McDougal's lawsuit did not name Cohen as a defendant, but it did allege that Trump's personal lawyer colluded with AMI to effectively silence her by buying the rights to her story and then declining to run it — a practice in tabloid journalism known as “catch and kill.” Hers is one of two known cases in which AMI bought the rights to a story making claims about Trump's love life and then didn't run it. And given its chief executive, David Pecker, is Trump's friend, that seems entirely convenient.
In its story on the settlement, the New York Times reported that materials seized in the Cohen's raid “included information about A.M.I. and the McDougal suit, people involved in the case said.”
Exactly what that means, we don't know. But experts say the combination of that and the favorable terms of the settlement — McDougal basically has to share only a small portion of the profits she might make from selling her story — suggest AMI was worried about what lay ahead.
David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, noted that the raid put in-play documents that may have been much more difficult to obtain via the lawsuit.
“McDougal probably would have had an easier time persuading a judge in her case to allow her some access to those documents that the New York judge finds not to be protected by privilege,” Super said. “So a lawyer for AMI could reasonably imagine that the odds that any records Cohen had relating to the original McDougal agreement were now much more likely to end up in McDougal's hands.”
He added: “The terms seem objectively favorable to her, and she had no reason to settle at this early stage except on terms that she liked.”
Super emphasized that there could be alternative explanations, aside from the documents being damning or unhelpful to AMI. He said the company could have been worried that the documents would be misconstrued or simply draw out the case into an expensive mess. But the settlement's proximity to the Cohen raid 10 days ago — and that AMI had sought the dismissal of the lawsuit just a week before that — is conspicuous.
The settlement also, notably, could help Trump. It voids any possibility of pretrial discovery in which records and testimony would have been demanded by the court, though AMI's lawyer disputed to the Times that this was a factor in the decision to settle. It's not clear how Trump may have been roped into that, but McDougal's lawyer had signaled he might request answers from the president.
“It seems as if American Media basically rolled over,” former federal prosecutor Harry Litman said, “and perhaps in consultation with attorneys for Trump, for whom the settlement spares a deposition and a whole Paula Jones situation.”
The practical implications of all of this remain to be seen. McDougal has already spoken about her alleged affair with Trump in some detail, but now she is completely unencumbered. And if and when other Cohen-related dominoes fall after the raid — and news Thursday that Cohen is dropping his libel lawsuits against BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS may be another one — we may look back upon this as the first domino.