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Trump Trial: Defense grills first witness

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VIDEO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
JEENAH MOON/POOL PHOTO VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, today.
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JEENAH MOON/POOL PHOTO VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, today.

JEENAH MOON/POOL PHOTO VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, today.

NEW YORK >> Donald Trump’s defense team attacked the credibility today 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.

Pecker’s testimony has 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. It’s a critical building block for prosecutors’ theory that Trump sought to illegally influence the 2016 race by suppressing negative stories about his personal life.

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 Trump’s arrangement with the tabloid was not unique to him, and 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.

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 clawed back at 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.

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 the Trump Organization’s Outlook computer system included contact information for Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, two women who were paid to prevent them from coming forward with claims of sexual encounters with Trump. Trump says the claims were lies.

Graff also testified that she once saw Daniels in a reception area at Trump Tower, though the date of the visit wasn’t immediately clear. Graff said she assumed Daniels was there to discuss potentially being a contestant on one of Trump’s “Apprentice”-brand shows.

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.

Today’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.

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 hush money payments meant to stifle negative stories from surfacing in the final days of the 2016 campaign.

Trump denies any wrongdoing. Before entering the courtroom today, he told reporters he believes Thursday’s proceedings went “very well” for the defense, adding that “the case should be over.”

The charges center on $130,000 in payments that Trump’s company made to Cohen. He paid that sum on Trump’s behalf to keep porn actor Stormy 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 Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump. He denies the affair.

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.

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