This is gigantic news, inconspicuously tucked away in the DOJ press release about Michael Cohen’s sentencing today.
As a memory-freshener, remember that AMI is the parent company of the National Enquirer. The CEO, David Pecker, is a longtime Trump buddy, having gotten to know POTUS during his days as a gossip-sheet regular. Four days before Election Day 2016, the WSJ reported that a deal had recently been struck between AMI and (alleged) former Trump mistress Karen McDougal in which McDougal signed away the rights to publish stories about her relationship with a certain married celebrity in exchange for $150,000 plus a guarantee that AMI publications would feature a fitness column written by her. Allegedly McDougal thought the Enquirer was going to report her relationship with Trump. It buried the story instead — “catch and kill,” as the industry jargon goes to describe cases where a publisher silences someone by buying the rights to their story with no intention of publishing it. It was a hush-money deal, essentially, except unlike the Stormy Daniels payoff this was carried out by a third party, not by the president’s own lawyer.
Ronan Farrow later fleshed out the details of the AMI/McDougal arrangement, reporting that the deal was signed on August 5, 2016 — just three months before Election Day. In August of this year, federal prosecutors looking into Cohen’s practices suggested that AMI didn’t freelance the McDougal deal. According to court documents, per WaPo, “Pecker assured Cohen that he would help deal with rumors related to Trump’s relationships with women by essentially turning his tabloid operation into a research arm of the Trump campaign, identifying potentially damaging stories and, when necessary, buying the silence of the women who wanted to tell them.” Before you knew it, Pecker was being given immunity for his testimony.
You see what this is building to. Was the payment to Karen McDougal, ostensibly made by a newspaper for journalistic reasons, actually just a campaign contribution designed to silence someone who could hurt Trump’s presidential chances — one made with the knowledge of the candidate himself, perhaps? It’s legal to pay people off to benefit political candidates; it’s not legal to do it without reporting it to the FEC and it’s not legal to exceed the federal cap on contributions. The key question in analyzing whether the payment qualified as a campaign contribution was whether it was made for the purpose of influencing an election, rather than, say, for the purpose of sparing an adulterer’s family from embarrassment. The latter is what got John Edwards off the hook from this same sort of problem a few years ago. In the end, the feds couldn’t prove that his mistress was being hushed up to protect his presidential candidacy rather than to protect Mrs. Edwards from some personal pain.
Which brings us to today’s news. “AMI has not paid people to kill damaging stories about Mr. Trump,” said the company to the WSJ in a statement for its original story about this in November 2016. Two years later, AMI’s now saying something different. And suddenly the president’s in real trouble.
The [U.S. Attorney’s] Office also announced today that it has previously reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, in connection with AMI’s role in making the above-described $150,000 payment before the 2016 presidential election. As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.
AMI just shredded Trump’s “Edwards defense.” The payment wasn’t made to spare Melania Trump or the Trump children from the embarrassment of learning about the affair. It was made to influence the election — that is, it was a campaign contribution. And it wasn’t reported. And it exceeded the statutory cap. And it was made in concert with the campaign. The DOJ has crept right up to the point of accusing the president of conspiring with AMI to make an illegal contribution. This is why I thought it was silly on Monday for Republican senators to be shrugging off last Friday’s court filings about Cohen on grounds that he’s a sleazeball and a liar whom no one should take seriously. He is a sleazeball and a liar, to be sure, but the feds never would have gone as far as to implicate Trump unless they had evidence beyond Cohen’s say-so. Today it’s implied that they do have more: They have AMI, not just Cohen, confirming that the law was intentionally broken and that “the campaign” knew about it. What does AMI know about Trump’s personal involvement in this?
Trump’s defense now (and maybe it’s the only defense left) will be that he didn’t know. Whatever Cohen and “the campaign” were up to, he remained blissfully unaware. We’ll see, but again — the DOJ is fully aware of what it’s implying in its filings about Cohen and today’s press release. They’re casting extraordinary suspicion on the president. It would be a disgrace and a political outrage if it turned out they had no hard evidence to support that, which means either (a) they’ve gone rogue or (b) they *do* have hard evidence of Trump’s complicity. Remember this tidbit from August, via Law & Crime?
NEW YORK (AP) — The National Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Donald Trump leading up to 2016 presidential election, people familiar with the arrangement told The AP.
— Ken Thomas (@KThomasDC) August 23, 2018
Remember too this summer when it emerged that Cohen had kept some recordings of him and Trump discussing business? The short snippet of audio that was published at the time … had to do with the Karen McDougal payoff. What if Cohen actually has Trump on tape scheming with him to get Pecker to buy McDougal’s silence so that she doesn’t make trouble for him in the waning days of the campaign?
I can’t believe we’re headed for another national debate over whether a president should be impeached for lying (to the FEC this time) about sex.