NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors have granted immunity to the executive in charge of the National Enquirer amid an investigation into hush money payments made on behalf of Donald Trump, his longtime friend, media outlets reported on Thursday.
Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, were first to report the development involving David Pecker, CEO of the tabloid’s publisher, American Media Inc. Subpoenas were previously served at the company’s Los Angeles offices seeking information about a payment to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, who says she had a relationship with Trump shortly after his wife gave birth to his youngest child, according to a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Court papers connected to ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea on Tuesday to campaign finance violations, bank fraud and tax evasion say Pecker offered to help Trump fend off negative stories during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Pecker “offered to help deal with negative stories about (Trump’s) relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided,” the court papers say.
The Journal reported Pecker shared with prosecutors details about payments that Cohen says Trump directed in the weeks and months before the election to buy the silence of McDougal and another woman alleging an affair, porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels was paid $130,000. McDougal was paid $150,000.
While Trump denies the affairs, his account of his knowledge of the payments has shifted. In April, Trump denied he knew anything about the Daniels payment. He told Fox News in an interview aired Thursday that he knew about payments “later on.”
In July, Cohen released an audio tape in which he and Trump discussed plans to buy McDougal’s story from the Enquirer. Such a purchase was necessary, they suggested, to prevent Trump from having to permanently rely on a tight relationship with the tabloid.
“You never know where that company – you never know what he’s gonna be –” Cohen says.
“David gets hit by a truck,” Trump says.
“Correct,” Cohen replies. “So, I’m all over that.”
Vanity Fair reported that American Media’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, also was granted immunity.
AMI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s relationship with the National Enquirer has been cozy for decades. Former Enquirer employees who spoke to The Associated Press said that negative stories about Trump were dead on arrival dating back to when he starred on NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.”
In 2010, at Cohen’s urging, the National Enquirer began promoting a potential Trump presidential candidacy, referring readers to a pro-Trump website Cohen helped create. With Cohen’s involvement, the publication began questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace and American citizenship in print, an effort that Trump promoted for several years, former staffers said.
The Enquirer endorsed Trump for president in 2016, the first time it had ever officially backed a candidate. In the news pages, Trump’s coverage was so favorable that the New Yorker magazine said the Enquirer embraced him “with sycophantic fervor.”
Positive headlines for Trump were matched by negative stories about his opponents, including Hillary Clinton: An Enquirer front page from 2015 said “Hillary: 6 Months to Live” and accompanied the headline with a picture of an unsmiling Clinton with bags under her eyes.
According to two people familiar with American Media Inc., contracts and documents related to Trump hush money payments were stored in a safe housed within a senior editor’s office. The records, which included documents pertaining to McDougal’s contract and other potentially embarrassing Trump stories, were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals.
According to four people familiar with American Media, the safe’s contents were a great source of power for Pecker. By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.
But after The Wall Street Journal initially published the first details of McDougal’s catch-and-kill deal shortly before the 2016 election, those assets became a liability. Fearful that the documents might be used against AMI, Pecker and Howard removed them from the safe in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, according to one person directly familiar with the events.
The AP cannot say whether the documents were destroyed or simply moved to a location known to fewer people.
Campaign finance laws generally prohibit corporations from cooperating with a campaign to affect an election, though media organizations are exempted from that restriction so long as they’re performing a journalistic function.
The Cohen case outlined the catch-and-kill tabloid strategy of paying for exclusive rights to someone’s story with no intention of publishing to keep it out of the news.
When negotiations lagged on the Daniels deal shortly before the election, her lawyer told the Enquirer that she was close to reaching a deal with another outlet to tell her story. An editor at the tabloid, in turn, texted Cohen to say something needed to be done “or it could look awfully bad for everyone,” according to court papers.
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