"Pecker was a partner in crime": DA "couldn't have asked for a better narrative" to open Trump trial

"Pecker is not an ordinary witness in this criminal trial like Stormy Daniels or Hope Hicks, or even Michael Cohen"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 30, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Alving Bragg and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Alving Bragg and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a political pugilist, a very dirty fighter who will do anything to win. In a recent fundraising email, he emphasized that personality trait, telling his MAGA people, “I have always loved you. That’s why I take every single punch to the face and get right back up.” But in the first of his four historic criminal trials, Trump, has, to this point, been on the ropes. He is, so far, being pummeled by the prosecution in Manhattan's hush-money case. 

The first prosecution witness in the trial was David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer. Pecker testified last week that he knowingly participated in a plot with Donald Trump to conceal the ex-president’s affair with Stormy Daniels (as well as former Playboy model Karen McDougal) from the American people during the 2016 election. Per the prosecution’s argument, this was more than just keeping a secret about a womanizer and noted playboy’s dalliances: It constituted a type of contribution to Trump’s election campaign and deprived the American people of information that may have influenced the outcome of the presidential election.

If Pecker’s testimony is a preview of what is to come in the hush-money trial, matters are only going to become much more difficult for defendant Trump in the days and weeks ahead.

Judge Merchan has also been trying to keep Donald Trump on the ropes by limiting his combative, threatening, and disrespectful behavior. This week Judge Merchan will likely be announcing further restrictions on Trump’s speech and behavior.

Donald Trump may be in trouble now, but it would be a grave error to underestimate his ability to win this first criminal trial (as well as the three upcoming ones) and the 2024 election. As former Republican political consultant Stuart Stevens warned in a recent essay at the New York Times, Trump will most certainly find a way to present these historic criminal trials as an example of “persecution” and a “witch hunt” by the corrupt ex-president’s supposed enemies. Such a narrative will likely mobilize Trump’s MAGA followers and others who distrust “the system.” And even more worrisome for the future of American democracy, early 2024 election polls continue to show that Trump and President Biden are basically tied. To this point, Donald Trump’s criminal peril has not substantially hurt him in the polls.

In an attempt to make better sense of the second week of Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, its implications for the 2024 Election and the larger democracy crisis, and what may happen next, I recently spoke with a range of experts.

Steven Beschloss is a journalist and author of several books, including "The Gunman and His Mother." His website is America, America.

So many pundits were convinced this is not an important trial. Now it could be the only trial before the election, if the Trump-inclined, feet-dragging Supreme Court has its way. Polls suggest that two-thirds of the public think the trial is somewhat or very serious, which makes the impact of a possible victory by the state more significant than many imagined. I’d like to think exposing Trump’s fraudulent strongman persona is one important outcome. His inability to stay awake, his flatulence, and his deflation amid the daily grind of a weeks-long criminal proceeding may not move a single cult member, but it just might change the minds of a sliver of remaining moderate Republicans and currently indifferent Democrats.

"Exposing Trump’s fraudulent strongman persona is one important outcome."

More importantly — as long as the media stops minimizing the trial as a hush-money case and begins more precisely identifying it as an illegal campaign coverup — the mounting evidence of Trump’s falsification of records to deny the voting public awareness of his involvement with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal should remind fence-sitting voters of the constant corruption and criminality. So should his continued attacks that violate the gag order, especially if Judge Merchan decides to genuinely hold Trump in contempt. Add to this the disgusting but unsurprising scale of his real role in producing fake news to trash his rivals — and it just might carve off a few more who had normalized Trump’s attacks on our free press.

To be sure, I’m crossing my fingers that this jury will reach a truthful conclusion — giving our country at least one opportunity before the election to look squarely at this man who’s determined to destroy our democracy and regain power by any means necessary.

Matthew Dallek teaches at George Washington University and is the author of “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.”

