The tabloid is accused of covering up stories. Its reach and connections say a lot about power in America.
Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein have a few things in common.
They both ascended to positions of power — Trump, obviously, is still there. They both have been accused of harassment and sexual assault by multiple women. And both reportedly had close relationships with the leadership of the National Enquirer.
By the 2010s, the Enquirer had a reputation as a racy supermarket tabloid, known for breaking stories about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and John Edwards’s affair with Rielle Hunter. But more important than the stories it ran may have been the ones it didn’t: stories about allegations against Trump and Weinstein that, according to New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow, its editors and executives worked to suppress.
That process, known as “catch and kill,” is the subject of Farrow’s recent book. And on Tuesday, Barry Levine, a former executive editor at the Enquirer, published his own book with journalist Monique El-Faizy, detailing 43 new allegations of “inappropriate behavior” by Trump over the course of his life. (Trump has denied all allegations of sexual misconduct.) It’s not clear which, if any, of these allegations were known to the Enquirer before the 2016 election, and Levine told Vox that all the reporting in the book is new. But some of the allegations date back decades and are a reminder of the many, many stories that women had about Trump — if media outlets were interested in publishing them.
It’s now been three years since Trump was heard on tape bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and two years since the Weinstein allegations first broke in the New York Times. The work of investigative journalists has revealed much about sexual misconduct by powerful men and its impact on the people, many of them women, who experience it. It’s also revealed the networks of complicity and influence that protected those men for years, and in some cases may be protecting them still.
The National Enquirer was the nexus of one such network, according to Farrow and others.
The Enquirer’s longtime parent company, AMI, denies the allegations in Farrow’s book. “Mr. Farrow’s narrative is driven by unsubstantiated allegations from questionable sources and while these stories may be dramatic, they are completely untrue,” a company spokesperson told Vox.
But even what’s publicly known about AMI and Trump shows the company helped shape the narrative of his public and private life during the 2016 campaign in ways unquestionably favorable to him. And Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein only adds to a long list of people and institutions accused of enabling the producer over the years, while, according to dozens of women, he was committing harassment and sexual assault. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of “nonconsensual sexual activity” and has pleaded not guilty to sexual assault charges.)
The history of the Enquirer and its ties to Trump, Weinstein, and others is a reminder that abuse of power doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Just as important as the misdeeds of powerful men are the people willing to cover up those misdeeds and what they hope to get in return.
AMI paid to keep Karen McDougal quiet about Trump. It was also involved in the Stormy Daniels payout, Farrow reports.
Founded in 1926 as the New York Enquirer, the National Enquirer gained a reputation in the 1950s for salacious stories with lines like, “I’m sorry I killed my mother, but I’m glad I killed my father,” according to the International Directory of Company Histories. In the 1980s, the paper’s parent company acquired other publications including the Weekly World News (which became famous for questionable stories like that of a “bat child” allegedly found in a cave), and in 1995 it changed its name from Enquirer/Star Group to American Media Inc. (AMI). The company, which sold off the National Enquirer in April, still uses the name AMI today.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Enquirer ran racy stories about celebrities and politicians, often about extramarital affairs or drug use. While many headlines seemed salacious and unfounded, others about Democratic politician John Edwards’s “secret love child” and right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh’s problem with painkillers proved true.
In 1999, David Pecker bought AMI and became its CEO. Over the years, Pecker developed a friendship with Donald Trump. When Trump decided to run for president, the paper officially endorsed him and ran glowing coverage of his campaign. After the 2016 election, Pecker told a reporter that criticizing Trump was the same as criticizing AMI, because “the guy’s a personal friend of mine,” Farrow writes.
And according to Farrow, AMI had a hand in at least three stories that could have negatively affected his run.
The first was in 2015, when Dino Sajudin, a former doorman at Trump Tower, told AMI that Trump had fathered a child with Trump’s former housekeeper, according to Farrow. Reporters pursued the story, Farrow writes, and the Enquirer even hired private investigators. But then, according to Catch and Kill, Pecker put a stop to the investigation. Instead, AMI agreed to pay Sajudin $30,000 for the rights to his story, with a $1 million penalty if Sajudin ever told it without the company’s permission, Farrow reports.
The substance of the story has never been confirmed, and Sajudin’s ex-wife said he had a habit of telling tall tales — “he’s seen Bigfoot,” she said, according to Farrow. But Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen monitored the process of buying and hushing up the story, according to Farrow. “There’s no question it was done as a favor to continue to protect Trump,” a former AMI employee told the reporter.
