First as a candidate and now as president, Donald Trump has used the media as a foil, turning journalists into “enemies” to undermine their reporting and energize his supporters. But not all media and not all journalists.
At the same time he attacked the mainstream press, Trump relied on his friends at Fox News to back his conservative policies. And, according to recent court filings, he counted on the National Enquirer and its publisher, David Pecker, to effectively kill allegations that might have cost him the presidency.
Fox News’ support of the president has long been an ever-present factor in U.S. political discussions. Somehow, the Enquirer’s role in Trump’s rise has largely flown under the radar.
But, no longer. Thanks to a series of developments this week out of the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, we now know just how closely the tabloid was aligned with Trump, and the ways in which it effectively functioned as the propaganda wing of the eventual president’s 2016 campaign.
According to an announcement on Wednesday from prosecutors, American Media Inc., the National Enquirer’s parent company, told prosecutors in September that the company struck a deal with the Trump campaign in the summer of 2015 to bury negative stories about the candidate, in an attempt to influence the 2016 election.
The confession gave AMI and its CEO, longtime Trump associate David Pecker, immunity from any prosecution in the matter.
As part of its non-prosecution agreement, the company detailed the many ways it assisted the president’s campaign, fielding damaging stories about then-candidate Trump and purchasing exclusive rights to them, before ultimately burying them to prevent them from hurting Trump’s White House bid.
AMI said it met with longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and, as the Wall Street Journal previously reported and NBC News confirmed on Thursday, Donald Trump himself in August 2015, to coordinate the arrangement.
Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison this week for lying to Mueller’s investigators about his and Trump’s knowledge of and involvement with a Moscow Trump Tower deal in 2016, as well as a variety of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations. The latter were associated with the AMI deal and hush money payments Cohen made in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
Catch and kill
One of those women was Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claimed she had a longterm sexual relationship with Trump between 2006 and 2007. AMI told prosecutors in September it had paid McDougal $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story in 2016, in an attempt to “suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.” The media company said it made the payment — an arrangement popularly known as “catch-and-kill” — “in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign.”
McDougal’s story was one of several AMI reportedly buried to protect Trump. In April, the Associated Press reported the company also had allegedly ordered reporters at the National Enquirer to quit pursuing a story about a salacious rumor regarding Trump and an employee at one of his properties in New York.
According to the report, AMI, at the height of the Republican primary campaign, paid ex-doorman Dino Sajudin $30,000 to sign over his rights, “in perpetuity,” to a rumor he’d heard about Trump allegedly having fathered a child with an employee at Trump World Tower. The contract stipulated that Sajudin would be forced to pay out $1 million if he ever spoke about the rumor publicly or the hush-money arrangement with AMI.
Cohen confirmed at the time that he’d been aware of the payment, but said he had not known about it beforehand.
AMI later said it had spiked the story because it was unable to verify Sajudin’s claims. The company released him from his contract following the 2016 election.
At the same time it was buying and burying negative stories about Trump, AMI and the National Enquirer were also pushing fake news stories and conspiracy theories about Trump’s political rivals, also to influence the election.
The outlet frequently published baseless theories about former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who the Enquirer claimed wildly, among other things, had lung cancer, had hired a hitman to “destroy [President Bill Clinton’s] sex victims,” had two separate strokes, was planning to launch “World War III,” and had “six months to live.” (Clinton, of course, is still alive and well.)
The publication was equally brazen in its claims about Trump’s Republican primary election rivals. It claimed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R) father, Rafael Cruz, was an associate of President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a conspiracy Trump parroted later in an interview with Fox News; claimed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) was involved with cocaine “kingpin[s]” in Miami; and claimed former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was “a homewrecker who tried to score votes by playing the sympathy card” about her deceased stepdaughter.
The Enquirer’s stories about Clinton notably lined up with opposition strategies suggested by conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi in an email to Trump campaign surrogate Roger Stone in August 2016, weeks before WikiLeaks dropped a trove of emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign, alleging similar health problems.
According to Mueller, who is investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 election, Corsi emailed Stone that month, advising the campaign to “start suggesting [Clinton is] old, memory bad, has stroke.” Weeks later, WikiLeaks published the hacked Clinton emails, which claimed Clinton’s health was failing. (The Corsi email in question was first revealed in a statement of offense filed by Mueller’s office in November.)
And as the campaign was ramping up their effort to disseminate these insinuations, the National Enquirer provided a much needed signal boost, splashing fact-free headlines about Clinton’s non-existent health problems across the supermarket check-out counters.
A partnership bound in tabloid ink
That Donald Trump has enjoyed a fluid alliance with the National Enquirer can be chalked up to the president’s longstanding relationship with Pecker, the chief executive of AMI. From his perch at the company, Pecker sits atop a tidy tabloid kingdom: titles include the Enquirer, the Star, the National Examiner, the United States version of OK!, and online tabloid RadarOnline. Pecker also holds sway over many familiar magazine properties, such as In Touch, Men’s Journal, Muscle & Fitness, and Us Weekly, which Pecker acquired from Wenner Media in March of 2017.
