Pecker Is Defiant as Trump Hush Money Trial’s First Week Concludes

The first week of testimony in the criminal trial of Donald J. Trump wound down on Friday with intense questioning of the prosecution’s inaugural witness about his efforts before the 2016 presidential election to hide salacious stories about the Republican candidate.

The witness, David Pecker, who has known the former president for decades, faced a stern cross-examination from Mr. Trump’s defense lawyer, Emil Bove. Mr. Bove pressed Mr. Pecker on two deals he struck in 2015 and 2016 with two people who had been seeking to sell tales about Mr. Trump. Those stories were then buried, a scheme described by prosecutors as “catch and kill.”

In a tense moment midmorning, Mr. Bove worked to undermine previous testimony from Mr. Pecker that Mr. Trump had thanked him after the election for helping to derail one such account.

Mr. Bove, a former federal prosecutor, pushed Mr. Pecker to explain a seeming discrepancy between a 2018 interview with the F.B.I. — which did not note the supposed thanks from Mr. Trump — and his testimony this week.

Mr. Pecker, a former tabloid titan who was once the publisher of The National Enquirer, resisted the implication that there was a contradiction, but eventually acknowledged the inconsistency. Still, he remained defiant, saying that he had been honest on the stand.

“I know what the truth is,” Mr. Pecker said, suggesting that F.B.I. agents might have erred in their notes. “I can’t state why this is written this way. I know exactly what was said to me.”

Mr. Pecker’s testimony is crucial for the Manhattan district attorney’s office as it seeks to show that Mr. Trump was part of a three-man conspiracy to suppress negative stories as he worked to win the White House. Prosecutors argue that Mr. Trump eventually falsified records to hide a third hush-money deal in order to conceal the payment that his former fixer, Michael D. Cohen, had made to the porn star Stormy Daniels.

The former president faces 34 felony charges and could spend four years in prison if convicted. He denies all charges.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Pecker testified about having come to an agreement with Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen in a meeting at Trump Tower in August 2015. There, Mr. Pecker said, he agreed to run what amounted to a covert propaganda operation for Mr. Trump, trumpeting his candidacy while publishing negative stories about his Republican opponents. Most importantly, Mr. Pecker said, he had agreed to be “the eyes and ears” of the campaign, watching out for damaging stories and suppressing them.

On Friday, Mr. Bove called this testimony into question, arguing that Mr. Pecker’s promotion of Mr. Trump and denigration of opponents was simply “standard operating procedure” for a tabloid, recycling titillating stories that sell magazines in checkout aisles. Mr. Pecker agreed, without embarrassment, that those types of stories appeared in his publications.

But he fought back several times as Mr. Bove cast doubt on his credibility.

Mr. Bove bore into an August 2016 agreement that Mr. Pecker’s company, AMI, made with Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model. Ms. McDougal had been shopping a story about an affair with Mr. Trump, and the deal included a payment of $150,000, a sum prosecutors have suggested — and Mr. Pecker agreed — was to ensure her silence.

But Mr. Bove pointed out that Ms. McDougal had received other benefits in the form of dozens of stories published under her name in publications owned by AMI, as well as cover appearances.

Mr. Bove sought to conclude the cross-examination by asking Mr. Pecker what obligations he was under as part of his agreement to take the witness stand, suggesting to jurors that his testimony was merely the result of cooperation with prosecutors. The publisher bristled.

“To be truthful,” Mr. Pecker said, was his primary obligation, adding, “I’ve been truthful to the best of my recollection.”

After cross-examination, Joshua Steinglass, a prosecutor, questioned Mr. Pecker further, asking him why the articles and cover stories were specified in the $150,000 deal.

“It was included in the contract basically as a disguise,” Mr. Pecker said, adding that the actual purpose was so that Ms. McDougal’s story wouldn’t be published anywhere else.

Mr. Pecker did not run Ms. McDougal’s story of an affair with Mr. Trump. Nor did he publish a doorman’s story of a child born out of wedlock that his reporters determined was false. That was the scuttled story, Mr. Pecker said, for which Mr. Trump thanked him.