The next high-profile story to come to AMI was that of Karen McDougal. The fitness expert and former Playboy model says she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007, while he was married to his current wife, Melania Trump. With his presidential campaign in full swing in 2016, McDougal decided to tell her story before someone else did, according to Farrow.
Through a lawyer, she got in touch with AMI. According to Farrow, Pecker quickly alerted Cohen to the story, and Trump asked Pecker for help. So AMI agreed in August 2016 to pay her $150,000 for the rights to the story, Farrow reports, which it never published (the men who helped broker the deal got 45 percent of the payment, leaving McDougal with $82,500). McDougal told Farrow she was unsure what she was allowed to say publicly under the agreement.
“It took my rights away,” McDougal said of the agreement. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.”
AMI told Farrow that thanks to an amendment to her contract, McDougal was actually allowed to “respond to legitimate press inquiries” about her relationship with Trump. The company maintained that its payment to McDougal hadn’t been an example of “catch and kill” and that it didn’t run her story because it did not find it credible.
Later in 2016, Farrow writes, Stormy Daniels approached AMI, through her lawyer, Keith Davidson, who had already represented McDougal in her deal with the company. Daniels, a porn actress and director, says she had sex with Trump in 2006, when he was married to Melania. When Davidson approached AMI with her story, the company passed, according to Farrow: “Pecker had just extended himself for Trump and was growing antsy about the potential for fallout.”
However, Farrow writes, National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard directed Daniels to Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, who paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money through a shell company — and ultimately went to prison for it.
The Enquirer may have been privy to other information about Trump
There have also been hints, both in Farrow’s book and elsewhere, of more material on Trump that the Enquirer might have had and chosen not to publish. One former National Enquirer editor told Farrow that the paper had killed around 10 fully reported stories about Trump over the years and turned down potential leads on many more.
In 2018, Page Six reported that Barry Levine, former executive editor of the Enquirer, was writing a book about Trump. Levine had left the Enquirer in March 2016 after 17 years with the paper, and when his upcoming book was announced, many speculated that it could contain new revelations about the relationship between Pecker, the Enquirer, and the man who became president. “The National Enquirer’s long-held secrets about Donald Trump may be about to get substantially less secret,” Oli Coleman wrote at Page Six.
Levine’s book, All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator, written with journalist and author Monique El-Faizy, was released this week. Contrary to the speculation, it doesn’t seem to reveal anything about the Enquirer or AMI; David Pecker isn’t mentioned. In writing about the deal with McDougal, Levine and El-Faizy don’t even bring up AMI, writing only that “a party working on Trump’s behalf paid McDougal $150,000 to buy her silence.”
Asked about the decision not to discuss Pecker or AMI in the book, Levine told Vox in an email, “It’s my practice not to comment on any past jobs I’ve had over my 40-year career in print and TV.” By the same token, he did not comment on whether he had been aware of any efforts to kill Trump-related stories during his time at the Enquirer. In 2018, though, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to former Enquirer employees, tips about Trump “poured into” the publication after Trump started on Celebrity Apprentice in 2002, and Levine reminded staffers that “Mr. Pecker wouldn’t allow” stories that painted Trump in a bad light.
Levine told Vox that all the reporting in All the President’s Women took place after he left the Enquirer — “I began this book project in the spring of 2018, and embarked on all original and new reporting,” he said, “and I’m very proud of what my little reporting team accomplished!” (In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Levine cites the contributions of El-Faizy as well as two other reporters, Whitney Clegg and Lucy Osborne.)
Still, many of the allegations in All the President’s Women date back years. Karen Johnson, for example, says that at a party at Mar-a-Lago in the 2000s, Trump grabbed her, pulled her behind a tapestry, and kissed her without her consent.
Barbara Pilling, a model, says when she met Trump at a party in 1989, he asked her age. When she replied that she was 17, he said, “That’s just great; you’re not too old, not too young.” He told her she was gorgeous and offered to take her to dinner, she recalled. And when a waitress walked by, Pilling said, “Trump slapped her on the behind.”
David Webber, a fashion photographer, told Levine and El-Faizy that at a nightclub party in the 1990s, he noticed that Trump had a girl, likely no older than 16, cornered — “he had surrounded her with his bigness, if you like. He had one hand on the wall to one side and she was against the wall.”
