President Donald Trump’s relationship with one of America’s biggest purveyors of tabloid news is now the subject of a federal investigation.
The agents who raided the offices and hotel room of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, this week are looking into whether American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer and other tabloids, helped the Trump campaign by suppressing damaging stories about the then-GOP candidate, The New York Times reported Thursday.
A federal search warrant served to Cohen, the Times said, included requests for all communications between Cohen, AMI Chairman David Pecker and Dylan Howard, AMI’s chief content officer.
The probe could present serious legal implications for the president and his team and raises questions about A.M.I.’s First Amendment rights.
“American Media Inc., has, and will continue to, comply with any and all requests that do not jeopardize or violate its protected sources or materials pursuant to our first amendment rights,” an AMI spokesperson told TheWrap in a statement on Thursday.
This isn’t the first time Trump’s cozy relationship with America’s biggest supermarket tabloid has come into question.
As TheWrap reported in March of 2017, the Enquirer has been the president’s cheerleader in-chief even before he officially announced his candidacy.
In February 2015, four months before Donald Trump rode that golden escalator, the National Enquirer was already pushing him as the candidate to beat: “NEW POLL: DONALD TRUMP’S THE ONE!” the tabloid proclaimed in all-caps.
The Enquirer’s stories may not always be true, but it has a platform many news outlet would envy: Checkout aisles across America it uses as a bully pulpit to shout bullet points at captive shoppers.
During the campaign, the Enquirer dropped several hit pieces about Trump’s rivals — touted as “exclusives.” Jeb Bush used to do cocaine; Hillary Clinton had multiple sclerosis and suffered a series of strokes; Ben Carson botched his surgeries; and Ted Cruz had five mistresses — all stories put forth in the pages of the rag.
Four days before the election, The Wall Street Journal reported that AMI paid $150,000 to a former Playboy Playmate three months before the election to quash her story of an affair a decade earlier with Trump, which the tabloid newspaper didn’t publish, a practice known in the industry as “catch and kill.” (The company said she was paid to write fitness columns).
Trump is friends with Pecker, the Enquirer‘s chief executive. And Trump has endorsed the publication during his speeches.
The tabloid’s editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard told TheWrap in a statement last year that the Enquirer is “extraordinarily proud of our investigative political reporting and the legion of new readers that have turned to us since we entered the fray as a national political voice.”
The Enquirer had an average paid circulation of about 260,000 copies weekly in the second half of last year, according to the Times. While that’s a 13 percent drop from the previous six months, the tabloid’s influence extends beyond its direct readership.
AMI also owns other outlets, including Radar Online and its most recent acquisition, US Weekly, which it bought for a reported $100 million from Wenner Media last year.
Not surprisingly, Radar has shown similar pro-Trump undertones. The site was quick to discredit the now infamous Trump dossier, arguing that Russian officials had compromising information about the president, declaring the reports a “Forgery!”
The Enquirer has undoubtedly landed some major scoops, effectively ending the political careers of John Edwards and Gary Hart. But critics argue that it snagged many of its exclusives by paying sources for tips, a practice that’s frowned upon by reputable news outlets.
That’s not the only questionable practice the Enquirer employs. According to the Times, since 2015 Trump, Cohen and Pecker have regularly strategized on best practices to take down Trump’s political enemies. (Cohen did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.)
That could explain a Thursday New Yorker story by Ronan Farrow, which reported that AMI paid $30,000 in hush money to a former doorman at Trump Tower in 2015 for exclusive rights to a story he heard about Donald Trump having fathered a child with a former employee back in the 1980s. (The New Yorker was unable to find any evidence that Trump fathered the child. The former doorman issued a statement Thursday confirming reports about a hush money deal and that he was told a housekeeper had a child with Trump).
The Times also reported Thursday that a former top executive of Trump’s casino business is now a member of A.M.I.’s board of directors, while a Trump adviser joined the media company after the election.
AMI is now facing a Federal Election Commission complaint, which claims that the payment to the former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, is illegal because it violates campaign contribution laws.
At issue: Did the arrangement between Cohen, Howard, Pecker and Trump lead AMI to act more like a political supporter than a news organization?
Common Cause, the group that filed the complaint against AMI believes the payment to Mcdougall was not done for journalistic purposes but rather to help Trump’s candidacy.
“We always worry when investigators are making those judgment calls about whether your editorial process is legitimate or not, or is this legitimate journalism or not,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Times.