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Why FBI Investigators Might Be Interested In 'National Enquirer's' Political Turn

Apr 13, 2018
Originally published on April 13, 2018 10:38 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When federal prosecutors served President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, a warrant this week, one of the things on the list was Cohen's communications with a man named David J. Pecker. Pecker is the chairman of American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, you know, the tabloid in your grocery store checkout lane. Lately the Enquirer's front pages have often been plastered with headlines defending the president like this one - quote, "Proof - FBI Plot To Impeach Trump."

Well, to help us understand the Enquirer's political turn and why investigators might care about this, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So let me start by noting the Enquirer endorsed Trump for president, the first endorsement in its 90-year history. What do we know about the relationship between Donald Trump and the people who own the Enquirer?

FOLKENFLIK: Could hardly be closer. David Pecker has described himself more than once as a personal friend of the president, and they certainly have socialized together and spent time together. It's worth noting also that two former Trump executives went over and worked for the parent company of the Enquirer - that they strategized in 2015 with the president's lawyer Michael Cohen on ways they could, as it was put, surface negative information about Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, in anticipation of the election. This is a pretty tight alliance that's going on there.

KELLY: OK, so back to the reason that we are talking about this this week, FBI agents raid Michael Cohen's office. One of the things they're looking at is communications that Cohen may have had with David Pecker. Why would they be looking for those?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there are at least two signal events that have attracted the attention if we go under the premise as reported that Michael Cohen's activities to suppress damaging information about the president may have constituted illegal activity under federal criminal laws. And obviously the National Enquirer is implicated in that in terms of his dealings with them. The Enquirer paid a significant amount of money to a former Playboy model who has said that she has had an affair with the president that lasted many months. And she was given a sizable amount of money for a contract supposedly to write a column about wellness and fitness for one of National Enquirer's sister publications. And this was seen as sort of a catch-and-kill, an attempt by the Enquirer to obtain the full and exclusive rights to this story and never have it see the light of day.

Similarly, in the last couple of days, a doorman who used to work at Trump Tower has said that he was paid money to suppress his tale of a woman whose child was born out of wedlock and whose father was apparently the man who's now president of the United States. This...

KELLY: We should say there's no evidence we know of that what the doorman said was true.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. It's his story. But news organizations don't tend to pay for stories they don't intend to run, and if they do, they usually want their money back. This appears to be more about the proximity to the president than anything else.

KELLY: You said this practice has a name, catch-and-kill. Is it legal?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that may well be what we find out. Certainly Common Cause, a public interest group that's been very critical of the president - number of fronts has filed a complaint. They said in a statement that I received that they filed it with the Federal Elections Commission and the Department of Justice to see if these payments in some ways constituted illegal campaign contributions aiding the president's cause.

KELLY: I guess this gets at a fundamental question about the National Enquirer and what laws might apply here. Is what they're doing journalism? Is - do you think of the Enquirer as a newspaper or as a political tool or what?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's certainly worth pointing out that the Enquirer's parent company says that they're going to insist on the full constitutional free speech protections that would be enjoyed by NPR or The New York Times. But...

KELLY: First Amendment rights - we can publish or not publish what we want.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right - without fear or favor. In this case, there seems to be fear and favor. That's not an illegal question. But if they violated the law, if this constituted, for example, a federal elections illegal gift to the president's cause, being a journalistic outfit, even a respected one, doesn't protect you on that.

KELLY: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.