When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he had few of the resources a traditional candidate can bring to bear, such as connections to established networks of elected officials, party operatives and fundraisers. But he had other advantages, ones unique to him. On Thursday, The Post’s Sarah Ellison brought us a fascinating story about one of those advantages, providing a window into an entire media system that was essentially Trump-ready in ways few people understood at the time:

During the presidential campaign, National Enquirer executives sent digital copies of the tabloid’s articles and cover images related to Donald Trump and his political opponents to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen in advance of publication, according to three people with knowledge of the matter — an unusual practice that speaks to the close relationship between Trump and David Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company.
Although the company strongly denies ever sharing such material before publication, these three individuals say the sharing of material continued after Trump took office. …
Once Enquirer editors sent a story or cover image, sometimes a request for changes came back, according to two of the people with knowledge of the relationship. Stories about Trump were positive in nature, and changes related to the stories were not dramatic, according to one person with knowledge of the matter, who said most of the changes in stories sent to Cohen resulted in more flattering cover photos or changes to cover headlines.
Trump suggested stories to Pecker on a regular basis, one of these people said, and had access to certain pieces — including one about Hillary Clinton’s health — before publication.

If you’ve stood in a supermarket checkout line in the past three years, this may not be much of a surprise because the tabloid is essentially a pro-Trump organ. And you’ve probably heard about how American Media Inc. paid off Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump, in what is known as a “catch and kill” operation to catch a damaging story and kill it before it gets public attention. Or how AMI even paid a doorman $30,000 to keep silent about a rumor he heard that Trump had fathered what we used to call a love child.

But it’s still extraordinary that a presidential candidate, and later a president, was given the ability to approve and change stories and covers in a media outlet seen by millions of Americans every day, even if they’re only glancing at it for a moment as they pass by. Though there’s a whole history of celebrities negotiating the terms of their coverage in outlets that cover the business of celebrity, it isn’t something politicians are normally able to do, particularly given the slanderous stories about Trump opponents (Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, and Hillary Clinton was on the verge of death) the Enquirer peddled when Trump needed them most.

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That’s just one of the unique media resources Trump had and has access to. Another, of course, is Fox News. While previous presidents have had news outlets that were friendly to them, there hasn’t been anything like what Fox is right now since the decline of the partisan press in the late-19th century. It isn’t that no dissenting voices are ever heard on the network (Shepard Smith is, for some reason, still employed there), but the shamelessness of their pro-Trump propagandizing is, if you aren’t familiar with it, downright comical. Just watch this brief video put together by “The Daily Show,” exhibiting how Fox is now pretty much the same as North Korean state television:

It has been long forgotten now, but there was a period during the 2016 primaries when Trump got a huge amount of criticism on Fox. It happened because the network was built by Roger Ailes for two simultaneous goals: making money and serving the interests of the Republican Party. At the time, Trump was seen as a threat to the GOP and its eventual nominee, who would surely be someone else. But once Trump seized control of the party, and the network realized just how devoted their elderly white audience is to Trump, it quickly turned itself into a self-parody of Trump worship.

There’s one more critical piece of this puzzle: the mainstream media. News organizations just weren’t equipped to handle a character like Trump, a bombastic celebrity moving into, and taking over, a political realm that had operated according to a set of rules and norms he was only too happy to smash. They didn’t know what to do with a candidate who felt no shame about being called out for lying and who blithely blew past a dozen scandals that would have undone any other political figure. He understood how to capitalize on the media’s worst instincts, just as he was capitalizing on the voters’ worst instincts. He knew that the more reprehensible he was and the more spectacle he created, the less we’d be able to look away, and serious questions about things like his bottomless corruption would be overwhelmed in the frenzy. We didn’t realize it, but the mainstream media was primed and ready to be exploited.

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And today, three years since his candidacy began, we’re still trying to sort it out and determine how to handle him. Things have gotten better in some ways — cable networks no longer broadcast his rallies start to finish as a matter of course — but it remains a work in progress.

While 2020 seems like a long time away, we should understand that the media machine that supports Trump is going to mobilize in ways we can’t yet predict. What kind of stories is it going to spread about Trump’s Democratic opponent? What sorts of scandals will it invent? I can promise you that Trump is going to run the most vicious campaign any of us has ever seen. How are we going to deal with it? We in the media don’t yet know. But we had better start thinking about it.

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