Donald Trump owes his current lofty position, in large part, to tabloid journalism and its offshoots. During the nineteen-eighties, when he was an up-and-comer on the New York real-estate scene, he was constantly planting puff stories about himself in the city’s tabloids, sometimes by posing as a fictitious spokesman, John Barron. (“I believe on occasion I used that name,” he conceded during a 1990 deposition.) In 1990, his nasty split from his first wife, Ivana, played out on the front pages of the Post and the Daily News, enhancing his celebrity status. During the nineteen-nineties, huge debts forced some of Trump’s businesses into bankruptcy, but he resurrected his career by persuading the banks not to abandon him and, eventually, by becoming a star on reality television, itself a bastardized form of tabloid journalism. In turn, the persona of the ruthlessly decisive mogul that Trump affected on “The Apprentice” provided a platform for his successful Presidential campaign. What greater irony could there be, therefore, than the fact that it is Trump’s links to the tabloid world—rather than his campaign’s ties to Russia, or his self-dealing—that is now posing the most immediate threat to his Presidency.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York published details of a coöperation agreement it reached in September with American Media, Inc., the parent company of numerous supermarket tabloids, including the National Enquirer, Globe, and Star magazine. In a “Statement of Admitted Facts” appended to the agreement, the following paragraph appears:
In or about August 2015, David Pecker, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AMI, met with Michael Cohen, an attorney for a presidential candidate, and at least one other member of the campaign. At the meeting, Pecker helped offer to deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationship with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. Pecker agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such negative stories.
The document goes on to detail the story of how, in the summer of 2016, Pecker and A.M.I., at Cohen’s request, paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to “a model and actress attempting to sell her story of her alleged extra-marital affair with the aforementioned presidential candidate.” (The woman was Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year.) The statement went on, “At no time during the negotiation for or acquisition of model’s story did AMI intend to publish the story or disseminate information about it publicly.”
Consider, for a moment, what these passages mean. For the past nineteen months, investigators working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, have been delving into the Trump campaign’s possible involvement in a criminal conspiracy with Russians to affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Mueller has already released some damning information, but we are still waiting for the full findings of his investigation. Meanwhile, however, the prosecutors at the Southern District have already confirmed the existence of a conspiracy that had nothing to do with Russia, but which was explicitly designed to influence the outcome of the election.
Trump denies this, of course. The other day, he said in a tweet that the payments made to McDougal and Stormy Daniels were “a simple private transaction.” But that appears to be contradicted by the revelation that “at least one other member of the campaign” attended the August, 2015, meeting with Packer and Cohen. Who was this person (or persons)? Was it Trump himself, perhaps? The New York prosecutors haven’t let the answer slip yet, but on Thursday NBC News reported that it had confirmed through “a person familiar with the matter” that Trump was indeed the other person present. If that is true, he has a lot of explaining to do, and that’s putting it lightly.
Another key point to note is that prosecutors now have corroborating witnesses beyond the blemished figure of Cohen, and even beyond Pecker, who is an old friend of Trump. The statement of agreed facts says, “AMI has made various personnel from AMI available for numerous interviews.” The coöperation agreement says that A.M.I. pledged to hand over “any document, record, or any other tangible evidence relating to matters about which this Office or any designated law enforcement agency inquires of it.” And if Pecker or anybody else at A.M.I. stops providing full and truthful coöperation, “AMI shall thereafter be subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this Office has knowledge, including perjury and obstruction of justice.”
To be sure, none of this means that Trump is about to be indicted for campaign-finance violations, which were among the charges that Cohen pleaded guilty to before he received a three-year prison sentence. To prove a case against Trump, the prosecutors would have to show intent. And in any case, the Justice Department remains unlikely to approve an indictment of a sitting President, even though some experts say that there is no convincing legal basis for this position.
But that doesn’t mean Trump is in the clear. With talk of impeachment spreading like a virus, his survival, more than ever, depends on the support of Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly G.O.P. senators. And although in recent days the majority of these senators have kept silent or expressed support for the President, one or two have expressed dissident thoughts. “If someone has violated the law, the application of the law should be applied to them like it would to any other citizen in this country, and obviously if you’re in a position of great authority like the Presidency that would be the case,” Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, said on Sunday. Then, on Tuesday, Senator Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, said, “Am I concerned that the President might be involved in a crime? Of course. The only question is, then, whether or not this so-called hush money is a crime.”
If you are Donald Trump, stewing in the private quarters of the White House, that isn’t the sort of thing you want to hear, but it might eventually make a good yarn for readers of the National Enquirer. “Do they want to read that someone who is that successful is now failing? Yes,” Pecker told my colleague Jeffrey Toobin last year. “These are people that live their life failing, so they want to read negative things about people who have gone up and then come down.”
In the tabloid world, as Trump well knows, it is dog-eat-dog. And right now, he’s the one being consumed.