William M. Kirtley and Patricia M. Kirtley
It is easy to trivialize a supermarket tabloid that titillates, provokes, and focuses on human foibles, but the National Enquirer influenced the 2016 election and continues to unravel the present administration. This paper details its development into a celebrity gossip newspaper, analyzes the magazine’s readers, treatment of Donald Trump, and the anatomy of campaign finance felonies committed by its editor David Pecker, along with Trump, and his personal attorney David Cohen.
National Enquirer, Tabloid, Celebrity, AMI, Donald J. Trump, David Pecker, Michael Cohen, Karen McDougal, Nondisclosure Agreement, Propaganda, Campaign Finance felony, Presidential affairs
The National Enquirer depends on impulse buying by supermarket shoppers. It attracts attention by promising shocking and tragic news about celebrities. Its writers use the common language of everyday people employing words like “hubbies” and the “down-low.” Lawyers review each story for possible libel. Those who sue the magazine declare it as the epitome of the worst in popular culture. The style and tone of this celebrity gossip publication appeal to the sordid vices of envy and schadenfreude.
The first section of this paper deals with the history of the National Enquirer. The second section analyzes stories about Trump before and after his election as president of the United States. The third section details the consequences of the friendship between Trump and David Pecker, CEO and Chairman of American Media Incorporated (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer. The last section of the paper provides a timeline of events starting with a meeting in 2015 among Trump, Cohen, and Pecker. It ends in 2019 with Cohen testifying before Congress and awaiting prison. This paper demonstrates how the National Enquirer contributed to the election of Donald J. Trump as president, and how his collusion with Cohen and Pecker led to his implication in the commission of several felonies.
John Storey in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, a key text in this subject, offers several definitions of popular culture. The most pertinent is media scholar, John Fisk’s argument that “popular culture is what people actively make of it, actually do with the commodified practices they consume” (11). The National Enquirer is a commodity that targets readers with a specific notion of the world populated by film, television, and political celebrities, exploring their fame, wealth, and weaknesses. The circulation of this magazine has declined over the last few years from 1.6 million to 260,000. AMI reportedly lost 72 million dollars last year. In January, the company raised $460 million to refinance its crushing debt. Parties to lawsuits against the magazine claim the decline in readership forces its writers to court libel in an effort to keep the magazine solvent and rumors of a Saudi Arabia bailout abound (Sherman para. 2)
Fiske, in his chapter on “The Jeaning of America” in Understanding Popular Culture, argued that there is a constant guerilla war between the subordinate and dominant culture in popular culture (15). This notion highlights the contradictions inherent in the National Enquirer. The magazine supports a capitalistic system that gives much to a few people based on their charm, beauty, and notoriety. At the same time, its writers shred the reputations of celebrities in the most vicious way possible. The Enquirer supported Donald J. Trump in every way they could. They treated Hillary Clinton in a scurrilous manner, describing nonexistent diseases and her imminent death. This paper proves that collusion among Trump, Cohen, and Pecker orchestrated this attack.
Storey noted that popular culture is based on the profoundly political concept of ideas about the constitution of the people (11). President Thomas Jefferson (1789) emphasized the value of an informed electorate in a letter to Ricard Post (1). He wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Leaders in a democracy break down the walls separating the people from their government and build bulwarks of trust. Jürgen Habermas (1991), the German philosopher, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, wrote how democratic societies protect the public. He described this phenomenon as “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” (176). Dialogue, debate, and discussion in the public sphere legitimize the authority. According to Habermas, the major danger was manipulative publicity (178). This type of propaganda “manages views, fosters political theater and conveys authorized opinions to assert the dominance or entitlement of those in authority” (Soules para. 12).
Jack Shafter, senior media writer for POLITICO, in his article “Pravda on the Checkout Line” referred to magazines like the Enquirer, “All the hallmarks of classic propaganda appear in the newly politicized tabloids” (para. 17). French Sociologist Jacques Ellul argued that people are easy prey to the lies and half-truths of propaganda. He contended that individuals subjected to propaganda over time exhibited an increasingly limited and rigid personality, hardened prejudices, increased anxiety, and a propensity to violence. Ellul further argued that once people fall victim to propaganda, it is difficult to revive their facility for critical thinking because the individual has a new set of prejudices and beliefs, a sense of membership in a community, and confidence in a charismatic leader (166).
Anthropologists Debra Spitulnik and Thomas Tufte called for “more ethnographic investigation of the relations across media, nation and publics” (para. 1). The analysis of one of these tools, the celebrity/sensational tabloid, the National Enquirer, starts with an investigation of how this publication resonates with the everyday life of real people who buy the paper on impulse and discuss its stories in bars, beauty shops, and break rooms. President Trump relies on social media, Fox News, the Sinclair TV station chain, and the National Enquirer to orchestrate a symphony of propaganda. The more we know about the tools he uses, the better we can understand their lasting effect on the politics of the Trump era. The story of the Enquirer began with an associate of yellow journalist, William Randolph Hearst.
History of the National Enquirer
William Griffin founded the New York Enquirer in 1926. It cost 10 cents a copy and featured stories about horse races. Generoso (Gene) Pope Jr., a graduate of MIT, bought the paper in 1953, for $75,000, reputedly with mob money (Calder 55). He renamed the newspaper as The National Enquirer and extended its circulation to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and then nationally. He changed the format of the paper from an eight-column broadside to a tabloid, less than half the size. This innovation saved money on printing costs. Readers found the new format more convenient to read while traveling to work on the subway or bus. Pope had an uncanny ability to “recognize what stories would sell and what kind of stories the average person wanted to read about” (Connolly para. 2). He focused on sex, gore, and crime stories. By the 1960s, his newspaper became a dominant tabloid, with a loyal fan base, strong financial cushion, and lucrative national distribution contracts.
