How Trump's Cozy Relationship With The Tabloids Plays Into His Hush Money Trial

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Now that former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial has started in earnest, it’s thrown a spotlight onto a grimy corner of the media business: pay-to-play tabloid journalism, where editors pluck the juiciest stories from a marketplace of potential scandals.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had the king of the tabloids in his pocket — the National Enquirer, headed at the time by American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker.

In court this week, reporters in the courtroom heard Pecker testify under oath that he actively sought to be Trump’s “eyes and ears.” The National Enquirer and AMI were essential to the schemes to “catch” (buy the rights to) and “kill” (never publish) negative Trump stories, a pact that became the foundation of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case.

Trump is accused of falsifying documents related to a payment he made to Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump, in order to “catch and kill” her story ahead of the 2016 election. (Trump has denied having the affair.)

Pecker’s testimony stretched over multiple days. He said he met Trump in the ’80s at Mar-a-Lago, the Spanish revivalist seaside resort Trump acquired in 1985. Their meeting blossomed into a decades-long friendship, or rather a mutually beneficial situationship, in which each used the other for personal gain. Trump helped Pecker sell copies of his magazines in supermarket checkout aisles, and Pecker helped Trump raise his public profile, leading him to eventually launch his hit reality show, “The Apprentice,” in 2004.

Pecker spoke about being invited in 2015 to watch Trump descend down his gilded escalator and announce that he was running for president. A couple months later, the two discussed Trump’s candidacy, Pecker said.

“I said what I would do is I would run or publish positive stories about Mr. Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponents,” Pecker testified Tuesday.

The Enquirer headlines shown as evidence in court were alternately reverent and sleazy: “DONALD TRUMP: THE MAN THE LEGEND;” “JFK’S SECRET SON ENDORSES DONALD TRUMP;” “TED CRUZ SHAMED BY PORN STAR;” “‘FAMILY MAN’ MARCO RUBIO’S LOVE CHILD STUNNER!”

But it’s an odd partnership for a man who for so long has claimed to be a the victim of “fake news,” a term that he has hijacked to mean virtually any reporting that does not flatter him. A bombshell series on Trump’s tax avoidance? Fake news. A report that he called dead service members “losers”? Fake news. The alarming spread of coronavirus in October 2020? A fake news media conspiracy. Even the conservative Fox News has fallen out of his favor.

Ironically, though, some of what Pecker said he published on behalf of Trump could itself fit the definition of fake news.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer at the time, “would call me and say … we would like for you to run a negative article on, let’s say, for argument’s sake, on Ted Cruz,” Pecker said. “Then he would send me … information about Ted Cruz or about Ben Carson or about Marco Rubio. That was the basis of our story, and then we would embellish it from there.”

Pecker made no mention of whether he looked deeper into the claims to verify them. He would then send Cohen PDFs of the stories so that he could provide feedback before they were published.

Pecker has been promised immunity in return for his testimony, and Cohen has previously pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, saying that he covered up transactions at Trump’s direction.

The tactics that Pecker described are antithetical to the values drilled into budding journalists. While a reporter may run a quote past their source prior to publication to ensure its accuracy, or so that they can properly contextualize it, running entire stories past a source is generally forbidden. Particularly controversial is the practice of paying sources for their stories — something the Society of Professional Journalists says “threatens to corrupt the newsgathering and reporting functions of the media” and ultimately “damage democracy.”

Pecker testified in court that the National Enquirer did just that, calling it “checkbook journalism.”

Offering a source money for their story may incentivize them to relay a more salacious or exaggerated version of the truth, and outlets that have forked over cash may be less willing to publish information that runs contrary to what they paid for. There are some arguments to be made in favor of compensating sources, particularly marginalized ones, but the practice is generally taboo in traditional newsrooms.

It is common, however, in tabloid journalism. Pecker said that his editors generally knew that they could not spend more than $10,000 on a story without seeking further approval.

Trump’s stories were particularly expensive. AMI purchased the rights to an ex-doorman’s story for $30,000 because, Pecker testified, he believed it was “important that it be removed from the market.” The ex-doorman in question had claimed that Trump once fathered a child with a Trump Tower cleaning woman, although Pecker testified that his researchers found the story to be false. The doorman’s contract, which he was later released from, stipulated that AMI owned his story in perpetuity, and that if he gave it to another outlet, he would owe AMI $1 million.

Ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal’s claim of a year-long affair with Trump — which Trump has denied — fetched a higher price tag of $150,000. Pecker said that Cohen initially told him that Trump intended to pay back the sum, although Trump ultimately did not do so.

Pressed about why he was so willing to orchestrate these payoffs, Pecker cited the “potential embarrassment” for Trump’s campaign. He acknowledged, though, that if the doorman’s story had turned out to be true, he might have chosen to publish it after the November 2016 election, when it could no longer damage the campaign. The game is the game.

None of this is particularly new. Tabloid journalism has been operating in its seedy way for decades upon decades, and Trump’s ties to Pecker and the National Enquirer were obvious back in 2016, when Cruz pointed out at a press conference that the outlet “has become his hit piece that he [Trump] uses to smear anybody and everybody.” But now, in this first-of-its-kind criminal trial of a former president, the media outlets that served as vehicles for his rise to power may help take him down.