trump's alleged affair with the former Playboy playmate, Pecker said Trump was livid and called him up to ask, "How did this happen? I thought this was under control. Either you or one of your people leaked this story!” He also recalled that Trump later arranged a special "thank you" dinner at the White House, to which Pecker brought a number of National Enquirer employees. At one point he and Trump were walking alone together and Trump asked him, "How's Karen doing?" and Pecker replied, "She's doing well, she's quiet." 

Pecker also testified that he spoke with former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about keeping McDougal quiet during Trump's presidency which is a little bit startling especially since he says they both agreed it would be a good idea. Hicks' testimony is going to be interesting

As for Stormy Daniels, Trump was clearly directing the plot once Pecker declined to pay the money, largely because Trump didn't pay him back for the previous hush money agreements and because he knew from previous experience that there was exposure to campaign finance violations. Nonetheless, he was involved and was surprised to learn that Cohen had to make the payoff himself and was having trouble getting reimbursed as well. Trump was obviously trying to avoid having to pay because he's a notorious deadbeat but he was also obviously trying to avoid having a paper trail. And that certainly wasn't because he was trying to protect Melania

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The cross-examination began at the end of the day and the defense got Pecker to admit that he'd engaged in such sordid schemes before, managing to get Arnold Schwarzenneger, Rahm Emmanuel and Mark Wahlberg's names into the record in the process. Perhaps they're laying the groundwork for some kind of selective prosecution argument but it's unclear why any of this is relevant to the matter at hand except as a further illustration of just how depraved David Pecker's organization really was. When Trump's attorney elicited the comment that Donald Trump was Pecker's mentor and that he still considers him a good friend, it was very hard to see how that benefits his client. I'd imagine the members of the jury were all anxious to get home and take a shower after hearing about the gross conduct of all of these people, including the former president. 

This sleazy tale of the arrangement Trump made with Pecker and his relationship with this extortionist gossip monger alone should be enough to sink Trump's chances of ever being elected again to the presidency. But since he was elected the first time after having been shown on tape bragging about assaulting women it's been amply demonstrated that a lot of people like that about him. Trump's squalid character seems to be a selling point. 

Throughout his life, he's been getting away with corrupt, unethical behavior and skirting legal accountability and he probably thinks he'll slither out of this one too. The prosecution still has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump falsified his records to cover up this conspiracy and all we have so far is Pecker's testimony along with some incriminating texts and documents. There's a lot more to come. 

Trump reportedly spent much of the day listening to the testimony with his eyes closed, not reacting to what he heard. But he did seem a little bit rattled when he emerged, calling the day's event "breathtaking" and for some unknown reason telling the gathered press that the Charlottesville Nazi protest was "a little peanut." He should probably get some rest.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary David Pecker Donald Trump Hush-money Trial Michael Cohen Stormy Daniels Trump Trial