Pope instituted practices still in use at the Enquirer. He authorized reporters to pay up to $2,500 for tips without prior authorization. He paid $18,000 for a picture of Elvis in a white suit lying in a copper coffin snapped by a distant teenage cousin (Newsweek para. 14). He negotiated with celebrities to bury salacious stories in exchange for an interview, gossip about another famous person, or other favors. He paid his writers well and rewarded them with lavish bonuses for sensational scoops. Pope pressured reporters to produce. He established a grading system to assure the quality and quantity of their work. If writers did not measure up, he fired them.
Pope anticipated sociological changes in the 1950s and 60s. People moved to the suburbs. They no longer bought their paper at a newsstand or small grocery store. Pope conceived the idea of selling the Enquirer at supermarkets. He had to tone down the carnage on the cover to sell his tabloid in a marketplace where women shoppers predominated. In a 1972 interview, Pope observed, “We had saturated the gore market, and since this is a business, I knew we had to change” (Morton 33). He diversified the content. The tabloid featured stories about celebrities, especially new TV personalities. Yet the Enquirer remained true to its heritage. The tabloid’s writers continued to write stories that provoked and aroused a negative emotional response.
Supermarkets proved a tough market to enter until Pope hired blond movie star, Jane Mansfield, to promote the paper at a convention of supermarket executives. He offered them 25% off the cover price of every Enquirer sold and promised to buy back unsold copies (Calder 56). It was a retailer’s dream. They had only two points of contact, when a clerk rang up the sale of the tabloid at the cover price and when they remitted the agreed upon fee for the Enquirers they sold.
Pope moved the publication to Florida in 1955 after his mob connections warned he could get hurt if he stayed in New York (Connolly para. 2). More likely, the cost savings effect of nonunion labor and favorable backhaul freight rates to distribute his tabloid nationally also figured in his decision. In the 90s, the supermarket tabloid business went through a period of rapid consolidation. Pope’s heirs sold the Enquirer and other affiliated newspapers for $412 million on Pope’s death in 1968. The publication suffered an anthrax attack in 2001, filed for bankruptcy in 2010 with $1 billion in debt, and moved back to New York in 2015.
The AMI Era
David J. Pecker, born in 1952, was the son of a bricklayer from the Bronx. He graduated from Pace University in business administration and passed the CPA exam. After a succession of accounting jobs in the media business, he, along with investors from the Evercore Corporation, purchased the publishing conglomerate American Media Incorporated (AMI) in 1999 for $850 million. He became chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the company. He oversees a collection of more than a dozen magazines and newspapers including the National Enquirer, Star, US Weekly, Globe, OK!, and several men’s fitness magazines.
In a June 20, 2018 article in the New Daily, Larry Hackett, former editor of People, reported AMI’s acquisition of 13 gossip and celebrity magazines owned by a German firm, Bauer Media. AMI now owns every tabloid on the rack in the supermarket, except for People. Hackett worried that a company that controls so many different magazines with an estimated readership of 38 million people has unprecedented power to influence the electorate. He warned that it was time to take the tabloid/celebrity magazine industry seriously (Hackett para. 14).
Analysis of the Enquirer
Pecker portrays the image of a bon vivant, but at heart, he is a clever bookkeeper trying to stave off further losses in an overcrowded and declining magazine sector. The Enquirer sold an average of 4.5 million copies a week in the 1980s. Five people read each issue sold, meaning almost 25 million people read it every week, more than 10% of the US population (Connolly para. 2). Today, one can read celebrity gossip at TMZ.com on the Internet or watch it on television. The Enquirer is overpriced in a competitive marketplace. At the beginning of 2018, the scandal sheet had a weekly circulation of 260,000 copies, a 13% drop from the previous 6-month average, according to the publisher data provided to the Alliance for Audited Media (Rutenberg Investigator para. 12).
The future was obvious in turning around troubled media companies: restructure through bankruptcy, slash staff, and force each member of those remaining do the work of three or four people. Amy Wicks, a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily quoted Pecker as saying. “We encourage accountability and aggressive reporting, and if you make a mistake, that’s OK.” Colleagues added, “If you succeed you get credit, if you fail, it can get ugly” (Wicks para. 7).
The lurid headlines of the National Enquirer attracted the attention of shoppers in one Florida supermarket, Publix. It found the covers so offensive, and they ordered them covered (Sorentrue 1). A tabloid headline focuses on who did what, forsaking the why for development in the story itself. Every cover features a picture, a headline telling the story as unambiguously as possible, and a sub-headline called the money line. The May 7, 2018, edition of the Enquirer featured the stern visage of President Trump. The main headline read “Trump Fixer’s Secrets and Lies” (1). The money line developed a favorite theme of the tabloid, “Payoffs & Threats Exposed.” An analysis of the story showed that there were seven individual stories, each with its own sub-headline. Each story had a different slant, on Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer. Of the seven stories, six were less than 100 words long (16).
