‘Standard Operating Procedure’: Trump Tries To Bury DA’s First Witness Under Heap Of Cynicism

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NEW YORK — It’s often said that Donald Trump gets what he wants by wearing people down: through obfuscation, delay, bluster, muddying the waters — whatever tires people out.

His attorney Emil Bove channeled that approach during cross-examination of former tabloid executive David Pecker on Thursday and Friday. Through rapid-fire questions, Bove tried to exhaust, muddy, and poke holes in Pecker’s testimony for the jury.

But most of all, Bove emphasized one thing: all of the sleaze, muck, “mutually interested” self-dealing, and assorted seaminess were simply examples of “standard operating procedure” in the seedy, backscratching, New York City milieu Pecker had detailed — the way Pecker did things with an assorted coterie of celebrity associates, none of whom have faced prosecution save for Donald Trump.

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That approach picked up on a theme that defense attorney Todd Blanche leaned heavily on during his opening statements: the alleged crimes in this case are all normal, if not somewhat sordid, features of high-level politics and business. It’s the crude facts of life for many New Yorkers, he suggests: sometimes it’s dirty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a crime.

“And, listen, use your common sense,” Blanche told a panel of jurors that includes corporate attorneys and finance professionals. “We’re New Yorkers. That’s why we’re here.”

Pecker’s testimony began on Monday and lasted all week, with Bove cross-examining him for several hours on Thursday and Friday. After his testimony concluded, prosecutors called Rhona Graff, a longtime Trump executive assistant and former Trump Org executive vice president, to the stand.

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Graff testified that Trump had contact information for two women who said they had affairs with him, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels (listed simply as “Stormy”) in a contact book exhibit shown to jurors, firming up the link between the former president and the women his fixer, Michael Cohen, had worked to silence.

It built off the broad impression which Pecker conveyed in direct questioning before prosecutor Joshua Steinglass. Pecker painted a picture of a broad conspiracy whose details were exceptional even for the seamy world of National Enquirer, the magazine he published, and “checkbook journalism,” his editors’ practice of paying sources for salacious stories. For Trump, Pecker testified, his company chose not to publish stories that he thought were quite good — a better scoop than the “death of Elvis Presley” — for the publication, gave McDougal work she was ill-suited for, and put itself at legal risk to benefit Trump in a scheme that began in August 2015 and extended through his inauguration.

Bove used the phrase “standard operating procedure” several times during the hours of cross-examination, bringing it up over and over again as he introduced new, previously unknown stories which Pecker had supposedly killed via hush-money agreements reminiscent of the ones he arranged with Cohen. These included lurid affair allegations against Tiger Woods and Rahm Emanuel, as well as a story about an “argument” Mark Wahlberg purportedly had with his wife.

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Pecker also, under questioning from Bove, explained his work with former California governor and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Pecker, via his publishing company AMI, performed a similar function with Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial run as it did with Trump’s bid for the White House: buying and sitting on stories about the star’s interactions with women.

The upshot of all this was to muddy the waters through a cascade of titillating anecdotes. Why was what Trump did so bad if, as Bove asked Pecker, AMI had signed “hundreds of thousands” of non-disclosure agreements with people offering stories?

The other component of the alleged conspiracy that Trump formed with AMI focused on the company’s properties publishing positive stories about him and negative stories about his opponents.

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Bove took a similar tack on this prong of the alleged conspiracy: he tried to create the impression that this was “standard operating procedure” for the National Enquirer, just another way of wheeling and dealing for publishers in a grubby business.

“It was standard operating procedure for the National Enquirer to recycle content from other publications and reframe it, correct?” Bove asked Pecker.

The question went to a broader point: the National Enquirer was in the business of aggregating others’ content and repackaging it to interest readers. It was an especially standard feature of the news business at the time of the scandal, in 2016, and formed part of Bove’s argument that there were many reasons why the National Enquirer may have published articles that helped Trump such as, for example, one suggesting that Ben Carson left a “sponge” in a patient’s brain.

“Was it good for business?” Bove asked Pecker.

“Yes, it was,” he agreed.

The point here was partly to create doubt in jurors’ minds that the prosecutors were completely leveling with their audience. From Bove’s questioning, it could seem that there was no conspiracy at all: that Pecker was simply running elements of his business in a way which happened to coincide with Trump’s interests.

Nowhere did this appear more clearly — or appear to spook prosecutors more — than in Bove’s discussion of the hush money contract arranged for Karen McDougal. In addition to a monetary payment, McDougal agreed to receive other benefits from AMI in exchange for her silence: appearances on two magazine covers, and a role writing fitness columns for AMI properties.

Prosecutors dismissed this as a sham contract, saying that its only true purpose was to ensure that McDougal remained silent. But Bove worked to have Pecker testify to something different: that McDougal never really wanted to tell her story, and that she was simply playing hardball. She wanted to use AMI to advance her career, and using the Trump allegation as a means to have AMI publish her work and feature her likeness was a means to a very straightforward end.

At one point, Bove asked Pecker whether he told Trump that McDougal wanted her story published. Pecker replied that he had told Trump that she did not.

It emphasizes the defense’s point: these are all separate, self-interested actors. They’re all confined in their own self-interest. McDougal is trying to advance her career, Pecker is trying to keep his magazines afloat through titillating content. Trump is running for president, and needs to stay above it all. It’s all separate, and there’s no big conspiracy — just a lot of sleaze. “Standard operating procedure.” Business as usual.

That approach muddies the waters for the jury. But also, it overwhelms them.

With scandals around Trump stretching on for years, the effect of this line of questioning is to sully everyone else who might stand as a relative point of comparison. McDougal, Pecker — they’re all as self-interested as Trump.

Prosecutors managed during redirect to have Pecker reaffirm that the McDougal contract’s sole purpose was to keep her silent — not to advance her career in a meaningful way.

Bove tried to salvage it on Friday by asking Pecker if McDougal was a “legitimate celebrity at the time,” apparently hoping that he would validate the idea that she had a career to advance.

But Pecker began to stutter. “Would she meet the celebrity category at that time?” he asked, repeating the question back to himself.

“No,” he concluded.



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