During the 2016 presidential campaign, National Enquirer executives sent digital copies of the tabloid's articles and cover images related to Donald Trump and his political opponents to Trump's attorney Michael Cohen in advance of publication, according to three people with knowledge of the matter — an assertion that speaks to the close relationship between Trump and David Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., the Enquirer's parent company.
Although the company strongly denies ever sharing such material before publication, the three people say the highly unusual practice continued after Trump took office.
"Since Trump's become president and even before, [Pecker] openly just has been willing to turn the magazine and the cover over to the Trump machine," said one of the people with knowledge of the practice.
During the campaign, "if it was a story specifically about Trump, then it was sent over to Michael, and as long as there were no objections from him, the story could be published," this person added.
The allegation that the Enquirer shared material before publication with Trump's attorney during the campaign would coincide with the support the tabloid news outlet offered Trump as he ran for president. It also intersects with a subject that federal prosecutors have been investigating since earlier this year: Cohen's efforts to quash negative stories about Trump during the campaign. As part of that, prosecutors are also looking into whether Cohen broke campaign finance laws, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors subpoenaed American Media Inc. as part of their investigation into Cohen, according to the Wall Street Journal. A Justice Department official said Pecker did not fall under the regulation that governs when and how prosecutors can obtain records of members of the news media.
"American Media Inc. has, and will continue to, comply with any and all requests that do not jeopardize or violate its protected sources or materials pursuant to our 1st Amendment rights," AMI spokesman Jon Hammond said.
Pecker declined to be interviewed for this story. Dylan Howard, the company's chief content officer, called it "completely false" that Trump and Cohen "were told in advance, and copies were shared in advance, and that they had some sort of sway over who the magazine attacked on any given week."
In an interview last week in AMI's downtown Manhattan offices, Howard said that if stories were shared, "it was not at the behest of me or David. And quite frankly, if they were shared, I'm a little concerned because people are acting as rogues and renegades."
"We made a very public endorsement of Trump," he continued. "So it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for me to commission stories on his opponents given that we had endorsed Donald Trump. And that's what I did," Howard said. "I didn't do that at the behest of candidate Trump or anyone associated with him. I did it because we were chasing good stories."
Trump "has never been consulted on editorial decisions — or by himself or through intermediaries requested an article be written on a given subject or angled in a certain way," Howard said. "We do not run or kill stories on the behest of politicians, even if they are the president of the United States."
Cohen did not return calls or text requests for comment. The White House referred calls to Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Once Enquirer editors sent a story or cover image, sometimes a request for changes came back, according to two of the people with knowledge of the relationship. Stories about Trump were positive in nature, and changes related to the stories were not dramatic, according to one person with knowledge of the matter, who said most of the changes in stories sent to Cohen resulted in more flattering cover photos or changes to cover headlines.
Trump suggested stories to Pecker on a regular basis, one of these people said, and had access to certain pieces — including one about Hillary Clinton's health — before publication.
These people spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared legal action or professional retribution if they spoke publicly about Trump or AMI, which publishes other celebrity-focused titles including Us Weekly, the Globe and Star.
AMI's alleged practice of sharing advance copies of articles with Trump and his intermediaries has not been previously reported. The relationship between Trump and Pecker dates back decades, but the communication between Trump, Cohen and Pecker's publications ramped up during the presidential primaries and the general election campaign in 2016.
According to Sam Nunberg, an early Trump campaign advisor, the Enquirer was Cohen's "account," and the relationship with the Enquirer was "a big commodity" in Trump's circle.
The tabloid "was such a help to Trump during the primary and even the general," said Nunberg, who compared the weekly to a campaign mailer. Mailers are expensive to produce and send to prospective voters, only a small percentage of whom actually open them.
However, "if you get something on the cover of the National Enquirer," Nunberg said, "it's a publication that people pay attention to in the grocery store. You are conveying a message, and it's free media."
During the campaign, in addition to stories written about him, Trump was particularly interested in stories about Clinton's health, two of the people said. They cited two cover stories: the one published in September 2015 that declared she had "SIX MONTHS TO LIVE!" and another a year later that purported to disclose her secret medical file. The cover on the latter issue portrayed Clinton as so pale and aged that she looked, in the words of one former AMI employee, "like a zombie."
That cover story was sent to Cohen in advance, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Howard denied the story was sent outside AMI and said it was not published to advance the agenda or narrative of a particular candidate. "We merely went where the newsstand dictates," he said. An analysis of the Enquirer's newsstand performance showed that covers featuring Trump performed above average and negative stories about Clinton resonated with the Enquirer audience, "just like they have for 20 years," he said.