Pecker devised a proprietary database of the covers of all celebrity magazines, including those of his competitors, called “cover explorer” (Toobin 36). Trump, the Royals, and Heidi Klum lead the list in the Spring of 1918. Trump or his enemies appeared in 39% (N = 71) of the covers from March 6, 2017, to July 12, 2018. Like most newspapers, there are actually three headlines on the front page: a banner or skybox, the main story, and a footer. Headlines on Trump or his opponents appeared in the Skybox 20% of the time, the center 52% of the time, and the footer 27% of the time (N = 44). Twenty-eight percent of the time there is no mention of Trump in any of the three headlines (N = 25), but there is a story related to Trump somewhere in the body of the tabloid. The issue date June 4, 2018, contained a story on facts about the presidents. It related Trump has a $29 million yacht on which he has not spent a night. The billionaire explained, “It makes me nervous to relax” (30).
Each issue contains ads, a tremendous amount of gossip about A and B list celebrities, news, games (cross words and puzzles), health watch, market place, (psychics and New ID) oddities, horoscope, a giveaway, and pet vet. The Enquirer is a direct-response retailer’s fondest desire. The most common and largest ads are for weight loss products, including a weight loss recliner. There are an equal number of ads for collector dolls. Impulse buyers can even purchase one with a birth certificate. Other popular products for sale include commemorative coins and memorabilia, including a cat dressed in a Marine Corps uniform or a Queen Elizabeth statue. This celebrity gossip magazine touts products designed for seniors especially life-alert bracelets, easy to read computers, and simple phones. Other ads tempt readers to purchase antique model cars, nonsnoring bracelets, and male enhancement products.
Give Them What They Want
The Enquirer executives pride themselves on knowing their audience. One editor argued, “The big news organizations tell people what they think they should be interested in, whereas we try to give them stories that they are interested in” (Newsweek para. 11). Pecker described the weekly’s target audience as, “People that live their life failing, so they want to read negative things about people who have gone up and then come down” (Borchers Why para. 2). The writers for the tabloid stoke the anxieties and feelings of inadequacy of their readers with gossip, guilt, and victimization. Paula E. Morton (2009) in Tabloid Valley, stated the Enquirer, “Frequently, in the process of exposing personal hypocrisy or impropriety, it inflames a public outrage that the mainstream media pursue in depth” (156).
Tom Kludt, a CNN reporter, in his article, “Most Americans think National Enquirer is covering for Trump” noted the National Enquirer’s readership is female, older, and conservative (1). Global Direct Response, a subsidiary of AMI, sells advertising for the publication. Their website stated that the average age of readers is 52.3. The ratio of women to men is 62/38. The average household income of the inquiring minds who purchase the weekly is $76,319, well above the average (Global 1). If they bought the Enquirer on impulse, they can afford to purchase a direct mail order item advertised in the tabloid.
Jack Shafer, POLITICO’s senior media writer, in his January/February 2017 article, “Pravda on the Checkout Line,” offered two contrasting views of Enquirer readers. He sees them as representatives of the emerging post-truth era, reliant on their own beliefs and indifferent to the facts accepted by the mainstream. He also views them as a pre-truth group, drawn by arguments based on emotional appeal able to spread its message by word-of-mouth and other organizations to main stream newspapers. Walmart accounts for 23% of the sales of the Enquirer and Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, for 10% (Toobin 45). The Enquirer appeals to buyers with stories of celebrity extramarital affairs, surgeries, sudden weight losses and gains, and, increasingly, Donald Trump.
The Enquirer and its fellow AMI tabloids emit a constant cultural background noise to American life. There are 37,000 supermarkets in America, with an average of 10 checkout stands. Each one has a wire rack displaying the Enquirer and other AMI magazines. According to an industry study, American households make an average of 1.5 trips to the supermarket each week. Every customer passes by the checkout stand, which means even people who never purchase a tabloid absorb the ambient headlines, and those headlines can shape their view of the world.
Enquirer writers are well paid and consider themselves some of the best in the business. Their writing is easily understood with the patois of the streets. Some say the best way to read it is to leave your logic at the door. Note the headlines and read the stories twice; first to observe the emotional impact on the target audience and second how well the story is written. A typical headline reads “FBI Coup to Take Down Trump,” a “Double-dealing” FBI agent secretly orchestrated a sinister plot causing “incalculable havoc.” The story itself describes Hillary Clinton as “rubbing her hands with glee” (January 6, 2018). For the writers of the Enquirer, “Romps” are always wild. “Perps” are usually busted (June 18, 2018, 15).
Trump and Pecker: The Perfect Friendship
The story of this friendship began with a prominent real estate developer in New York in the 80s and 90s who developed a fondness for celebrity gossip. He basked in the publicity, even if the headline announced, “Trump’s Mistress Cheats on Donald with Tom Cruise” (Gillette para. 9). When Pecker became CEO of AMI in 1999, the negative Trump stories ceased. The publication gave glowing coverage of Trump before and during this campaign. It ceased shortly before the FBI subpoenaed Pecker in 2018.
Trump authored several stories in the newspaper revealing, “the most intimate details in my amazing life, I am the only one who can make America great again!, and, on a personal note, my wife, Melania would make a terrific first lady!” (Suebsaeng para. 14). In another article, that appeared in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal, the Republican candidate for president appealed to the cult of the hero, telling the story of how he punched his music teacher in the eye “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music. I’m not proud of that, but it’s clear evidence that even early on I tended to make my opinions known in a forceful way” (Trump 1). One campaign staffer described the tabloid as a “campaign mailer” (Hensley 1).