Mr. Pecker said such a tale would have sold 10 million copies, making it even bigger than The Enquirer’s coverage of the death of Elvis Presley, which featured a picture of the singer’s body in his coffin.

In four days of testimony, Mr. Pecker offered a behind-the-headlines look at the seedy ways of his supermarket tabloid. They included offering protection from unflattering coverage to politicians, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “Terminator” star who served as governor of California, as well as using damaging information about celebrities to pressure them into interviews.

But on Friday, Mr. Steinglass sought to set Mr. Pecker’s actions on behalf of the former president as a thing apart, asking questions that demonstrated that the publisher’s suppression of negative stories had been unique.

Despite the defense lawyers’ aggressive questioning, Mr. Pecker was even-keeled, a small, gray-haired man answering in a quiet monotone. On Thursday, during direct examination by prosecutors, he calmly set the foundation of the prosecution’s case, painting a vivid, tawdry portrait of Mr. Trump as a presidential candidate, desperately trying to quash rumors about his personal life, often through his fixer, Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Pecker described Mr. Trump as becoming “very angry” and “very aggravated” about simmering scandals, and deeply concerned about Ms. McDougal, going so far as to inquire about her at meetings at the White House and at Trump Tower, even after he was elected.

“How’s our girl?” Mr. Pecker recalled Mr. Trump asking.

Mr. Trump, 77, the first American president to face a criminal trial, has denied the sexual encounters with Ms. McDougal as well as those described by Ms. Daniels, who says she had a one-night stand with him in 2006.

A decade later, as the 2016 presidential race hurtled toward its conclusion, Ms. Daniels was paid $130,000 by Mr. Cohen to guarantee her silence and, prosecutors say, to help Mr. Trump win.

Mr. Cohen was later reimbursed by Mr. Trump, and efforts to disguise those payments are the basis for the counts of falsifying business records that the former president faces. Each count reflects a different false check, ledger and invoice that, according to prosecutors, Mr. Trump used to hide the reimbursement’s purpose.

Mr. Trump has cast the prosecution as a “witch hunt,” an argument he has amplified in statements to reporters in a hallway outside the courtroom of Justice Juan M. Merchan.

Fifteen of Mr. Trump’s comments — mostly posts on his Truth Social account and campaign websites — have been cited by prosecutors as violations of a gag order that Justice Merchan issued in March, prohibiting attacks on jurors, witnesses, court staff members and others. Justice Merchan has already held one hearing to determine whether Mr. Trump should be held in contempt and fined; another is scheduled for next week and it is not clear whether the results of the first will emerge before the second is held.

On Friday afternoon, the prosecution’s second witness, Rhona Graff, was called to testify. As Mr. Trump’s former executive assistant, Ms. Graff was a gatekeeper at Trump Tower and had an office outside his door. She rose to senior vice president and acted as a media liaison, a scheduler and an occasional spokeswoman, a term of service that extended through Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and into the White House.

Mr. Trump’s criminal trial has riveted the political world, with a crush of media attention and occasional courtroom contretemps.

Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican residential nominee this year, faces three other indictments, including two federal cases, concerning mishandled classified documents and efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. He also faces a state prosecution in Georgia, involving election interference.

Attention on the criminal case in Manhattan will likely intensify after arguments on Thursday at the Supreme Court over whether Mr. Trump should have some immunity from prosecution for acts taken while he was in office. That could delay the federal cases past Election Day.

Despite appearing in New York court most weekdays, Mr. Trump has tried to remain active as a campaigner, appearing at a construction site in Manhattan on Thursday, and arranging for a pair of rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan next Wednesday, an off day for his criminal trial.

On Friday, Mr. Trump, who was married when Ms. Daniels and Ms. McDougal say they had sexual encounters with him, wished his wife Melania a happy birthday and said that he would go to Florida to spend the evening with her.

“It would be nice to be with her,” he said, standing in the courthouse hallway. “But I’m in a courthouse. For a rigged trial.”

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