The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump was intimately involved in keeping his alleged mistresses quiet

A news stand in New York in July 2017. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Yet another keeper of President Trump’s secrets has decided to sing like a bird, and in doing so they’ve deepened our understanding of something important. When Trump decided to run for president, he brought the values and habits of his life as a celebrity, businessman and grifter into politics. But because politics has its own set of rules and laws, what was just sleazy behavior in one context can be actually illegal in another.

Trump insisted on Twitter on Thursday that he never instructed longtime fixer Michael Cohen to break the law, as prosecutors have alleged. Trump added that, in regard to his 2016 payments to buy the silence of women who said they had affairs with him, “many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance.”

But they absolutely do apply, as prosecutors made clear in an intriguing agreement they reached with American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer:

The National Enquirer’s parent company acknowledged paying hush money to a woman who alleged an affair with Donald Trump to “suppress the woman’s story” and “prevent it from influencing the election.”
The admission came as federal prosecutors announced Wednesday that they would not prosecute the company, American Media Inc. (AMI), for its role in a scheme to tilt the presidential race in favor of Trump. In the agreement, AMI said it would cooperate with prosecutors and admitted it paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal before the 2016 election to silence her allegations of an affair with Trump.
The deal signaled the unraveling of the deep relationship Trump and AMI chief executive David Pecker had forged over decades. The deal also made clear that Pecker, whose tabloid strongly supported Trump’s candidacy, has turned on the president.

The Enquirer was an invaluable asset to the Trump campaign in 2016, not only quashing stories that might hurt Trump, but also promoting stories intended to harm his opponents — during both the primaries and general election. If you stepped into a supermarket in 2016 you probably saw them, whether it was claiming during the primaries that Sen. Ted Cruz, one of Trump’s Republican opponents, had five mistresses, or running one cover story after another about Hillary Clinton’s alleged crimes and health crises.

The Enquirer’s support for Trump was evident to everyone in the checkout line. But what we didn’t understand at the time was that it wasn’t just support, it was a conspiracy to violate election laws. And it happened because, when Trump became a candidate for president, he took the ways of doing business that he had established over a lifetime and brought them into politics. Which sometimes meant people wound up breaking the law.

Trump had a friendship with Pecker that existed before the campaign, when the magazine used its “catch and kill” tactic to buy McDougal’s story for the purpose of making sure it never saw the light of day. As AMI has now admitted, this was done in cooperation not just with Cohen, but with the Trump campaign. I refer you to this passage in the document prosecutors released on Wednesday (emphasis added):

In or about August 2015, David Pecker, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AMI, met with Michael Cohen, an attorney for a presidential candidate, and at least one other member of the campaign. At the meeting, Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. Pecker agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such negative stories.

Which he did. When McDougal approached the Enquirer, they contacted Cohen and agreed that the magazine would pay McDougal $150,000 for her silence; Cohen promised the magazine that it would be reimbursed. That wasn’t all they communicated about: In June, The Post’s Sarah Ellison reported that “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.”

The McDougal payment was the subject of an exchange in a September 2016 conversation between Trump and Cohen that Cohen secretly recorded, during which they are obviously talking about buying the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI so it would be in Trump’s possession. “David” appears to be David Pecker; Allen Weisselberg is the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization:

Cohen: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David, you know, so that — I’m going to do that right away. I’ve actually come up and I’ve spoken —
Trump: Give it to me and [Unintelligible].
Cohen: And, I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with . . .
Trump: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

As we have learned, in contrast to his denials, Trump was closely involved with the payoffs to silence both McDougal and Stormy Daniels (and who knows, maybe other women we haven’t heard about). And really, is anyone surprised? Could you actually believe that Cohen would have arranged all this without keeping Trump up to date?

If Trump were just a celebrity, it would be perfectly legal for him and the National Enquirer to do this, which is probably why he’s so outraged at the idea that it might be illegal for his friends at the Enquirer to pay off a mistress on his behalf. But when AMI did that right before the election, they were giving his campaign an in-kind, undeclared campaign contribution. And given that everyone involved took steps to conceal it with the shell company that Cohen and Trump are on tape discussing, it’s hard to argue that they had no idea what they were doing was wrong.

As I said, this is an example of Trump bringing his old values and habits into his new profession as a politician. If he were some other kind of person, that might not have been a bad thing. For example, I’m enormously skeptical of the “I’m a businessman so I can run the government” argument, but at least it has a logic to it, that you might bring effective organizational techniques from which the government could benefit.

But the values and habits Trump brought with him were those of one of America’s most corrupt major business figures. So he has given his family members high-ranking jobs (just as he did in business), has lied constantly to the public about what he was doing (just as he did in business), and has enthusiastically used the presidency to enhance his own wealth.

This story leaves us with one more question: If AMI has agreed to cooperate in exchange for avoiding prosecution, what else do they have to tell about Trump? What other stories about him have they caught and killed? We may soon find out.