The 2016 Presidential candidate received only a few newspaper endorsements, one of them from the Enquirer. Pecker explained, “Nobody influences the editorial decision-making process at the National Enquirer other than myself and our editors” (Toobin 47). An article using the Enquirer’s term for the candidate trumpeted, “TRUMP MUST BE PREZ!” The Enquirer promised “He will chase down illegal immigrants” and “stand up to foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin” (Enquirer, March 14, 2016).
The current POTUS has a short attention span, expressing himself in provocative blocks of speech. Both the Enquirer and the president ignore facts and indulge in outrageous self-promotion. Amy Peck, senior reporter for Huffington Post, stated that Trump’s campaign committee, White House staff, and the National Enquirer writers are remarkably similar in approach. They spent the time before and after his election “sharing blatantly false articles with reckless abandon, knowing their audience had a high tolerance for half-truths and whole lies” (Peck 1).
Trump loved the weekly publication with national reach. The Enquirer printed positive stories like, “Natural-born leader Donald Trump is a highly focused, driven and charismatic genius who thinks outside the box and is almost too smart for his own good” (Taylor Magzter 1). The editors of the Enquirer felt free to name-call and exploit resentments if it furthered Trump’s agenda. Trump wondered, “Why didn’t the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards?” (Borcher Trump para. 4). He claimed that the publication was “very respected” and suggested Pecker would make a “brilliant Choice” for Time magazine CEO (Eglash 1).
The Enquirer staff wrote a self-congratulatory piece after the election declaring, “Only one magazine told the world all along how Americans REALLY were feeling about the 2016 election! As the world of professional pollsters spend today in humiliation, we look back at the figures that showed Trump was winning over America” (November 9, 2016). An online readership poll conducted on May 31, 2016, showed that 58% favored Trump and 42% favored Clinton. The tabloid crowed, “Although the Enquirer polls did not follow the strict rules of statistical samples, one thing is certain: We had our finger on the pulse of the nation all along, and always will!” (November 9, 2016).
“David thought Donald walked on water,” a former Enquirer employee told The New Yorker (Levine 1). “Donald treated David like a little puppy. Donald liked being flattered, and David thought Donald was the king. Both have similar management styles and attitudes, starting with absolute superiority over anybody else” (Levine 1). “We used to go after newsmakers no matter what side they were on,” a former Enquirer staffer told Jeffrey Toobin, a reporter for The New Yorker, “He (Trump) is the ultimate target-rich environment. The Enquirer had a golden opportunity, and they completely looked the other way” (Levine 1).
Pecker has no strong political views and a fascination with celebrity (Toobin 45). Asawin Suebsaeng of The Daily Beast quoted him as saying, “Few presidential aspirants in recent history have generated the kind of discussion Donald Trump has” (para. 17). Pecker also claimed, “It’s no surprise that the readership of the Enquirer recently told us that they wanted to read more about Trump than any other 2016 candidate” (Suebsaeng para. 17). Trump often acted as a source for the publication. “When there was something going on in New York, David would talk with Trump about it (Toobin 46). An American Media (AMI) employee told Toobin, “if Donald didn’t want a story to run, it wouldn’t run. You can put that in stone” (46).
Pecker wields great power through his multiple magazine properties. Stu Zakim, a public relations executive who worked at AMI for 3 years noted, “Donald being the media manipulator that he is—it’s a perfect friendship” (CNN 1). The media mogul is emphatic about Trump, “The guy is a personal friend of mine” (Borchers Trump’s Love para. 14). Toobin noted that the friendship has lasted for decades and the publisher boasts about helping his friends (40). According to Pecker, a cover depicting Donald Trump as a hero, lambasting his opponents, boosted sales by 23%. “The readers of the Enquirer voted for Trump,” Pecker told the New Yorker. “And 96 percent want him reelected today.” (Borchers Why para. 6).
The Enquirer Attacks Trump’s Enemies
No challenger to Trump was safe during the primary. The Enquirer published a story in March 2016 about “boozin” Ted Cruz’s five mistresses and his father’s involvement in John F. Kennedy’s assassination (para. 1). When asked about it, Trump said he did not know if it was true, but he did read it in the Enquirer, which had a good reputation. The paper also ran a story about “bungling” Ben Carson claiming he left a sponge in a patient’s brain. The scandal sheet also ran a story on December 31, 2015, titled “Senator Marco Rubio’s cocaine connection” (para. 1). The celebrity newspaper reported Jeb Bush was a “dope smoker” and had an affair with a Playboy bunny (Suebsaeng para. 6).
Far-right publications, talk show hosts, and Trump operatives picked up stories from the Enquirer. The cover of the July 4, 2016, edition noted that “crooked Hillary,” “sounds like Obama in a skirt” (1). The 15 August 2026 issue, “Donald Trump’s Revenge on Hillary and her Puppets,” related rumors of mob connections and a gay double life in (1). A story detailing “Hillary’s Full Medical File,” appeared in the September 8, 2016, issue, an effort to make Clinton’s health a campaign issue (1). The cover picture showed her apparently on the verge of death. The Headline alleged she suffered from muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s, brain damage, seizures, and strokes. The issue that appeared in supermarkets across the country the day before the election informed shoppers, “Hillary Blackmailed FBI to Kill Corruption Probe” (1).
