As with American Media Inc.'s $150,000 payment to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal shortly before the election, the payment was made ostensibly for the rights to the man's story. But like McDougal's, the story also never ran, and the parallels with the McDougal and Stormy Daniels payments certainly raise questions about whether the payment was simply an effort to kill it to benefit Trump's campaign — and whether there was any coordination between AMI and Trump attorney Michael Cohen or the Trump campaign.
Those deals have become a focus of federal investigators, who raided Cohen's office, home and hotel room Monday. And if nothing else, the newest example builds the circumstantial case that something was afoot as Trump was trying to win the presidency.
Below are parallels between the Sajudin deal and what we knew already, along with some eyebrow-raising details.
Suspicions of 'catch and kill'
Tabloids such as the National Enquirer frequently pay people for their stories, but Enquirer employees told the AP that they thought this was a clear case of “catch and kill” — paying for the rights to a story for the purpose of burying it.
Four employees told the AP that story was promising when it was shut down:
The Enquirer staffers, all with years of experience negotiating source contracts, said the abrupt end to reporting combined with a binding, seven-figure penalty to stop the tipster from talking to anyone led them to conclude that this was a so-called “catch and kill.” ...One former Enquirer reporter, who was not involved in the Sajudin reporting effort, expressed skepticism that the company would pay for the tip and not publish.“AMI doesn’t go around cutting checks for $30,000 and then not using the information,” said Jerry George, a reporter and senior editor for nearly three decades at AMI before his layoff in 2013.
That's similar to how Enquirer staff members described the McDougal case a few months ago to the New Yorker, which also quoted George and employees who asserted that Trump had veto power over stories:
Six former A.M.I. employees told me that [AMI Publisher and Trump friend David] Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.” Maxine Page, who worked at A.M.I. on and off from 2002 to 2012, including as an executive editor at one of the company’s Web sites, said that Pecker also used the unpublished stories as “leverage” over some celebrities to pressure them to pose for his magazines or feed him stories.
$1 million penalties and big payments
This could be a pure coincidence, given that $1 million is such a round number, but it happens to be the penalty for violating the agreement between Cohen and Daniels, and the agreement between AMI and Sajudin.
And even if that is a coincidence, the fact that Sajudin faced such a stiff penalty for sharing what amounted to a rumor struck AMI employees as unusually severe. They also said it was unusual for him to be paid as much as $30,000 for a rumor that hadn't been confirmed.
McDougal, similarly, said she was surprised by the scope of her agreement. Emails reviewed by the New Yorker suggested that AMI initially had little interest in the story but upped its offer substantially after Trump won the presidential nomination. “I knew that I couldn’t talk about any alleged affair with any married man, but I didn’t really understand the whole content of what I gave up,” McDougal said.
Cohen talked to the Enquirer and Sajudin
Cohen told the AP that he talked to the Enquirer about Sajudin's account, but he said it had nothing to do with the payment:
He said he was acting as a Trump spokesman when he did so and denied knowing anything beforehand about the Enquirer payment to the ex-doorman.
This is plausible, but it's also likely to gain the attention of investigators. Why, for example, did the Enquirer reach out to Cohen if it didn't regard Sajudin's story credible or worth reporting? Generally, reporters want to wait until after they confirm an accusation to contact the person who is being accused — both to avoid tipping them off and to avoid creating unnecessary drama over a story that might not amount to anything.
A suspicious new report in an Enquirer sister publication
The story wasn't broken by the New Yorker and the AP but, rather, by Radar Online, a sister publication of the Enquirer, on Wednesday. But there is significant reason to think it was just trying to get ahead of the story.
Here's how Ronan Farrow describes how Radar's report surfaced:
On Wednesday, thirty minutes after The New Yorker contacted A.M.I. for comment about the payment to Sajudin, Radar Online, an A.M.I. publication, posted a story acknowledging the thirty-thousand-dollar payment but saying that the former doorman’s story was false.
Indeed, AMI's Radar deciding to finally publish Sajudin's account so soon after the company was contacted about it — and two years after the agreement with Sajudin was reached — suggests AMI didn't like how the whole thing looked. It's too much of a coincidence.
And Radar's story is definitely more favorable to the Enquirer, both dismissing Sajudin's account as false and suggesting that serious resources — four weeks worth of reporting — had been devoted to it. It also, notably, suggests that it didn't want the Trump campaign to know about its story — suggesting no coordination:
Internal emails reviewed by Radar show The ENQUIRER jumped to publish the story, and feared tipping off the Trump camp.
The whole thing, in a lot of ways, seems to be devoted to undercutting the idea that this was a catch-and-kill situation and that the Enquirer was doing Trump's bidding.
Even if it was doing Trump's bidding, that wouldn't mean that anything untoward happened. It's possible that the stories were being used as leverage rather than as part of an agreement reached with Cohen or the Trump campaign. But the questions are only increasing — as is Cohen's legal jeopardy.