After a constructive start, Trump yawns, sits back and surrenders control

If Mar-a-Lago represents one extremity of interior decor, the courtroom on the 15th floor represents the other for the former president

Thursday in Manhattan began early for Donald Trump with an arranged visit to construction workers on a Park Avenue project before his security cavalcade escorted him to another day in court. He signed his patented Make America Great Again red baseball caps and enjoyed the chants and cheers of his supporters. His humour high, he told television crews that he was predicting a surprise in his native city and state in November’s presidential election.

Down in Washington, meantime, the nine justices of the supreme court were presumably finishing breakfast and preparing to meet to discuss Trump’s claim that presidents are immune from prosecution for acts committed in office. It wasn’t yet 7am on a blue-skied morning in Manhattan and yet The Donald was everywhere.

“We’re very close in New York, I understand,” he told television cameras. “We’re gonna make a play for New York. We have a chance of winning in New York, in my opinion, but we’re gonna give it a shot.”

Bob Bartels, the Steamlifters Local Union 638 manager, told news channels that Trump was winning 3:1 against Biden in the union poll of 9,000 members. Of course not all of the 19.6 million people residing in the state of New York will claim fealty to the Steamlifters Local. And it was understandable that Trump might draw comfort from that early morning morale boost.


The Manhattan Criminal Court sits in one of the isolated corners of lower Manhattan. It’s a joyless building which people visit only when life has taken a turn for the worse. The small park which held crowds and supporters and banners on the opening day of Trump’s trial was populated now solely by pigeons. The television crews were skeletal. Waiting for the doors to open was a long line of media and a shorter line of Manhattanites with nothing better to do on a sharp April morning.

The post-presidential life of Trump has taken such a lurch into permanent sensationalism that for the regulars in the Manhattan Criminal Court – the NYPD officers, the clerks, the security – the entire charade has become just another day at the office.

There is something about the forbiddingly dull architecture of the interior, comprised of marble walls and rectangular overhead lights gleaming off tile floors and long corridors of brutal functionality, which serves to subdue the lurid, tabloidesque narrative of this trial: the president, the porn star, the fixer and the allegation of election interference. If Mar-a-Lago represents one extremity of interior decor, then the interior of the courtroom on the 15th floor represents the other.

The morning session passed by with “Candidate Trump”, as the prosecution referred to the former president, watching chief prosecutor Joshua Steinglass guide the first witness, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, through the invoices and paperwork of an agreement reached with Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model. This was back in the halcyon summer of 2016: Trump on an impossible run and the Clinton campaign unwilling to see that it was steaming towards an iceberg.

The court heard that Dylan Howard, the chief content officer for AMI, which publishes the National Enquirer, had met with McDougal and that she had claimed she had a year-long sexual relationship with Trump. There was talk of ABC running the story and heady rumours of a Mexican group offering to buy it for $8 million.

“Karen McDougal said that she did not want the story to be published. She did not want to be the next Monica Lewinski,” Pecker said from the witness box.

“Dylan felt that she would be more interested in having AMI buy the story than anyone else.”

For an unbroken hour Pecker was taken through the negotiations that took place that summer. He recalled a phone conversation in which Trump told him: “Karen is a nice girl...Is it true that a Mexican group is going to buy the story?”

Crucially, over a three-way call it was decided that Pecker’s company would buy the story and that he would be reimbursed. “Don’t worry,” he quoted Michael Cohen assurances. “The boss will take care of it.”

The purchase, for $150,000 of the limited life rights included details of “any romantic, personal and/or physical relationship McDougal has ever had with any then-married man” which, Pecker said, he took to mean Donald Trump. After the invoice was completed Cohen told Pecker that his client wanted to take possession of all files relating to him.

“He insisted he wanted those boxes and that content. Michael Cohen called me constantly in September. He said that the boss said that if I got hit by a bus or the company was sold he did not want someone else to potentially publish those stories.”

Trump leaned back and listened to this painstaking, slow evidence of these long-ago conversations and documents. At one stage a tabloid scandal involving Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run for governor of California was invoked. He stifled a yawn. Then he didn’t bother with the stifling.

He sat back and stared straight ahead like a football manager resigned to watching his team taking another drubbing in a relegation winter. He folded his arms. He bided his time. There was nothing for him to do but sit still and listen, all control surrendered. Even bathroom breaks were contingent on the directions of the judge Juan Merchan.

David Pecker has the air of an old-world tailor more so than the publisher of America’s foremost publication of celebrity scandal. He’s gentle spoken, helplessly polite and somehow conveys the impression that he is determined to be absolute and truthful in his recollection while bearing no ill-will to the former president. And it’s just as well he’s the patient sort.

“I think I have a good two to three hours left,” Steinglass told the court after the first break. “There’s a lot more to come. We’re not gonna finish today.”

Or tomorrow. Just after midday, Pecker was asked about when he first heard the name of Stormy Daniels. He recalled having dinner with his wife and leaving the restaurant to take an urgent phone call from Dylan Howard. Another story was brewing. This time Pecker told Michael Cohen he wanted nothing to do with it. Once bitten, all that.

“I am not going to purchase this story,” he remembered saying.

“I am not going to be involved with a porn star. He was upset. He said that the boss would be furious with me. And that I should go forward and purchase it.”

Instead Pecker told Cohen that he should come to an arrangement with Stormy Daniels himself. Cohen, it would appear, took him up on that – there was a presidential election to be won, after all. And who would ever know about it?

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times