Former president Barack Obama and his family were subjects of disparaging stories. One alleged that the Obamas were divorcing. The headline on December 14, 2016, screamed “Malia Obama—Out of Control” and reported that Obama’s daughter was missing because she was undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction (1). The National Enquirer ran a cover story on February 8, 2017, “Obama’s Secret Plot to Impeach Donald Trump,” claiming Obama was secretly trying to get Trump impeached (1).
The Enquirer signals who is out of favor with the president. After, the news broke that the FBI raided the home of Paul Manafort, the National Enquirer reported that the president’s former campaign chairman cheated on his wife (Siegel 1). Once Cohen turned on the President, readers of the May 7, 2018, edition of the Enquirer learned of “TRUMP FIXER’S SECRETS & LIES!” (1, 16). National Memo writer Oliver Willis announced, “Afraid he will squeal to Feds, Trumps Tabloid Pals’ Attack Cohen” (1). Trump stories in the Enquirer ceased after a Federal Court subpoenaed Pecker’s records, but their sister publication, the Globe, lambasted radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh for insinuating the President gave into Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) over the wall with Mexico.
Catch and Kill
The Enquirer practiced a type of transactional journalism known as “catch and kill” for decades. They paid for stories, but did not print them, thus gaining leverage over the celebrities involved. Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker received threats of blackmail from representatives of The Enquirer while researching his story, “A Playboy Model and a System for Concealing Identity,” according to The Washington Post reporters Allyson Chiu and Kayla Epstein (para. 1). Farrow said, “Pecker knows where the bodies are buried and has the power to run stories or not to run them” (para. 7). Pecker suppressed negative coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger. White House officials reputedly pressured television hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to apologize to the president for their comments. In return, the Enquirer would not publish a story about their relationship. The same month the scandal sheet dropped a negative story about Tiger Woods after he agreed to a cover story in Men’s Fitness.
Jonathon Chait of The National Interest observed, “Trump habitually pays for sex, and we also know he is willing to pay to keep embarrassing secrets from going public” (para. 2). Pecker helped his friend by keeping damaging information from the public. A former senior editor at the Enquirer, said “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval” (Farrow para. 7). Pecker kept files containing negative stories on Donald in a safe. Sources close to the editor say that he removed them to a more secure place or destroyed them around the time of Trump’s inauguration. These contained information and sources relating to Trump’s marital problems, affairs, and lawsuits, plus multiple tips that he cheated while playing golf. Pecker probably did not destroy this treasure trove of malicious gossip figuring that it might provide written insurance in times of adversity (Rutenberg and Haberman 1).
Rachel Maddow, MSNBC anchor, described the National Enquirer as “weird, outrageous, and fantastically false” (Emery para. 11). The magazine counter-attacked with a flurry of vicious articles. One questioned why Maddow did not attend gay parties and another reported a feud between Maddow and Megan Kelly over Tom Brokaw. Enquireman in “Rachel Maddow’s Brain-Dead Enquirer Attack” chided Maddow for getting the price of his tabloid wrong and sent her a free subscription (para. 5). Rob Shutter, in his “Number One in America Gossip Column,” reported a make-up artist working on Maddow for a cover of a Rolling Stone magazine described the news host as a vain diva who did not like her face touched (para. 4). Such petty second-hand gossip is largely irrelevant; however, a seemingly insignificant event soon threatened to involve the president of the United States in the commission of a felony.
Anatomy of a Crime
According to Farrow’s article in the New Yorker, Karen McDougal met Trump at a party at the Playboy Mansion. He asked for her telephone number and they soon began chatting on the phone. Their first date was dinner in a private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Trump’s polite manner, intelligence, and charm impressed her. “We talked for a couple hours—then, it was ‘ON’! We got naked + had sex” (para. 8). As she was getting dressed to leave, Trump offered her money. “I looked at him (+ felt sad) + said, No thanks—I’m not ‘that kind of girl. I slept with you because I like you—NOT for money’—He told me ‘you are special’” (para. 8). McDougal and Trump continued their relationship during the American Celebrity Golf Tournament in July 2006 at Lake Tahoe. Allegedly, “the Donald” had sex with adult entertainer Stormy Daniels at the same event. Both relationships continued through 2007.
McDougal claimed she had intercourse with Trump dozens of times from June 2006 to April 2007. Trump flew McDougal to public events, but hid the fact he paid for her travel so as not to leave a paper trail. He introduced her to members of his family and took her to his private residences. While visiting Trump Tower in New York, Trump pointed out Melania’s separate bedroom. He said Melania “liked her space to read or be alone” (Farrow para. 12). McDougal ended the relationship in April 2007 because of her paramour’s derogatory statements about her mother, racist remarks about a black friend, and feelings of guilt about dating a married man. Eight years passed. The public would have forgotten the story of these two affairs, except for the fact that Donald J. Trump was considering a run for the Presidency of the United States.
Michael Cohen’s testimony and documents seized from the offices of David Pecker, substantiate a meeting took place at Trump Tower in August 2015 at which the three laid out Trump’s strategy for his campaign for the Presidency. Trump asked for and received Pecker’s unqualified support. Pecker promised to endorse Trump for president, run favorable stores on his political adversaries, and pay for negative stories about Trump, but not publish them. Pecker further agreed that he would allow Cohen preview stories for content and ensure the magazine used the most favorable photographs of Trump. The three discussed the possibility that Trump might buy the decades of negative information about Trump in Pecker’s safe, including many stories about how Trump cheated at golf, but came to no conclusion.