“Our faces met across the room and she mouthed ‘Help’ at me,” Webber recalled to the authors. When he intervened and pulled her away, she thanked him profusely, he said. Of Trump, Webber said, “He was a predator. Absolutely.” (Trump declined to comment for Levine and El-Faizy’s book.)
Of course, these stories only add to the multitude of allegations against Trump that are already public; at least 22 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. There’s no way to know how many, if any, of the allegations against Trump were known to AMI staff before the election.
But Levine and El-Faizy paint a picture of a man who, by the time he sought the nomination, had been known for decades in his circles for predatory behavior and unwanted advances. If he had been someone else, the Enquirer might well have dug into the many stories about him, especially when he turned from reality TV host to presidential candidate. Instead, as Farrow notes, when the paper ran a feature on “Twisted Secrets of the Candidates,” Trump’s “secret” was: “He has greater support and popularity than even he’s admitted to!”
AMI is also accused of blackmailing Trump enemy Jeff Bezos
Pecker’s relationship with Trump continued after the latter took office, according to Farrow. AMI employees told the reporter that Trump associates had introduced Pecker to potential funding sources for the company. In 2017, Pecker had dinner at the White House with “a French businessman known for brokering deals with Saudi Arabia,” Farrow writes. Two months later, the businessman and Pecker met with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
In 2018, AMI published a nearly 100-page, ad-free magazine full of articles, many of them unbylined, praising MBS, as Spencer Ackerman reported at the Daily Beast. The magazine called MBS “our closest Middle East ally destroying terrorism” and included coverage of “New Rights for Saudi Women.” AMI said it had no outside help publishing the magazine and compared it to special issues on “The Royals, Elvis, The Kennedys, The Olympics, etc.” (all subjects better known to Americans than MBS, Ackerman notes).
The magazine also included five photographs of Trump, including one of him shaking Salman’s hand. Next to that photograph is one of Salman shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Around 2018, Farrow reports, Enquirer editor Dylan Howard began pursuing a story on allegations of infidelity by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Trump has long made plain his hatred for Bezos, who he calls “Jeff Bozo,” who also owns the Washington Post, part of the “Fake News Media” Trump so disdains.
In late 2018, the Washington Post was investigating the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In November, the paper was the first to report that according to the CIA, his death had been ordered by Salman.
In February 2019, Bezos wrote in a blog post on Medium that AMI leadership had approached him to say that it had texts and photographs (including what Howard, in an email, called a “d*ck pick”) proving that Bezos was having an affair. AMI, he said, offered not to publish them if the Post would stop its investigations into Saudi Arabia.
Instead, Bezos chose to publish the email he’d received from AMI. “These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism,” Bezos wrote. “Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption.”
In a statement at the time, AMI said that it would investigate Bezos’s claims, but that it had been engaged in “good faith negotiations to resolve all matters” with Bezos.
According to Farrow, however, AMI’s reputation for blackmail was well-earned, with multiple employees saying the company engaged in the practice of “withholding the publication of damaging information in exchange for tips or exclusives.”
Employees also spoke of the company’s “steadily accumulating blackmail power over Trump,” Farrow writes.
“In theory, you would think that Trump has all the power in that relationship,” Maxine Page, an AMI employee on and off from 2002 to 2012, told Farrow, “but in fact Pecker has the power — he has the power to run these stories. He knows where the bodies are buried.”
Another powerful AMI friend was Harvey Weinstein
But Trump wasn’t the only powerful man with a close relationship with AMI, Farrow writes. In 2015, AMI struck a production deal with Harvey Weinstein, and Howard and the producer became friends. According to Farrow, AMI then repeatedly sought to keep sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein from coming to light.
Howard explored a “catch and kill” agreement to keep Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who reported to police that Weinstein had groped her, from telling her story publicly, Farrow writes. According to the reporter, AMI staffers were also asked to pursue damaging stories on actress Ashley Judd. And after Rose McGowan tweeted that she had been raped by a “studio head” — referring, many guessed, to Weinstein — Howard said, “I want dirt on that bitch,” a former colleague told Farrow.
In late 2016, an AMI subcontractor made a secret recording of a woman saying damaging things about McGowan, according to Farrow. “I have something AMAZING,” Howard wrote to Weinstein, Farrow reports.
“This is the killer,” Weinstein replied. “Especially if my fingerprints r not on this.”