Pecker was first drawn into Trump’s orbit in the 1990s, when Pecker was introduced to the real estate mogul by mutual friend in Palm Beach, Florida. The pair had a meet-cute at Trump’s nearby Mar-A-Lago resort, at which time Pecker — then producing custom, client-driven vanity publications for Hatchette Filipacchi — pitched Trump on Trump Style, a glitzy tribute to Trump as a lifestyle brand. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin chronicled, “The result was a magazine…which today looks like a glossy preview of the coverage Pecker later gave Trump in his tabloids.”
As Toobin would go on to note, when Pecker came to control the Enquirer his relationship with Trump only deepened. “David thought Donald walked on water,” one AMI employee told Toobin. In return, “Donald treated David like a little puppy.” And once their bond had been firmly established, the typical coverage Trump received at the hands of the zingy tabloid took a dramatic turn. Per Toobin:
In the eighties and early nineties, Trump was something of a fixture in the
Enquirer, thanks to his multiple marriages. A typical headline from 1990 read “Trump’s mistress cheats on Donald with Tom Cruise.” But, once Pecker took over, critical coverage of Trump vanished. “They have an agreement where David would not write anything that damages Donald,” a senior A.M.I. official from this period told me.
One employee said that Trump was also a frequent source for Enquirer stories. “When there was something going on in New York, David would talk with Trump about it. Trump provided David with stories directly,” the employee said. “And, if Donald didn’t want a story to run, it wouldn’t run. You can put that in stone.” Indeed, early in the 2016 campaign Pecker simply turned over the pages of the Enquirer to Trump, allowing the candidate to write columns under his own byline.
It should therefore come as little surprise that these arrangements took a solid turn for the propagandistic once Trump emerged as a presidential candidate. And Pecker did little to hide the tawdry designs. As Gus Wenner told Toobin, he and Pecker sealed the deal for Us Weekly over lunch at New York City eatery Le Bernardin. There, Pecker simply gave up the game:
Wenner was curious to hear about Pecker’s relationship with the President. “I thought I would have to pull it out of him smoothly,” he said. “But he offered it up pretty readily, and I was all ears. He was painting Donald as extremely loyal to him, and he had no issue being loyal in return. He told me very bluntly that he had killed all sorts of stories for Trump. He hired a girl to be a columnist when she threatened to go public with a story about Donald.”
It’s fairly remarkable that Pecker essentially gift-wrapped these arrangements between Trump and AMI to Wenner, who theoretically had a stake in the publication of investigative journalism via Rolling Stone and yet did nothing to pursue the very story that has now so thrillingly emerged as an important link the ongoing investigation of alleged wrongdoings in Trump’s inner circle.
A secret left in plain sight
But this is of a piece with mainstream media’s overall relationship with the Enquirer, in which it’s treated as a mere oddity in the media landscape — a curio whose reputational taint seems to drive away serious scrutiny, even when it’s warranted. It can hardly be denied that many of the Enquirer’s more spurious obsessions — such as its trumped-up garbage about Hillary Clinton’s health and, perhaps even more extraordinary, its insane assertion about Ted Cruz’s father — managed to seamlessly migrate from supermarket aisles to mass media penetration.
And from there, as Politico’s Jack Shafer noted, the Enquirer’s tall tales get laundered into something approaching respectability: “The tabloids will never take the New York Times’ position when it comes to setting the national agenda, but in the Web era, you don’t need a credible platform to start shaping the news. The cable networks have learned to crossfade from straight news to something more speculative and conspiratorial, shooting the tabloids’ pre-truth serum right into the civic bloodstream.”
All in all, Trump and Pecker had a pretty good thing going — right up until the feds executed their raid on Michael Cohen. At that point, the tabloid’s relentless hero worship of Trump — and the regular decimation of his enemies — abruptly ceased, according to CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who undertook a full audit of the Enquirer’s coverage throughout 2018. As Stelter notes:
In May there was one anti-Cohen cover. And that was it: Trump hasn’t been
mentioned once on the cover of the Enquirer since May. The mag hasn’t attacked any of his enemies on the cover, either. So it has stopped being a part of Trump’s promotional media machine.
Today, Wall Street Journal reporters Joe Palazzolo, Michael Rothfeld and Lukas I. Alpert — who in early November of 2016 originally broke the story on AMI’s “catch-and-kill” arrangement that kept Karen McDougal’s alleged affair with the president under wraps — are on something of a redemption tour, telling Stelter, “Even though we were certain of our reporting about Michael Cohen and American Media paying women on behalf of Donald Trump to keep silent during the presidential campaign, despite their strong denials, it is gratifying to see both of them admit what they had done.”
If their statement comes across as strangely world-weary for an assessment of work that has, ever since its original publication, survived scrutiny, this can perhaps be attributed to the challenge of wrestling with the National Enquirer, a property whose very notoriety seems to defray concerns about its troubling role in Trump’s political ascension.
This was the secret that sat in plain sight — like all things Trump, it was obvious, infamous, and for too long, tucked squarely within the media’s blind spot.