Federal investigators have provided ample evidence that President Trump was involved in deals to pay two women to keep them from speaking publicly before the 2016 election about affairs that they said they had with him.
But it turns out that Mr. Trump wanted to go even further.
He and his lawyer at the time, Michael D. Cohen, devised a plan to buy up all the dirt on Mr. Trump that the National Enquirer and its parent company had collected on him, dating back to the 1980s, according to several of Mr. Trump’s associates.
The existence of the plan, which was never finalized, has not been reported before. But it was strongly hinted at in a recording that Mr. Cohen’s lawyer released last month of a conversation about payoffs that Mr. Cohen had with Mr. Trump.
“It’s all the stuff — all the stuff, because you never know,” Mr. Cohen said on the recording.
The move by Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen indicated just how concerned they were about all the information amassed by the company, American Media, and its chairman, David Pecker, a loyal Trump ally of two decades who has cooperated with investigators.
It is not clear yet whether the proposed plan to purchase all the information from American Media has attracted the interest of federal prosecutors in New York, who last week obtained a guilty plea from Mr. Cohen over a $130,000 payment to the adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, and a $150,000 payment to a Playboy model, Karen McDougal.
But the prosecutors have provided at least partial immunity to Mr. Pecker, who is a key witness in their inquiry into payments made on behalf of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign.
In providing the guilty plea, Mr. Cohen had said the payments to the women came at Mr. Trump’s direction as part of a broader effort to protect his candidacy. The discussed purchase of American Media’s broader cache of Trump information appears to have been part of the same effort.
The people who knew about the discussions would speak about them only on condition of anonymity, given that they are now the potential subject of a federal investigation that did not end with Mr. Cohen’s plea.
Lawyers for Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen declined to comment for this article as did American Media.
It is not known how much of the material on Mr. Trump is still in American Media’s possession or whether American Media destroyed any of it after the campaign. Prosecutors have not said whether they have obtained any of the material beyond that which pertains to Ms. McDougal and Ms. Clifford and the discussions about their arrangements.
For the better part of two decades, Mr. Pecker had ordered his staff at American Media to protect Mr. Trump from troublesome stories, in some cases by buying up stories about him and filing them away.
In 2016, he kept his staff from going back through the old Trump tip and story files that dated to before Mr. Pecker became company chairman in 1999, several former staff members said in interviews with The New York Times.
That meant that American Media, the nation’s largest gossip publisher, did not play a role during the election year in vetting a presidential candidacy — Mr. Trump’s — made for the tabloids.
Mr. Pecker also worked with Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen to buy and bury Ms. McDougal’s story of an affair with Mr. Trump, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Mr. Cohen admitted as much in making his guilty plea last week.
In August 2016, American Media acquired the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story in return for $150,000 and commitments to use its magazines to promote her career as a fitness specialist. But American Media never published her allegations about a relationship with Mr. Trump.
Shortly after American Media completed the arrangement with Ms. McDougal at Mr. Trump’s behest, a troubling question began to nag at Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen, according to several people who knew about the discussions at the time: What would happen to America Media’s sensitive Trump files if Mr. Pecker were to leave the company?
Mr. Cohen, those people said, was hearing rumors that Mr. Pecker might leave American Media for Time magazine — a title Mr. Pecker is known to have dreams of running.
There was perennial talk about American Media’s business troubles. And Mr. Trump appeared to take a world-wearier view of the wisdom of leaving his sensitive personal secrets in someone else’s hands:
“Maybe he gets hit by a truck,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Pecker in a conversation with Mr. Cohen, musing about an unfortunate mishap befalling his good friend.
Mr. Cohen captured that conversation on a recording that his adviser released roughly a month before his guilty plea, which included two counts of campaign finance violations relating to the payments to Ms. Clifford and Ms. McDougal. The recording was given to CNN after Mr. Trump’s main lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, acknowledged its existence to The New York Times.
When The Times first reported that the recording had been discovered by the F.B.I., people close to Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump initially described it in the narrow context of Ms. McDougal’s deal.
But Mr. Cohen, in fact, indicates in the audio that he and Mr. Trump are speaking about an arrangement involving far more.
“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info, regarding our friend David,” Mr. Cohen says in reference to Mr. Pecker.
The plan got far enough along that Mr. Cohen relays in the recorded conversation that he had discussed paying for all the information from American Media with the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
“I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up,” he says, adding about Mr. Pecker, “We’ll have to pay him something.”
In the end, the deal never came together.
When Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty, prosecutors said in court documents that Mr. Cohen and American Media did enter into a deal in which Mr. Cohen agreed to pay the company $125,000 for the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story.
After the deal was signed but before Mr. Cohen paid, prosecutors said, American Media backed out of the arrangement and warned Mr. Cohen to shred the paperwork (he did not).
Prosecutors said there had been discussions between Mr. Pecker and Mr. Cohen in which Mr. Cohen said American Media would be reimbursed for the payment to Ms. McDougal.
The notoriously frugal Mr. Trump balked at doing so, causing Mr. Pecker anxiety about explaining the payout to his board, according to a person briefed on the discussions. It was unclear whether Mr. Trump ever provided a reimbursement.
Mr. Weisselberg ultimately provided information about Mr. Cohen under a deal that protected him from self-incrimination. As prosecutors continue in their investigation, Mr. Weisselberg could serve as a particularly helpful guide through the Trump Organization’s operations.
Mr. Pecker, whose company is expected to be of continued interest in the investigation, has a similar arrangement with prosecutors. Potentially as worrisome for Mr. Trump and his advisers, Mr. Pecker could be a particularly knowing guide through any other potentially illegal efforts made to protect Mr. Trump’s candidacy from his own less savory exploits.
“The only thing better than a single piece of evidence is multiple pieces of evidence,” said Jeff Tsai, a lawyer now in private practice who, as a Justice Department public integrity section lawyer, had served on the team that prosecuted Senator John Edwards on campaign finance charges in 2012.
He added, “Look to whom the government is reportedly giving immunity to. Those individuals are the ones who would have knowledge about what, if anything, the campaign at the highest, or lowest, or any level in between had on this issue.”
People with knowledge of American Media’s operations, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, described the files on Mr. Trump as mostly older National Enquirer stories about Mr. Trump’s marital woes and lawsuits; related story notes and lists of sensitive sources; some tips about alleged affairs; and minutia, like allegations of unscrupulous golfing.
As The Associated Press reported last week, some of the information was kept in a safe devoted to particularly sensitive material.
Many of the older National Enquirer stories are often not accessible through Google or databases like Nexis.
Several former American Media staff members said that at the very least, the material the company had on Mr. Trump would have put its flagship, The Enquirer, in a prime position to dominate on coverage of Mr. Trump’s scandalous past.
Ben Protess contributed reporting.