I’m not a lawyer, but I am impressed by the tabloid nature of David Pecker’s testimony. I wouldn’t have expected it to be tame, but the methodical exposure of the inner workings of “catch and kill” is fascinating and important. That those seeking elective office can conspire with a tabloid publisher to bury stories about themselves and trumpet negative stories about their foes – the baldness of the conspiracy as Pecker describes it – is memorable. Further, Pecker’s testimony shows what those paying attention knew all along: Trump wanted to bury the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal stories not to protect his family but to protect his campaign. None of this will hurt him with his “base,” but I struggle to see how this trial helps him with any voter who isn’t sure who to vote for.

The prosecutors seem to be hitting it out of the park. They are painting a riveting picture of a Trump campaign plot to bury negative stories and cover up the payments to Stormy Daniels. It’s hard for me at this point to see the case hinging solely on the credibility of Michael Cohen, and I’m surprised by the thoroughness of the prosecutors’ case so far.

Looking ahead, I’m interested in the ability of the prosecutors to hammer home the idea that the case is ultimately about “election interference.” Can they demonstrate that Trump’s hush-money payments had consequences far beyond Trump’s family life – and affected the presidential campaign itself? I had read so many legal experts saying this was a “meh” case – it wasn’t the right one to bring – but that doesn't seem right. So I’ll be curious to see if it remains, as it has so far, a bigger, more impactful narrative than much punditry implied when charges were announced.

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime" and "Criminology on Trump.” His new book is "Indicting the 45th President: Boss Trump, the GOP, and What We can Do About the Threat to American Democracy."

Unfortunately, I am not “seeing” anything nor is anyone else except for the persons in the courthouse. The fact that it is not being publicly televised is a disservice to the American people who deserve the right to know who the real Donald Trump is. And not only to appreciate his character as a human being but also as a means for each of us to reflect on our own character as human beings. From the lens of a “legal geek” who not only wrote extensively about and did a KOOL FM radio wrap-up twice weekly in Ann Arbor for the nine-month duration of another criminal trial that caught the world’s attention — OJ Simpson — this cannot possibly have the same kind of utility or value as when people tuned in daily to watch on television live or re-broadcast every evening. 

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As for the two trials, there are some similarities of less importance than the dissimilarities that are legalistically quite distinguishing. Both trials involve famous and scandalous defendants, each with plenty of supporters and both with competent legal representation. Each of these criminal trials has a sexual dimension. Besides the scrutiny of the defendants’ personas, both defenses also have their alleged components of prosecutorial prejudice and law enforcement corruption.

Otherwise, the two criminal trials are very different legalistically. OJ’s trial was a garden variety street crime, or a “who done it” double murder. It was simply attempting to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ murdered his ex-wife and her lover. Trump’s white-collar crime is of a different nature altogether. To put it most simply, the question here is not whether or not Trump did what he is accused of doing. Rather, it is about whether what the former president did was to get elected in 2016, and if that is really a crime. 

It is unfolding as I hoped it would and I suspect the trial to be over in less than a month from now. So, in terms of the first week inclusive of the opening statements, the direct, cross-examination, and redirect of the state’s first witness David Pecker it is going swimmingly. I would have been worried had this not been the case. Then again, District Attorney Bragg would not have indicted Trump in the first place unless he had a very strong case. This is not to say that the defense won't raise reasonable doubt in the minds of one or two jurors. 

All and all, the people of New York couldn't have asked for a better narrative than the one we have heard from Pecker. He set the table for the other witnesses to follow and the evidence to come. After Pecker the second witness was a former administrative assistant for 34 years, Rhona Graff, who was on and off the stand with nothing of legal substance to share in less than one hour. She was there primarily as the gatekeeper, recordkeeper and communications person between Trump and pretty much anyone including Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.  She was Trump’s texter and emailer and telephoner.

