Klasfeld’s reporting is part of Just Security’s Trump Trials Clearinghouse

For over half a decade, the National Enquirer’s multifaceted plan to serve as the “eyes and ears” of former President Donald Trump’s first campaign gathered dust inside an investigative case file inside the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

During the first week of Trump’s criminal trial, those secrets spilled out with testimony by David Pecker, the former CEO of the tabloid’s parent company American Media Inc. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s approach to Trump’s debut prosecution has cast the case through a broader lens, revealing an arrangement that had been hidden in plain sight since 2018.

That was the year when the FBI first searched the home and office of Trump’s then-fixer Michael Cohen on April 9, 2018, but the public did not know that federal authorities simultaneously had the Enquirer’s executives in their crosshairs.

“The FBI came to my home on that same day and had a search warrant for my phone,” David Pecker, the former CEO of the National Enquirer’s parent company AMI, revealed late last week. The tabloid’s then-editor-in-chief Dylan Howard received the same treatment from the FBI, according to Pecker.

On the day of Cohen’s sentencing, prosecutors released a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, obligating the company and their representatives to cooperate truthfully with all law enforcement investigations. Significantly, that chronology reveals Cohen’s investigation bookended AMI’s probe, all springing from the same alleged conspiracy.

Manhattan prosecutors now allege that Trump, Cohen, Pecker, Howard and others acted as “co-conspirators” in an interwoven election-related scheme, and the first week of trial already has shown that Trump’s alleged accomplices privately feared being prosecuted for it. Until Trump, only Cohen actually caught an indictment.

As the DA’s opening witness, Pecker gave the public a glimpse of the Enquirer trial that never was.

The Enquirer’s Editor-in-Chief Feared ‘Electoral Fraud’ Prosecution

The first week of Trump’s trial exposed how AMI’s top executives and editors came to believe that they helped catapult Trump into the White House — and how they believed they may have done so illegally. Pecker and Howard worried that they had serious risk of prosecution for campaign finance violations, according to trial testimony and evidence.

Once the Federal Elections Commission sent him a letter, Pecker recalled telling Cohen that he was “very worried.” Cohen’s cynical response to Pecker’s fear generated widespread headlines, and it cast the tenure of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions under a heavy glare.

“Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General, and Donald Trump has him in his pocket,” Cohen allegedly told Pecker.

The line carried heavy historical irony in light of Cohen’s eventual prosecution in two federal jurisdictions, ultimately merged into a guilty plea in the Southern District of New York. Pecker was not reassured, and he nearly met the same fate, if his company failed to accept the non-prosecution agreement. The ex-AMI chief executive reiterated throughout his testimony that he viewed that agreement with prosecutors as an admission of a federal crime. “We admitted to a campaign violation,” Pecker testified, going even further than the plain text of the agreement.

In a tantalizing exchange, Pecker acknowledged that he initially planned on transferring AMI’s rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story about her alleged affair with Trump to Cohen, through a shell company. Jurors saw a copy of AMI’s signed contract with Cohen’s company Resolution Consultants LLC, which was not executed following Pecker’s conversation with his attorney. Jurors never learned what Pecker and his lawyer discussed during that privileged conversation, but they did learn that Pecker pulled out of the deal after experiencing a sudden case of cold feet following the legal advice he received.

“I called Michael Cohen, and I said to him that the agreement — the assignment deal — is off,” Pecker testified. “I am not going forward. It is a bad idea, and I want you to rip up the agreement.”

The deal would have been, among other things, an enormous gift to the Trump campaign. Pecker agreed later in his testimony that McDougal’s story amounted to nothing less than “Enquirer gold,” combining Trump, sex, infidelity, and a bona fide political scoop — and just before a presidential election. Explicitly memorializing the transfer of its rights to Trump’s then-personal attorney, for Pecker and his counsel, crossed a line for reasons the jury could not hear within the rules of evidence.

For similar reasons, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan refused to admit a seemingly damning text message that the Enquirer’s top editor sent to a close relative on Election Day 2016, as Trump inched closer to the White House.

“At least, if he wins, I’ll be pardoned for electoral fraud,” Howard wrote on Nov. 8, 2016.

That powerful text message has been hidden from the jury only because its author remains halfway across the world. Howard, currently living in Australia, could not travel internationally due to a spinal condition — critically, leaving Trump’s attorneys unable to confront him. By refusing to admit the blockbuster evidence, the judge likely avoided an appellate issue under the Confrontation Clause, if the jury decides to convict Trump.

Hush-Money Lawyer Thought That AMI Made Trump Win

Procedurally, Trump’s legal team might have caught a break, but the text message strikes a sharply discordant note to the former president’s defense. Trump’s lead attorney Todd Blanche told jurors during his opening statement that there is nothing wrong with trying to influence an election: “It’s called democracy,” Blanche said. But the trial has produced ample evidence that Trump’s associates viewed their actions as immoral, if not outright illegal.

During opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo revealed Stormy Daniels’ attorney Keith Davidson fired off a foreboding text message to Howard when it became clear that Trump would clinch the election: “What have we done?” That was not the only time that Davidson expressed the view that AMI played a decisive role in Trump’s ascension to the White House. On July 1, 2017, Davidson sent Howard a profane and angry email opining that someone, presumably Trump, “owes everything to AMI & he fucked u.”

Just a day earlier, MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski had just accused Trump of offering to help quash an Enquirer article about them in return for more favorable coverage, and Trump tried to flip the accusation against them — insisting that Scarborough urged the then-president to stop the tabloid’s story.

Davidson, who also represented McDougal and is expected to be a government witness, may have the opportunity to explain whether he had been referring to that incident in his message, which the jury has not yet seen. Prosecutors may also ask Davidson to elaborate on his apparent belief that AMI handed Trump the White House; but even before he has taken the stand, Davidson has helped dent Trump’s frequent attack about his first criminal case: that it is a small-bore “zombie” case about imprecise business paperwork.

At least in the view of multiple AMI insiders and key hush-money conduits, the tabloid empire played an illicit and potentially decisive role in Trump’s election. Prosecutor Colangelo explained that it ultimately “doesn’t matter” whether AMI’s actions changed the outcome of the race, but the fact that Trump’s alleged co-conspirators find the theory very plausible may leave a powerful impression on the jury — and of course, the court of public opinion.

Team Trump’s Defense: ‘Mutually Beneficial’ and ‘Standard’ Arrangements

If prosecutors broadened the aperture on the public perception of Trump’s criminal case in the trial’s first week, the former president’s attorneys also put their defense into focus — with a jaundiced view of the media’s role in federal elections.

As the witness kept acknowledging on the stand, Trump was not Pecker’s first foray in smothering stories for politicians and celebrities. Pecker conceded that AMI signed “hundreds of thousands” of non-disclosure agreements with sources. Trump’s attorney Emil Bove suggested, and Pecker agreed, that such clauses were “standard operating procedure” for the tabloid.

In the past, such NDAs silenced stories about California’s then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwartzenegger, Chicago’s then-mayoral contender Rahm Emanuel, professional golfer Tiger Woods, and many others. AMI would sometimes leverage these deals for access to sources. Doing a favor for Schwartzenegger helped the company secure his cooperation with other AMI magazines like Us, Muscle Fitness, and Flex.

Pecker said a similar process played out with Woods.

“We purchased a story about Tiger Woods from a source, but all the investigating photographs, all the investigative works was done internally,” Pecker testified, confirming that the images showed him meeting with a woman in a parking lot.

The ex-AMI chief said that the tabloid used this information to lure Woods away from his then-exclusive relationship with Conde Nast to appear on the cover of one of their own magazines: Men’s Fitness.

In this line of questioning, Bove landed a clean blow on cross-examination, getting the witness to agree that these were “standard” and “mutually beneficial” relationships. Pecker freely acknowledged that AMI practices what he called “checkbook journalism,” a lofty term for an unsavory practice — paying for sources — resoundingly rejected by nearly every serious news organization in the United States.

Trump’s legal team floated what could be described as the “Casablanca defense,” in which the film’s Captain Louis Renault shuts down Rick’s Café for political reasons through a comically thin pretext.

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” Renault barked, in one of the film’s immortal quotations.

Trump’s legal team never cited the line directly: Doing so would edge dangerously close to New York statutory prohibitions against jury nullification, but Bove repeatedly suggested that his client Trump is on trial for common arrangements between political candidates and the media. The lawyer pointedly asked whether the Federal Elections Commission ever questioned Pecker about his arrangement with Emanuel, a then-Democratic party power broker. (Nevermind that Emanuel, as a then-mayoral hopeful, had not been running for federal office.)

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass homed in on the other distinctions: AMI had, in fact, gotten in trouble after the Schwartzenegger scandal, where the tabloid suppressed sexual harassment claims against the bodybuilder. The Los Angeles Times ultimately ran the story, in a major embarrassment for AMI — one that Pecker testified familiarized him with campaign finance laws.

In a question as pointed and carefully crafted as a samurai blade, Steinglass also set Trump’s case apart from the rest of the fold.

“On how many of those other NDAs had the CEO, meaning you, the CEO of AMI coordinated with a presidential candidate for the benefit of the campaign?” he asked.

“It’s the only one,” Pecker confessed.

IMAGE: Collage of National Enquirer headlines favoring former U.S. President Donald Trump and smearing Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.