Supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer, along with sister publications and websites owned by American Media Inc. enthusiastically and relentlessly supported Donald Trump when he ran for president and often featured negative articles about his opponents, especially Secretary Hillary Clinton.
That itself is not illegal, but a $150,000 payment to a Playboy playmate who says she had a sexual affair with Trump in 2006 for rights to an article about her – which never appeared – may be an illegal campaign contribution.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the FBI have subpoenaed records and documents related to the payment to Karen McDougal in August 2016, less than two months before the presidential election. They are seeking to interview American Media executives, including David Pecker, the CEO who has said publically he is a close friend of Trump, reports The Wall St. Journal.
“Mr. Trump’s relationship with the National Enquirer stretches back decades. Tips about Mr. Trump poured into the tabloid after his television show ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ took off in 2002, but the Enquirer turned away stories that could paint him in a bad light, two former American Media employees said.”
“Barry Levine, the National Enquirer’s executive editor until 2016, reminded them that Mr. Pecker wouldn’t allow it,” continued the WSJ.
“In time, AMI employees wouldn’t pitch any more critical articles about Mr. Trump, one of the ex-employees said,” according to the WSJ, “which is how Mr. Trump became known within the company as a ‘FOP,’ or Friend of Pecker.”
That means at the time American Media paid McDougal for her story, they already had no intention to publish it because it could harm Trump.
During that period, Pecker was in frequent touch with Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney and “fixer” who arranged a separate $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels that fall, according to phone records that prosecutors have seen.
Cohen, who is also under intense investigation by the feds, had a close relationship with McDougal’s lawyer, Keith Davidson, with whom he would trade information and clients and is alleged to have made secret agreements favorable to Trump.
After the 2016 payment by AMI was made, Davidson – who is now cooperating with prosecutors – sent an email to Cohen “to let him know the deal was done, according to a person familiar with the matter,” writes the WSJ.
On June 6, Daniels sued Davidson, accusing him of being a “puppet” for Trump.
Paying for a story and gaining exclusive rights but never running it to protect someone is called “catch and kill” in publishing parlance.
In April, there were reports McDougal wasn’t the only one paid off to protect Trump. The New York Post reported a doorman at a Trump property was paid $30,000 for a story about Trump fathering a love child with another woman.
That story was also denied by Trump and was never published by the National Enquirer. .
In a March lawsuit against American Media, McDougal charged that she only realized after the fact that the payment she received was really hush-money to keep her from going public with her allegations during the campaign.
It is extraordinary for the Justice Department to go after a publication because it can claim protection under the First Amendment right to free speech, but it is possible to prosecute if it is found the payment was to silence someone on Trump’s behalf.
That could be considered an illegal campaign contribution and charges could be brought against American Media, Pecker, and other company executives, as well as Cohen. Thomas Frampton, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies criminal law, told the WSJ, “If the other evidence is there, I don’t think AMI’s status as a media company will preclude liability.”
American Media and its executives have denied any wrongdoing and have not been charged. They claim they were hiring McDougall to write columns and appear on magazine covers.
As former prosecutors, we believe the $150k payment to silence Karen McDougal violated campaign finance laws. pic.twitter.com/OmD12s7WLc
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) June 20, 2018
She had not done anything like that until Trump was elected, but after it became an issue, her name appeared on fitness columns and she was on a magazine cover or two.
“American Media released Ms. McDougal from her contract with the company as part of an April legal settlement,” reports the WSJ. “Her lawsuit alleged that American Media and her lawyer at the time lured her into the agreement under false pretenses.”
American Media is an aggressive company that uses its news pages and editorial websites regularly to promote Trump and causes it favors while eschewing normal journalistic efforts to be fair in its reporting.
Besides The National Enquirer, New York City-based AMI properties include The Star tabloid magazine, US Weekly, RadarOnline, OK! and The Globe, another supermarket tabloid.
Trump has rewarded AMI’s publications with exclusive stories, often apparently to hurt his opponents and political enemies, which gives added meaning to his favorite phrase – “fake news.”