A friend of McDougal tweeted about the Playboy Bunny’s affair on May 7, 2016. McDougal’s friends told her this was the perfect time to take control of her story, earn some well-deserved compensation, and advance her career. The next month, she hired Keith Davidson, a Hollywood celebrity lawyer, who represented both adult-entertainment star Stormy Daniels who also claimed she had an affair with Trump and Shera Bechard, a playboy bunny, who had an affair with the Republican finance chair. In all three cases, Davidson coordinated with Michael Cohen and collected 45% of the payment to the women as his commission. Davidson later felt compelled to appear on television in an effort to repair his tarnished reputation.
The Enquirer sent a representative to Los Angeles to negotiate with McDougal, but Pecker would not agree to it. After Donald Trump received the Republican Party nomination in July, Pecker saw the wisdom of an NDA with McDougal. He offered her $150,000, a cover on a men’s fitness magazine, and the opportunity to write fitness articles. AMI paid for exclusive rights to her story. The contract required her to keep quiet about any relationship with a married man. The CEO of AMI boasted that now she was a part of the company, “She can’t be bashing Trump and American Media” (Tobin para. 20). Afterward, Cohen reported that Pecker repeatedly asked for compensation from Trump, until the president notoriously tight-fisted with his money paid him through Cohen. As far as Stormy Daniels, Pecker refused to pay money to a porn star. Cohen, under the direction of the President Trump, paid $130,000 for an NDA with Daniels in October.
The Wall Street Journal published a story about Karen McDougal on November 4, 2016, 4 days before the Presidential election. However, without corroboration, the story soon died out. Had the NDAs not worked, coupled with the October Access Hollywood tape, they might have made a difference in the campaign, especially on the issue of character.
McDougal, a Republican, voted for Trump. At this point, she had the “inkling that she had been duped, especially when AMI threatened her with a $10 million penalty if she breached the contract” (Weis para. 10). McDougal fired Davidson because he did not tell her about the contract’s fine print and negotiated with Cohen without her knowledge. She contacted a well-known first amendment lawyer, Ted Boutrous, who renegotiated the contract to allow her to respond to legitimate inquiries about Trump without fear of penalty.
Michael Cohen left the Trump campaign to become the president’s personal attorney. He announced “I am the guy who would take a bullet for the President” (Palazzolo et al. 1). Trump paid him by check over the course of the year for the Daniels NDA. Hints of the president’s affairs came out, but the president continued to deny them.
In March 2018, McDougal hired a third lawyer, Peter Stris, who filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to void her nondisclosure agreement. Stris, stated, “Through efforts including the collusion of her own lawyer, AMI has consistently deceived and manipulated Ms. McDougal through an illegitimate contract” (Conley 1). The former Playmate charged Davidson did not explain to her that allowing her to write stories for AMI did not mean they would publish them. She argued Davidson, Cohen, and Pecker conferred without her knowledge to protect the president. The suit claimed her payout amounted to an illegal corporate contribution intended to influence the election.
Kate Briquelet, a reporter for The Daily Beast, reported on how AMI counsel, Jean-Paul Jassy, fought back with a motion to strike McDougal’s suit. He contended that AMI had a First Amendment right not to publish her story and its editors “who chose not to publish it cannot be punished for exercising that right” (para. 6). In rebuttal, Stris said “As we have learned through brave truth-tellers like Ms. McDougal, the tabloid went to great lengths to silence her and others, and they are now attempting to silence her again with the absurd claim that their own free speech was violated” (Briguelet para. 7).
McDougal revealed telling details about her affair on the Anderson Cooper show aired 3 days after she filed her suit. She expressed affection for Donald Trump who, she said, was always a gentleman and paid her compliments. She recalled Pecker invited her to lunch after she signed the NDA and thanked her for her loyalty. She realized too late that he did not want to help her and had lied to her. She said Davidson promised her millions of dollars. She signed the NDA, not for the money, but a chance to transition from modeling to writing. She expressed regret for the relationship and apologized to Melania.
On April 9, FBI agents served a warrant on Michael Cohen. They sized computers, tapes and files from his office, home, and storage sites. Matt Appuzo, writing for The New York Times quoted President Trump as declaring these actions, “Disgraceful” (1). On April 17, 2018, Karen McDougal announced “I am relieved to be able to tell the truth about my story when asked, and I look forward to being able to return to my private life and focus on what matters to me” (Dedaj 1). She anticipated working again with the National Enquirer. The tabloid announced, “Ms. McDougal has always been free to talk about her relationship with President Trump” (Weis, 2018). AMI agreed to everything they promised in the original nondisclosure agreement. They offered to publish five additional McDougal health and fitness columns. They maintained a financial interest up to $75,000 in any re-sale of an exclusive on McDougal’s personal story.
In her show on April 18, Rachel Maddow tried to make sense of it all. She could not understand why McDougal settled when her lawyer was on the verge of obtaining documents and depositions that further implicated the president. The television host’s guest, former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, warned, “It was not for us to decide. We do not know her goals.” He added Stris represented the wishes of his client, and this settlement did not affect a criminal case brought by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York against Cohen for possible campaign finance law violations and improper lobbying activities (Maddow President, 2018).
