The CEO of the parent company that owns checkout line tabloid the National Enquirer was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony on several hush-money payments between former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and women who claim to have had affairs with the president, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
David Pecker, chief of American Media Inc. (AMI) and a longtime friend of President Trump, reportedly told prosecutors that Trump was aware of the hush money payments before they took place, and said he had “offered to help keep quiet negative stories about Mr. Trump that might come to [his company’s tabloid], the National Enquirer,” according to an earlier Journal report on Wednesday. On Thursday, the outlet revealed Pecker had been incentivized to speak out after being offered full immunity from any criminal charges related to the case.
Cohen, Trump’s personal “fixer,” pleaded guilty this week to six counts of bank and tax fraud, and two counts of campaign violations related to his payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and was given $130,000 not to speak about it in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Cohen told the judge Trump had instructed him to handle the payments himself, effectively making the president an unindicted co-conspirator in the matter.
Cohen and Trump also discussed a similar payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also claims to have had an affair with Trump in 2006. In August 2016, months before the election, AMI purchased exclusive rights to McDougal’s story — reportedly on behalf of Trump — and subsequently buried it, employing an industry practice known as catch-and-kill.
In a leaked audio recording obtained by CNN in late July, Trump and Cohen can be overheard discussing a purchase arrangement with AMI to pay for the story themselves. (Ultimately, the arrangement fell through.)
“Mr. Pecker’s assistance appeared to have informed the charging documents made public on Tuesday as part of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea,” the Journal wrote.
Trump has repeatedly claimed he did not know about the payments ahead of time and says he only learned about them long after they had been made. During an interview with Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt this week, he doubled down, claiming the campaign finance violations to which Cohen had pleaded guilty were not illegal.
“They weren’t taken out of campaign finance, that’s the big thing,” he said. “They didn’t come out of the campaign; they came from me.”
He added, “In fact, my first question when I heard about [the payments] was did they come out of the campaign because that could be a little dicey. And they didn’t come out of the campaign and that’s big. But they weren’t–that’s not a–it’s not even a campaign violation.”
Trump’s account of the payments has shifted significantly over time. In April this year, FBI agents raided Cohen’s office and residences in search of documents and business records related to the two transactions. One day earlier, Trump had suggested he knew nothing about the payments, directing reporters to Cohen himself.
“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Trump said. “Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.”
When asked if he knew how Cohen had obtained the $130,000 to pay off Daniels, he responded, “No, I don’t know. No.”
Pecker’s decision to pay for McDougal’s story on behalf of Trump came at a financially tenuous time for AMI. Earlier this year, it was revealed the company was suffering from falling revenue, ballooning debt, and low sales, according to nonpublic financial documents unearthed by the Wall Street Journal.
“Aggressive cost-cutting has kept AMI hovering around profitability on an operating basis, but the company has routinely booked quarterly and annual losses in the tens of millions of dollars due to amortization costs related to its debt […],” the outlet reported.
Despite this, Pecker and AMI executive Dylan Howard — who currently serves as the chief content officer at the Enquirer — decided to move forward with their alleged promises to Trump, fielding stories that could damage his reputation ahead of the election, and subsequently burying them.
Cohen’s guilty plea and news of Pecker and Howard’s immunity deal have left Trump in a vulnerable position, with Democrats poised to attack. However, the president has waved off talk of impeachment, telling Earhardt Thursday that the country would suffer if he were removed from office.
“I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who has done a great job,” Trump said. “I will tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor because without this thinking, you would see — you would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe in.”