With respect to the witnesses and evidence that will be introduced going forward, the prosecution’s case will simply become one of having its witnesses getting up on the stand and saying yep, yep, and yep to what the prosecutors are asking them and filling in the pieces of how they fit into Trump and Pecker’s fraudulent scheme to corrupt the election.

If it is not obvious, Pecker is not an ordinary witness in this criminal trial like Stormy Daniels or Hope Hicks, or even Michael Cohen. He was Trump’s principal co-conspirator, who only avoided criminal prosecution by cutting a deal to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about his illegal contractual arrangement with Trump to save his own skin. This fact has been emphasized by Trump’s lawyers to the jury who understand Pecker was a partner in crime. Nevertheless, Pecker came across as truthful during cross-examination and there were no “gotcha” moments, and no more opportunities to alter his story.

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I think among my favorite lines from Pecker’s testimony were: “I felt that Donald Trump was my mentor” and “I still consider him a friend.” As a criminologist and a professor, I am thinking that Trump was probably a very good mentor in lawlessness, corruption, and fraud. As for the friendship between Trump and Pecker, I am thinking “thick as thieves” and what more does he know and is not telling us?

I can’t imagine any of the upcoming testimony getting any more significant – perhaps sexier — than what Pecker has already laid out and testified to. For the most part, the rest of the prosecution’s case will pretty much be nothing more than corroboration of their narrative of the crime.

However, we have not yet heard from the defense. Ordinarily, this is where reasonable doubt is manufactured. But while Trump is generally very good at manufacturing something out of nothing, this will not be the case in a court of law. Trump will want the jury to conclude that what he and the tabloid publisher did was “no big thing.” Many people do the same thing. True enough — but not for the purposes of interfering in a presidential election and then covering it up. Todd Blanche’s closing statement, like his opening statement, will want the jurors to conclude that trying to influence the outcome of a presidential election is “just democracy in action.” Good luck with that one.

Finally, as this case goes forward like any other criminal case, I will be looking to see how well prosecutor Matthew Colangelo connects the dots, makes the case and proves, as alleged in his opening statement, that Trump committed “election fraud, pure and simple” and “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.” Trump then, prosecutors allege, “covered up” his “criminal conspiracy by lying” about it in his New York business records. Look for the prosecution to earn a grade of A.

As for the defense, when neither the facts nor laws are on your side, nonsense doesn’t go very far with a jury — unlike with Trump’s supporters.

Darrin Bell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, creator of the syndicated comic strip Candorville, and author of the graphic novel “The Talk." He is also a contributing cartoonist for the New Yorker.

The Stormy Daniels affair may be the only trial we’ll see before the election. While the porn star hush-money election interference case may be the least important of the major cases against Trump, it’s also the sleaziest and the most pathetic. And maybe that makes it the most appropriate one to go to trial. It’s good to remind ourselves that this sadistic, racist, autocrat-loving, wannabe fascist dictator-for-a-day*, is a tacky, reckless hedonist whose vices make him beholden to others, and whose desperation to save face leads him to commit crimes.

This isn’t a distraction from the Georgia case or the January 6 case or the classified documents case. A conviction here makes convictions in those cases more likely. This sordid hush-money case should remind future juries that the man whose fate they’re considering is a selfish, desperate, and vulgar liar who surrounds himself with people who are just as duplicitous as he is.

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

Donald Trump’s claims of absolute immunity for his actions on the basis that this is “for the good of the country” are no more than another sign of malignant narcissism. Claiming that he is acting on behalf of others while actually seeking to benefit himself, and that he is above the same law that applies to others, are not just lies to the public but also portrayals of himself as superior to ordinary people. This self-view is even more clearly shown in his claims that he is being persecuted (by the legal system) “for you”, intentionally describing himself as like Jesus Christ. Selling bibles with his own label is a further effort to link himself to God, attempting to convince people of his grandiosity while at the same time taking their money for his benefit.

In this sense, Mr. Trump’s trial is a test to see if he can be required to live as an equal to others, rather than superior to the rest of humanity.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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