New York Times writer Matt Apuzzo in “Lawyer’s Secret Tape Reveals Trump’s Talk of Payments to Model” described about tapes and emails seized from Michael Cohen’s office. At about the same time, Federal authorities subpoenaed evidence from Pecker and offered him limited immunity for his testimony. The evidence thus gathered proved McDougal’s contention that Cohen, Pecker, and Davidson discussed her settlement unbeknownst to her. One tape revealed Trump considered buying the rights to McDougal’s story as a way of reimbursing Pecker (July 21, 2018, p. A1). Another tape revealed he considered forming a corporation to buy Pecker’s safe full of secrets (Rutenberg Immunity 1). The tapes also indicated that Trump and Cohen discussed how to repay Pecker for picking up the tab on the McDougal’s affair, which the notoriously parsimonious president eventually did.
Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance charges on August 21, 2018 (US District Court). He told the judge that he made payments to McDougal and Daniels, “in coordination with the direction of a candidate for federal office” (Rashbaum para. 1). He identified that person as Donald Trump who “knew about everything” and “approved everything” (Ruiz 1).
The headline of the Daily News on August 24, 2018, read, “Pecker in a Vise, Enquirer Honcho grabs immunity as feds put squeeze on catch-and-kill enabler” (1). Pecker turned against his lifelong friend because he and his company faced a Federal Election Commission complaint claiming the $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal represented an illegal campaign contribution. AMI denied any wrongdoing, while also saying its cooperation with investigators would not extend beyond its constitutionally protected status as a news organization. Cameron Stracher, a lawyer for AMI, contended that “It’s easy to look down at the work product of celebrity magazines and assume they are not entitled to the same protections as the mainstream media” (Briquelet 1).
Pecker fulfilled his settlement with McDougal. She appeared on the September 2018 cover of Men’s Journal. The issue contained her story, “Four Moves for Stronger Abs” (September 2018) despite the protestations of the magazine’s CFO that it would hurt advertising revenue (Maddow, August 10, 2018).
In a letter from John Khuzami, acting attorney general for the Southern District of New York, dated September 30, 2018, under the heading Exhibit A, Statement of Admitted Facts, AMI attorneys admitted that they made a $150,000 payment at the suggestion of agents of a candidate in the 2016 election to ensure a woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate in an effort to influence that election. They further stipulated that in August 2015, Pecker, Cohen, “and at least one other member of the campaign” met to coordinate how best to deal with “negative story about the candidates relationships with women.” AMI agreed to implement specific improvements to prevent future violations of campaign finance law.
“This is a remarkable surrender of any First Amendment protections they might otherwise claim,” said Edward Wasserman, dean at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “It basically gives complete and unbridled discretion to the prosecutors of the DOJ to ask whatever they like and leaves AMI with no recourse but to comply” (Rosenbaum 1). AMI further agreed “to commit no crimes what so ever” for a period of 3 years (Khuzami). AMI stipulated that failure to keep their part of the bargain left them open to prosecution for any and all crimes they had admitted to under this agreement. This development is unprecedented for a magazine that constantly advocates freedom of the press. However, the alternative is unthinkable. The fines for campaign finance violations could put the Enquirer, already struggling for economic survival out of business.
Cohen pleaded guilty in the Southern District Court of New York to lying to Congress about how long discussions involving a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow extended into the 2016 campaign. Federal Judge William Pauley III of the Southern District Court of New York sentenced Michael Cohen to 3 years in jail for tax evasion and campaign finance violations, as well as lying to Congress about his efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. Special Counsel Robert Muller, who brought the later charge, recommended that Cohen serve sentences for both crimes concurrently. However, Robert Khuzami of the Southern District of New York in a 40-page sentencing memorandum that the serious nature of his offenses and the need to promote respect for the law warranted a substantial sentence (Khuzami Sentencing). Judge Pauley chose a sentence on the stronger side of the sentencing guidelines observing, Mr. Cohen pled guilty to a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct, “Each of the crimes involved deception and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition” (Orden et al. 1). David Jackson of USA Today, in his article, “President Trump defends payment to women as a private transaction” (1), stated that Cohen lied in an effort to receive a reduced sentence.
Congressional Committees issued subpoenas for Michael Cohen to appear before them soon after Cohen canceled testifying voluntarily because of threats to his family from President Trump. Pecker reached a plea agreement with the Federal Government, which granted him immunity from prosecution providing he committed no other crimes for 3 years. Although articles in the Enquirer praising Trump ceased, Pecker could not help expressing his loyalty to Trump in other ways. When Rush Limbaugh lambasted the president for caving in on building a wall on the Mexican border, The Enquirer’s sister publication, the Globe, ran a front cover story dredging up all the old dirt on Limbaugh, including his opioid addiction. Commenting on this story, Peter Sheridan of the online website Boing Boing noted that if you rolled up a copy of the Globe in the “shape of a sea shell, and hold it to your ear, you can hear the sound of President Trump screaming” (para. 1). Sheridan warned there was more to come from “Trump mouthpieces like the Globe and the Enquirer” (para. 1).
Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, wrote an article for MEDIUM.com, a blog post, entitled “No Thank You Mr. Pecker” on February 7, 2019. Bezos charged that the Enquirer had, “Made him an offer I couldn’t refuse” (para. 1). Bezos presented copies of emails from Howard Dylan, the Enquirer’s chief content officer, describing intimate photos of Bezos and Lauren Sanchez. Bezos’ provided other emails from the Enquirer’s lawyer spelling out the quid pro quo. The Enquirer would not publish the photos, if Bezos called off his investigation of how the incriminating emails and photos were obtained and publicly stated that he believed the actions of the Enquirer were not politically motivated. The Southern District of New York U.S. attorney’s office is reviewing whether the alleged extortion violated the nonprosecution agreement. If the agreement is nullified, Pecker and AMI could face prosecution for other crimes, which they have admitted.
