Former Playboy model Karen McDougal is now free to speak publicly about her alleged affair with President Trump, but the real significance of her legal settlement may be this: The publisher of the National Enquirer is now in the business of profiting from a Trump scandal.
The publisher, American Media, previously paid to bury McDougal's story, giving her $150,000 during the 2016 campaign to write fitness columns, pose for covers and — most important — not talk about the relationship she claims to have had a decade earlier with Trump, whom American Media chief executive David Pecker calls a “personal friend.”
“Once she's part of the company, then on the outside she can't be bashing Trump,” Pecker told the New Yorker last year.
McDougal sued last month to get out of her contract, and, under a settlement agreement announced on Wednesday, American Media will receive a 10 percent cut of any profit McDougal makes from reselling the rights to her story within the next year, up to a maximum of $75,000. American Media also plans to feature McDougal on the cover of the September issue of Men's Journal, meaning the company stands to benefit further from her Trump-related fame.
It is possible that this is a one-time deal, struck under special circumstances. McDougal already appeared on CNN in March to share her account of what she said was a 10-month affair with Trump, so keeping the story under wraps is no longer possible. Perhaps Pecker simply decided to salvage something from his failed attempt to keep McDougal quiet, figuring that if she is going to dish, anyway, he might as well make a few bucks in the process.
It is also possible that Pecker is reevaluating the wisdom of a business strategy that has involved passing up juicy stories about Trump. The Associated Press and New Yorker reported last week that American Media paid $30,000 early in the last presidential race for the exclusive right to a tip from former Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, who claimed that Trump might have fathered a child out of wedlock in the 1980s.
The Enquirer, which built its brand on such gossip, never published Sajudin's story.
Last year, the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin quoted a former Enquirer staffer who said: “We used to go after newsmakers no matter what side they were on. And Trump is a guy who is running for president with a closet full of baggage. He's the ultimate target-rich environment. The Enquirer had a golden opportunity, and they completely looked the other way.”
Pecker has had a rationale for looking the other way. He told Toobin last year that Enquirer readers “voted for Trump. And 96 percent want him reelected today. That's the correlation. These are white working people, who love to see takedowns of celebrities, and they want to see — which is unusual, who would think these people would love a billionaire? — the billionaire's pulpit. They know him from 14 seasons on ‘The Apprentice’ as the boss, and they loved it when he fired those people and ridiculed them.”
As long as Pecker continues to sense the same sentiments from his readers, Trump might be safe from the Enquirer.
Yet the McDougal episode shows there is some limit to Pecker's willingness to protect Trump. If McDougal signs a book deal, Pecker will not refuse, on principle, to accept money generated by making the president look bad; Pecker will take 10 percent for American Media.
The biggest danger for Trump might not be that McDougal is now cleared to tell the same story she already has told; it might be that the National Enquirer gets a taste of how marketable Trump gossip could be — and considers publishing more in the future.