According to Farrow, Weinstein may have tried to keep the allegations against him hidden by using AMI’s reporting on another powerful man secretly facing sexual misconduct allegations: Matt Lauer. In 2016, when Farrow began reporting on the allegations against Weinstein, he was working at NBC, where Lauer was the co-host of Today and a major face of the network.
The Enquirer had been following allegations against Lauer for years, Farrow writes. As Farrow conducted his reporting on Weinstein, the Enquirer began contacting NBC employees about Lauer and running stories alleging that he was cheating on his wife, according to Catch and Kill. And sources at both AMI and NBC told Farrow they’d heard that Weinstein himself had made clear to NBC “that he was aware of Lauer’s behavior and capable of revealing it.” In other words, if NBC published allegations against Weinstein, then Weinstein would make public what he knew about Lauer.
NBC has denied that it was ever threatened with exposure of Lauer, and NBC executives say they didn’t know about the allegations against Lauer until November 2017. Weinstein has also denied threatening NBC. But Farrow writes that “there was no doubt that the allegations against Lauer, and NBC’s wider use of nondisclosure agreements with women who experienced harassment, were under threat of exposure during our reporting. That precarious culture of secrecy made NBC more vulnerable to Harvey Weinstein’s intimidation and enticement.”
Ultimately, NBC told Farrow he could no longer work on the Weinstein story at the network — “I can’t have you going to any more sources,” NBC President Noah Oppenheim told Farrow, according to Catch and Kill.
Instead, Farrow ultimately published his reporting on Weinstein in the New Yorker, just a few days after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their groundbreaking exposé on allegations against the producer in the New York Times. Together, the two pieces helped open the floodgates, with more and more women coming forward about their experiences with Weinstein and other powerful men. The stories helped catapult the Me Too movement into its current, most public phase.
Some — but not all — of the National Enquirer’s powerful friends in its AMI years have faced consequences.
After the allegations against him were made public, Weinstein was fired from his production company and, eventually, indicted. He is scheduled to face trial in New York in January on sexual assault charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.
The allegations about Lauer that had so frightened NBC, according to Farrow, were soon revealed, with journalists at the New York Times and Variety reporting on sexual assault and other misconduct allegations against the anchor. Lauer was fired in November 2017. (In response to allegations made in Farrow’s book, Lauer said earlier this month that women had made up false claims about him to cover their own infidelity.)
The National Enquirer and AMI have faced their own legal troubles. AMI’s payment to Karen McDougal was determined to be an illegal campaign contribution in 2018. The company struck a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors to avoid penalties as long as it refrained from committing crimes for a year — but its alleged threats to Bezos may have violated that agreement, and the company could find itself facing multiple charges.
The Enquirer has also gone through a change of ownership. In April, the Washington Post reported that AMI was selling the title to James Cohen, owner of the Hudson Group. However, as Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported at the time, AMI will continue to provide “publishing, financial, and distribution services” to Hudson Group as part of the sale.
“That arrangement, combined with Cohen’s past business dealings and friendship with Pecker, and the fact that Enquirer employees are reportedly not moving from AMI’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, will undoubtedly lead to curiosity about whether Pecker might retain at least a dash of influence” over the Enquirer, Pompeo wrote. (“The titles included in the sale will no longer be a part of American Media and will report to the new owner,” an AMI spokesperson told Vanity Fair.)
Meanwhile, one powerful man has faced no consequences for the cover-ups that Farrow alleges were executed in his name. Though President Trump is currently facing an impeachment inquiry, it’s not about payment to Karen McDougal through AMI or the payment to Stormy Daniels by Michael Cohen allegedly aided by AMI.
In the age of targeted Facebook ads, it can seem almost quaint to care about the influence of a print magazine — especially one like the National Enquirer that harkens back to a bygone era when people got their gossip from the checkout lines in supermarkets. But what the story of AMI shows, according to reporting by Farrow and others, is how eager a group of well-networked men were to protect one another from the stories of women to advance their common interest: power.
The 2010s have been an age of conspiracy theories, many of them false and damaging. But one conspiracy turns out to be real: A lot of the richest, most influential men in the world are friends with each other, and more and more evidence suggests that some of them have helped one another cover up terrible abuse committed against those less powerful than they are. The story of the National Enquirer and AMI appears to be an example of one such cover-up. If, in fact, it is over, another secret network has probably already sprung up to take its place.
Author: Anna North