New York (AFP) – For two decades, Donald Trump could count on the backing of his close friend David Pecker, publisher of the tabloid the National Enquirer.
Faced with possible criminal charges, his former ally is cooperating with federal prosecutors examining payments made to suppress negative stories about Trump.
The legal imbroglio has brought an abrupt end to a longtime friendship between two colorful New York personalities — the boastful real estate tycoon and the dapper, mustachioed media baron.
Unlike Trump, scion of a property magnate, 67-year-old Pecker is a self-made man, the son of a bricklayer.
Trump, with his flair for self-promotion, has long cultivated friendships with media personalities — he has expressed his admiration for Rupert Murdoch on numerous occasions — and Pecker was among them.
In 1998, as chief executive of Hachette Filipacchi, Pecker began publishing an in-house promotional magazine for Trump called Trump Style.
Pecker took control the next year of American Media Inc. (AMI), publisher of the National Enquirer and a slew of other titles.
Over the years, the National Enquirer faithfully chronicled the ups and downs of Trump’s love life and business dealings.
– ‘Catch and kill’ –
During the 2016 presidential election, the Enquirer was one of the few media outlets to endorse Trump and it ran a steady stream of negative stories about his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Like other print publications, the National Enquirer has lost hundreds of thousands of readers over the years but it retains a prominent place at supermarket checkout counters.
“The National Enquirer reaches that base, Trump’s base,” Stu Zakim, a former AMI senior vice president, told CNN.
Alongside its fawning coverage of Trump, the Enquirer was also allegedly involved in a practice called “catch and kill” — buying negative stories about him to ensure they did not get published elsewhere — or at all.
It was this practice which allegedly led Trump and Pecker’s AMI — like Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen — to run afoul of campaign finance laws.
According to federal prosecutors, AMI paid $150,000 to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who was going to go public during the election campaign with her claim to have had an affair with Trump.
Prosecutors said AMI made the payment at the request of Cohen, Trump’s attorney, who was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday.
Among the crimes Cohen admitted was arranging the hush money payment to McDougal and another, of $130,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels, who also claimed to have had a sexual encounter with Trump.
– ‘A survivor’ –
The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said that in exchange for AMI’s cooperation it had entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the company.
“As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election,” the US Attorney’s office said.
Trump has sought to pin the blame on Cohen, saying he never instructed him to break the law.
Trump has also insisted that the hush money payments should not be characterized as campaign contributions saying they were a “simple private transaction.”
The president also cast doubt on Thursday as to whether AMI ever received any money from Cohen.
“I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News.
According to US media, Pecker himself has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.
Which is no surprise to Zakim, his former colleague.
“David Pecker looks out for David Pecker,” Zakim told MSNBC in an interview. “So clearly the signs were saying to him — time to take care of yourself.
“David is a survivor.”