Cohen, Pecker and Howard communicated about Trump’s GOP primary rivals such as Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and others, according to the three people with knowledge of the practice, plus a fourth person aware of it. Two of these people cited a story on Carson, a neurosurgeon, about his alleged botched operations as an example of a story Trump suggested to Pecker.
Howard said the story came from legal filings, not Trump. After the story ran, Carson said, "Generally speaking, there is no one who does the number of operations that I did who aren't going to find some people who are going to be disgruntled."
The Enquirer had some sway over the news cycle in both the Republican primary and the general election.
During the primary, the paper ran a story on Ted Cruz's father's purported link to the assassination of President Kennedy, a discredited assertion that his campaign called "garbage." There was also a story about Cruz's rumored affairs. Cruz attacked that story — of which there was never any evidence — as a plant from the Trump campaign. But Howard said that the Enquirer cover on Cruz grew out of a tip from operatives close to Sen. Marco Rubio, another GOP primary candidate.
Terry Sullivan, Rubio's former campaign manager, said the notion that Rubio's camp had circulated the Cruz rumors was "utterly bizarre and 100% absurd and not true."
An FBI raid executed April 8 on Cohen's office and residences sought all of the lawyer's records of communications with AMI, Pecker and Howard regarding two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump while he was married, according to three people familiar with the investigation. The search warrant served on Cohen also sought all communications he had with Trump or the Trump campaign about any "negative publicity" that might arise during the presidential race, according to a person familiar with investigators' work. The warrant sought all his communication about an "Access Hollywood" tape that surfaced in October 2016, weeks before the election, in which Trump is heard boasting about groping women as he wished.
In late 2015, AMI paid $30,000 to a onetime Trump Tower doorman who was offering an embarrassing story about then-candidate Trump. The tabloid said in a statement it never published the claim because of questions about its credibility.
In August 2016, former Playboy model Karen McDougal received a $150,000 payment from AMI for her story alleging a 10-month affair with Trump a decade ago, but it did not publish the piece — a practice sometimes called "catch and kill."
McDougal agreed to write fitness columns, pose for AMI covers and not talk about the relationship with Trump. She recently sued to be released from the agreement, and she and the company have since settled.
Trump-related stories were shared primarily with Cohen, two people familiar with the practice said. After Trump took office, the relationship with Cohen continued, they added, while the Enquirer also started working with new intermediaries.
Richard Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at UC Irvine's law school, said that coordinating a message with a political candidate only becomes problematic for a media company if the candidate exerts a level of "control" over the outlet.
If a media corporation submits to a candidate's instructions, "that could amount to a violation of federal election laws," he said.
Though Cohen was the primary conduit between Trump and National Enquirer reporters, Trump on occasion asked Hope Hicks, his former communications advisor, to call Pecker to suggest a story, said one of the people familiar with AMI practices. Sometimes Trump would call Pecker himself.
"When it comes to Pecker, there didn't need to be anybody in between," this person said. "Donald would call David on his cellphone anytime."
Hicks did not respond to requests seeking comment.
"David's relationship with Trump was pretty much on a business level," said Kevin Hyson, chief marketing officer at AMI. Hyson remembered working on a Trump-branded magazine when Pecker was still the CEO of Hachette Filipacchi's U.S. division. Pecker rented out facilities at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a couple of board meetings, and Trump introduced Pecker at Pace University when Pecker received an honorary doctorate.
One of the benefits of the Trump relationship for Pecker might be access to power. "He likes to say, 'I just got off the phone with the president,' " according to a current associate of Pecker's.
Not all coverage of Trump is positive in Pecker's titles. Us Weekly, another AMI publication, has recently run some sympathetic stories about Melania Trump that are implicitly critical of her husband. In one story in late March, in the midst of new publicity around Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who alleges that she had a sexual relationship with Trump, the magazine cited a "family insider" saying that Melania "is very, very unhappy with her life. If she could, she would get away from Donald and just be with her son."
The Enquirer's weekly circulation has plummeted from nearly 900,000 a decade ago to fewer than 300,000 for the six months ending Dec. 31, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. But AMI officials say that the power of the tabloid is not in copies sold but in its cover images displayed in supermarket checkout lines all over the country.
Trump's relationship with the Enquirer predates Pecker, but the connection deepened after Pecker took over in 1999. In "The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer," Iain Calder, the editor of the Enquirer under a previous owner, wrote of Trump: "The man loves publicity — but only if he controls it. He doesn't care if reporters write that he is a tough SOB who fires people, but he gets angry if a story implies he is soft-hearted. He'd often call New York reporters, sometimes giving them news tips, sometimes haranguing them about something he didn't like.