Bezos asserted that the motivation for this blackmail stemmed from Trump’s personal animosity toward him, the coverage of the president in The Washington Post, or an effort by Saudi Arabia to pressure the Post to limit their investigation of the killing of one of their reporters, Jamal Khashoggi. Bezos wrote that the Enquirer could not intimidate him and could publish the photos. A spokesman for the Enquirer denied all these charges.
According to Gabriel Sherman, an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair, Bezos is preparing a 90-page investigative report charging that the Enquirer paid David Sanchez, the brother of the mistress, $$250,000 for the compromising pictures. The report also charges that a financially failing Enquirer published the Bezos expose to curry favor from Saudi investors.
On February 27, members of the House Oversight Committee questioned Michael Cohen. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) zeroed on the treasure trove of catch and kill documents in Pecker’s secret safe. She asked for and received the names of AMI executives that might provide information on these documents to the Committee.
The Judiciary Committee headed by Representative Jerald Nadler (D-NY) requested documents pertinent to their investigation from AMI on March 4, 2019. Clearly, the election fraud crimes connected with the coverup payments to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels will continue as subjects of investigation by a Democratic Congress.
The Federal Court scheduled Cohen to report for prison on May 6, 2019. Whether he can reduce his 3-year prison term by further cooperation with the Courts and Congress or incur further criminal liability is open to conjecture.
The history of the Enquirer showed the development of a highly skilled specialized magazine that developed a market for their product in supermarkets. Their long time practice of paying for tips tarnished their journalistic reputation from its beginning as a New York tabloid. Presently, their profits and circulation are declining as a result of the increased price of the magazine and competition from television programs like TMZ. This, as charged in Dr. Phil McGraw’s suit, forces the writers of the magazine to write sensationalistic articles that increasingly skirt the edge of libel (McGraw).
David Pecker understands these market dynamics. He uses a computer program that details which celebrities sell magazines and the design of the all-important front page. Pecker has taken advantage of the decline in the tabloid market to consolidate celebrity and fitness magazines under the control of American Media Incorporated (AMI). President Trump thought Pecker was the most likely candidate to take over Time magazine.
The friendship between Pecker and Trump continued over decades. It involved convenience, style, and mutual interests. The messages of both are short, easy to read, and designed to elicit an emotional response. Both men are brash and utilize name-calling, conflict, and division. Both employ the argot of the streets of New York. Their friendship blossomed at boozy parties featuring Playboy bunnies once AMI took over distribution of that magazine. That friendship solidified into a verbal agreement made at Trump Tower in which Pecker promised the Enquirer would support Trump’s candidacy for President with supportive articles, lies about his opponents, and suppression of negative stories about his affairs.
Once Pecker violated campaign finance laws, the story just kept going. It quite possibly is more dangerous than the alleged Russian collusion for Trump because it implicates him directly in committing a felony. Cohen’s fears for his family and impending imprisonment will not prevent various Congressional Committees from subpoenaing him for testimony. Congress knows where to find him, and prison authorities will deliver him to the proper venue for his testimony.
Most Americans are familiar with the National Enquirer. It has a long history dealing with UFO’s, aliens, gore, and celebrity scandals. Many times, its writers scooped the mainstream press. It is ubiquitous, seemingly in every supermarket in the United States. Its garish headlines call out to the public. “Discover secrets and find out the truth.” So why take notice, besides a chuckle at a headline or schadenfreude over the fall from grace by film, TV, or political celebrities?
One reason the Enquirer is worthy of scholarly investigation is because of its unwavering support of President Donald J. Trump before and after his election. Trump lacked the endorsement of the mainstream press. He relied on a few select media outlets to broadcast his message to the American people. He uses the 140 characters of Twitter, the “Fair and Balanced” approach of Fox News, the many local TV stations of Sinclair Broadcasting, and the Enquirer. The President loves and respects the Enquirer and has a long relationship with the tabloid. It was the first national publication to endorse his bid for the Presidency. It published articles written by the candidate himself. The scandal weekly bashes Trump’s enemies and supports his every policy. David Pecker, is a loyal friend, willing to pay money to buy and kill stories detrimental to Trump.
This paper examined “Enquirerized” politics from the standpoint of Storey’s insistence that any analysis depends on the various categories of people that make up popular culture. A total of 70% of Americans who are skeptical of Trump’s motives and veracity are not fooled by the Enquirer as the Presidents’ mouthpiece. They fulfill Habermas’s belief that an informed democracy thrives on contention, debate, and discussion, but need protection from manipulative publicity. The electorate must read critically, from more than one source.
Approximately 35% of the population make up the President’s base and remain loyal no matter what the circumstance. Ellul’s notion of propaganda explains why the Enquirer closes the minds of its recipients and provides them with a set of prejudices and beliefs, as well as offers objective justifications that apply to Trump’s base. Informing the electorate takes time and patience. Democracy’s safeguards lie in what people read and how they react. The press should foster discourse, not anger and resentment. Incivility is a toxic virus. Americans can avoid this disease only by listening, accepting, and respecting one another. If democracy is to prevail, it needs a healthy prescription of liberty, equality, and especially, fraternity.
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