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Analysis: A ‘loud gong’: National Enquirer’s surprise deal could imperil Trump

POLITICO logo POLITICO 12/13/2018 By Darren Samuelsohn
a man wearing a suit and tie walking on a sidewalk: President Donald Trump has known America Media Inc. CEO David Pecker for more than two decades. © Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images President Donald Trump has known America Media Inc. CEO David Pecker for more than two decades.

The National Enquirer’s parent company has agreed to tell prosecutors everything it knows about Donald Trump — and it might know a lot.

In a court document released Wednesday, the tabloid publisher, American Media Inc., admitted to coordinating a hush-money payment with Trump’s 2016 campaign, reversing two years of denials. The confession came as part of an immunity agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, made public shortly after Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison over charges of tax fraud, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.

But the disclosure might just be scratching the surface. Based on court documents and a plethora of media reports, Trump and his aides have worked for years with the tabloid to kill incriminating stories. AMI’s CEO David Pecker also had a decades-long copacetic friendship with Trump.

Legal experts say that could mean more legal peril for Trump, who has already been implicated in directing Cohen to work with the National Enquirer during the 2016 campaign to pay women in exchange for their silence about alleged affairs.

The immunity deal, said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Northern Virginia, “is a huge red flag and loud gong against the president.”

Under the agreement dated from late September and released Wednesday, AMI accepted immunity from federal prosecutors in exchange for documents and “numerous interviews” with the company’s executives and staff about the Trump hush-money scheme and other arrangements involving politicians running for office.

As part of the deal, the tabloid publisher acknowledged a series of “admitted facts” tied to its work with the Trump campaign to ensure damaging allegations about the real estate mogul didn’t come out before Election Day 2016. The arrangement — which involved Pecker, Cohen and one other member of Trump’s campaign — stretched back to August 2014, according to a separate court filing on Friday.

In the document released Wednesday, AMI confirmed that it paid a woman $150,000 in “cooperation, consultation and concert” with Trump’s campaign to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations about that candidate before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence the election.”

The admission marked a dramatic about-face for the company, which had previously denied making that exact same payment to Karen McDougal, the 1998 Playboy Playmate of the Year, when The Wall Street Journal first disclosed the payoff in a story published four days before the 2016 election.

“AMI has not paid people to kill damaging stories about Mr. Trump,” the company said in a statement at the time.

The nonprosecution agreement, according to several legal experts, strongly suggests there is additional corroboration of the crimes Cohen has already pleaded guilty to involving the president. It also suggests Pecker and others at AMI “may provide support for the allegation that the president willfully and knowingly joined a conspiracy to violate the campaign laws as well as possible tax crimes committed by AMI,” Rossi said.

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney from Michigan, said the immunity deal “suggests that witnesses other than Cohen are providing information to [special counsel Robert] Mueller about Trump.”

“A corporation can act only through its officers and employees, so one or more officers or employees of AMI appear to be providing information to Mueller about the payoffs at issue,” she added. “This could mean that additional subjects could be charged, including Trump, for conspiracy or solicitation of a campaign finance violation.”

An earlier court document from New York prosecutors did allude to the National Enquirer also playing a role in facilitating another hush payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who also alleged an affair with Trump. But the immunity deal unveiled Wednesday omitted any direct mention of the incident.

Still, by any measure, Pecker is primed to be a gold mine for prosecutors. The 67-year-old New York native has known Trump for more than two decades, and media accounts and statements from the two men over the years show it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.

Before Trump entered presidential politics, Vanity Fair reported that Pecker regularly flew on Trump’s plane from New York to Florida. In April 2013, Trump wrote the first of three Twitter posts urging Pecker get a promotion in the publishing world. “David Pecker would be a brilliant choice as CEO of TIME Magazine — nobody could bring it back like David!” Trump said.

A former AMI editor once told CNN that Pecker had “a favor bank” to quash negative stories about Trump.

“It’s sort of a favor bank where he can say to the president — I have an arsenal of stories that I have kept out of print, so these scandals never saw the light of day,” the editor said.

Once in the White House, Trump hosted a July 2017 dinner for Pecker and his guest, a French businessman with ties to the Saudi royal family, according to The New York Times. At the time, the newspaper reported that Pecker was trying to expand his media and events businesses in Saudi Arabia.

The National Enquirer returned the favor with frequent flattering coverage for Trump as he flirted with political runs.

In a 2011 story, published after Trump had bowed out of the race for the Republican nomination, the tabloid’s readers were met with this headline: “Millions implore Donald Trump to reconsider new presidential run.”

Trump later was given valuable real estate in the supermarket tabloid to pen several first-person columns.

And in his 2016 race, the National Enquirer endorsed Trump’s campaign and took aim at his Republican primary rivals, including a cover piece as Trump inched closer to the GOP nomination suggesting Ted Cruz’s father had a link to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In the general election, the National Enquirer turned its fire hose on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, with front-page headlines blaring in bullet points that she was on the verge of indictment for “TREASON! BRIBERY! FRAUD! ESPIONAGE! EMBEZZLEMENT!” while also suffering from various health ailments including “TWO SECRET STROKES!” and “LUNG CANCER BATTLE!”

But it might have been the National Enquirer’s role in helping keep otherwise politically embarrassing headlines about Trump out of the news that ultimately causes the president legal problems.

Former Obama acting solicitor general Neal Katyal described the AMI agreement as “quite important.”

“One by one, the career DOJ prosecutors are removing possible Trump defenses. Now it isn’t just Cohen, but also AMI, saying these hush money payments were made to influence the 2016 Presidential election, and knock out the so-called ‘Edwards defense,’” he wrote on Twitter.

Katyal’s reference is to a legal argument successfully made in 2012 by attorneys for John Edwards, the former Democratic presidential candidate who faced a criminal trial over payments to his mistress funneled through private donors. A jury deadlocked on most of the charges against Edwards, who argued the payments were designed to keep his affair from his wife for personal and reputational reasons — rather than to save his political career. The Justice Department later decided not to retry the case.

That’s in contrast to the payments Cohen and Trump made. According to court documents, the arrangement with the National Enquirer was made specifically to keep his boss’ presidential aspirations afloat.

David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from South Florida, where AMI is headquartered, said it’s long been known the company conducted so-called “catch-and-kill” journalism. But he said what got the company in hot water this time was that it was wading into campaign finance law territory.

“What this means for people in politics and the current president is that if you engage in catch and kill and allow your payment for that service to be connected directly or indirectly to you campaign, you will be punished,” he said. “It’s also provided a road map of what not to do.”

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