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Former National Enquirer publisher testifies about his role in helping Trump in 2016

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Former chief executive of the National Enquirer took the stand as the opening witness against former President Donald Trump in a criminal trial this week. David Pecker's testimony detailed how the Enquirer hid scandals for Trump during the 2016 election cycle. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

SIMON: What did we learn this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, David Pecker was a longtime pal of Donald Trump. But if you think about - going back to 2016, he sort of offered Trump the ability to work hand in glove even beyond the level that they already had. He offered himself as an arm of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, offering positive stories about Donald Trump, negative stories about his foes. Think of stories about Hillary Clinton, Republican candidates like Ben Carson, Marco Rubio. There was a piece about Ted Cruz's dad. They totally concocted out of whole cloth, a story that somehow he might be linked to the assassination of JFK.

He also offered to serve - and this was a phrase - as the eyes and ears of the campaign to listen for stories that might be damaging to Donald Trump, who he described as, you know, one of the preeminent bachelors of the age. Of course, he had been married to his wife Melania since 2005. And then he performed something that's now been known by the phrase catch and kill. That is, buying off stories that were severely problematic that would help avoid embarrassment to the Trump campaign.

SIMON: And how's that work? Remind us, please.

FOLKENFLIK: Let me give you one example. The first example, step forward - a doorman came forward in late 2015 to one of the Trump major properties, saying that Trump had impregnated a maid who worked there. They ultimately paid $30,000 through the National Enquirer to buy the story and promise that no one else could have it, even though, ultimately, the Enquirer concluded the story was a fake. Michael Cohen, Trump's fixer and lawyer, required the stipulation that doorman would have to pay a million dollars if that were ever to be disclosed in perpetuity, even beyond the campaign itself. And that's what the Enquirer required of the man.

SIMON: The heart of this case, of course, are the payments made to two women who alleged they had affairs with Donald Trump while he was married, and he still is, to his wife, Melania. What role did the Enquirer play?

FOLKENFLIK: So an information broker came to the Enquirer. And this is really Beverly Hills attorney, who's a bit of a pal of the then-editor Dylan Howard - comes forward in June 2016 and says Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, had attested the fact that she had had an affair with Trump that was meaningful. She's indicating she doesn't really feel comfortable with it going public, and she would like somehow for the constellation of publications that David Pecker helps to control to take good care of her. They arrange $150,000 payment to her to say, you know, you won't ever talk about any affairs you've ever had, and we'll make you a columnist, which never really played out.

Pecker didn't then want anything to do with the story of the porn star Stormy Daniels who came forward in the fall of 2016 - really just weeks before the election - right around the same time as that "Access Hollywood" tape was revealed to have shown Donald Trump bragging about grabbing the genitals of women. He didn't want to make that payment. But in that case, he served as the eyes and ears. Michael Cohen, the fixer, paid Stormy Daniels about $130,000 to keep that out of the spotlight until after the election.

SIMON: What effect did the actions of the Enquirer have then?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, basically, you know, if you think about it, many mainstream editors feel compelled to follow the Enquirer's scoops. Think of what their scoops did to the former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Late-night comedy hosts feast on what it offers as a way of unlocking otherwise salacious material. Their scoops often tie opposing campaigns to Trump in knots, paralyze them as they try to get it under control and solidifies memes in people's minds like, Hillary is about to die, you know, Bill Clinton is philandering.

Millions of people see those headlines at the supermarket or online beyond those that actually buy the papers. And yet, as the former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker said on the stand, those splashy headlines and colorful photos are the only things that matter. Some of those scoops that they paid to catch and kill would have been Enquirer gold in his testimony on Friday. Instead, he served the presidential campaign as its eyes and ears, as a slush fund, as a propaganda arm, and helped to propel this scandal-tarred candidate all the way to the White House.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.