On Wednesday, while the political world was focused on the news that former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen had been sentenced to three years in prison for a variety of crimes, something else of potentially huge import got somewhat glossed over: American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, admitted it had helped facilitate a hush payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation being run by the Southern District of New York.
That is a VERY big deal for two major reasons.
First, AMI admitted that, in coordination with Trump’s presidential campaign, it had paid McDougal $150,000 in the run-up to the election for the exclusive rights to her story that she had an affair with Donald Trump a decade earlier.
Here’s the exact wording from the SDNY press release on Wednesday (bolding is mine):
“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.”
So, AMI is acknowledging for the first time that not only did it make the payment to McDougal, which it has long lied about publicly, but it also did so in concert with Trump’s campaign.
The AMI settlement jibes with what we learned last week in the SDNY sentencing document on Cohen, in which the office makes clear they believe that Cohen made and sought to hide the payment to McDougal (as well as another six-figure payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels) at the direction and coordination of Trump. Trump, for what it’s worth, has repeatedly expressed ignorance about the payments to Daniels and McDougal as well as where the money came from. We know the money came from Trump and, according to federal prosecutors, he directed the entire hush money operation.
Perhaps the most important thing that the AMI settlement does, however, is make clear that the payment and the coordination with the Trump campaign was, according to the SDNY release, done by AMI “to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”
That’s of critical import, because Trump’s latest argument is that while Daniels and McDougal were clearly paid off – remember that he has long denied that – it had nothing to do with his campaign or his prospects of winning. “So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not,” he tweeted on Monday.
But AMI is admitting in their settlement deal that the goal of catching and killing McDougal’s story was “to prevent it from influencing the election.” Which means that the $150,000 amounted to an in-kind contribution to the campaign – and broke campaign finance law.
Trump’s problems as a result of the AMI deal don’t stop there.
Why? Because of this line in the SDNY release (again, bolding is mine):
“The agreement also acknowledges, among other things, AMI’s acceptance of responsibility, its substantial and important assistance in this investigation, and its agreement to provide cooperation in the future and implement specific improvements to its internal compliance to prevent future violations of the federal campaign finance laws.”
“Cooperation in the future” is a very open-ended term. And a very fraught one if you are Donald Trump. It seems very unlikely that the catch-and-kill ploy that the Enquirer pulled with McDougal is the first and only time it ever did anything else like this with Trump. That’s not to say there were lots and lots of women alleging affairs (we have no way of knowing at the moment) but it is to say that AMI – and its head David Pecker, a longtime friend of the President – may have helped bury other stories about Trump that were less than flattering.
There’s now a very real chance that at least some of those stories may come out as a result of this cooperation agreement. While that may serve to only embarrass Trump rather than put him in the obvious legal peril that the McDougal payout – and Trump’s lies about it – do, it is still a dark cloud hanging over this White House as the 2020 election cycle begins.
In short: We may look back on Wednesday – when this is all said and done – as not the day that Michael Cohen got sentenced, but rather the day that AMI started working with the feds.