National Enquirer’s Help for Trump Broke Norms Even in the Tabloid World

The National Enquirer was more than a friendly media outlet for Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. It was a powerful, national political weapon that was thrust into the service of a single candidate, in violation of campaign finance law.

The tabloid’s former publisher, David Pecker, testified nonchalantly on Tuesday about how the tabloid operated in tandem with the Trump campaign, “catching and killing” potentially damaging stories and running elaborate and false hit pieces on Mr. Trump’s opponents. But its practices were unusual even in the wild supermarket tabloid news game.

By the admission of The Enquirer’s own publisher — first made to federal prosecutors years ago during the prosecution of Mr. Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen — the tabloid was operating with the full intention of helping Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Under the First Amendment, newspapers are permitted to support candidates. But The Enquirer’s support went beyond journalism: The publication paid $150,000 for a story a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, was preparing to tell about an affair she said she had with the candidate. Then, it published nothing.

That sort of deal is not unusual in the tabloid news trade, even if it violates journalistic standards followed by mainstream American outlets like this one, which have rules against paying sources.

But before 2016, there had never been a known catch-and-kill deal to aid a presidential campaign. In that context, The Enquirer’s payment violated federal campaign laws prohibiting corporations from donating to presidential candidates — who are limited to receiving direct donations of $4,400 per person — and forbidding them to coordinate election-related spending with campaigns.

As The Enquirer’s parent company at the time, American Media, admitted in a “non-prosecution” deal with the federal government in 2018: “AMI knew that corporations such as AMI are subject to federal campaign finance laws, and that expenditures by corporations, made for purposes of influencing an election and in coordination with or at the request of a candidate or campaign, are unlawful.”

The deal helped secure Tuesday’s testimony.

(The Federal Election Commission later hit The Enquirer’s parent company with fines of $187,000; Mr. Trump’s campaign escaped sanction.)

The Enquirer was also providing a hidden value to Mr. Trump: By giving over its cover to his political needs, Mr. Pecker gave him the equivalent of free advertising space at most major supermarket checkout lines in the country, where the tabloid had long ago secured prime placement.

One expert said at the time that such exposure could be worth as much as $3 million a month.

Worth potentially even more: The Enquirer’s agreement to keep from the checkout line not only Ms. McDougal’s story but the cache of Trump dirt it had in its own files — “tabloid gold” that would never see the light of day.

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