In February 2019, Jeff Bezos accused David Pecker and the National Enquirer of extortion and blackmail after the tabloid published intimate pictures taken by the Amazon chief. Pecker and co denied being motivated by a desire to aid Donald Trump or receiving a major assist from Saudi Arabia. It was just about gossip.
Now, as reported by the Guardian, Bezos appears to have been the victim a cellphone hacking attack from the WhatsApp account of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and a friend of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. The FBI and the United Nations are investigating and doubts remain.
In The Fixers, Joe Palazzolo of the Wall Street Journal and Michael Rothfeld of the New York Times expand upon their Pulitzer-winning investigation of Trump’s pre-election hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump, Pecker and Michael Cohen all take center stage.
Subtitled “The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, and Porn Stars Who Created the 45th President”, The Fixers is part morality tale, part tick-tock, a memorable read and a Baedeker to the Trumpian netherworld. It is also a testament to the authors’ perseverance.
In addition to laying out what, when and how things went down, they shed light on Trump’s alliance with Pecker, which predates Pecker’s arrival at the National Enquirer. The unlikely pair go back more than 20 years. For Pecker, it was love at first sight.
In 1996, Pecker was running Hachette Magazines and rented out Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for a business conference. A year later, the pair birthed the concept of “Trump Style”, a vanity publication that would contain “Trump branding and advertising”, for distribution at Trump properties. As one Hachette executive reportedly quipped: “Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century.” It sent Pecker into a rage.
When Pecker took over the Enquirer, the tabloid became an unofficial Trump fanzine. No longer would Trump be fodder or punchline. Thanks to Pecker, negative stories about Trump never saw the light of day.
Time passed. Trump’s presidential ambitions took shape. In August 2015, the candidate, Pecker and Cohen met in Trump’s office. It was agreed that Pecker and Cohen would help mop up Trump’s “old messes so that he could remain free of their stench”. Pecker had done it for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body builder and movie star who became governor of California.
As the campaign heated up, the Enquirer and the Globe, its sister publication, alleged Ted Cruz’s father was part of the plot to kill John F Kennedy. They also pasted Hillary Clinton on their covers 18 times. The Democratic candidate’s health, stability and integrity emerged as primary targets. Headlines like “Hillary’s LUNG CANCER BATTLE!”, “HILLARY GAINS 103LBS!”, “HILLARY: 6 MONTHS TO LIVE!” and “CORRUPT!” became standard fare.
Despite repeated denials and orchestrated obfuscation, Palazzolo and Rothfeld nailed the story. Three weeks before the election, the Journal received a tip that a lawyer with the initials KD was “traversing the country, paying hush money to women who’d been romantically involved with Donald Trump”. It turned out KD was Keith Davidson, a lawyer who represented Daniels in 2011 when reports of her affair with Trump emerged.
Palazzolo and Rothfeld began to “smile and dial”. They received corroboration of Trump’s tryst with Daniels and came upon McDougal, who appeared in a Playboy video in which Trump made a cameo appearance.
On the Friday before election day, in midtown Manhattan, the authors met a source at Grand Central. The source, who remains unidentified, produced a copy of McDougal’s agreement with the Enquirer’s corporate parent, American Media. It had paid her $150,000, with no intention of publishing her story. Catch and kill is expensive.
Word got back to the candidate, to the result that “Trump was angry and Cohen was frantic”. Denials from the campaign and Pecker followed. It wasn’t the end.
In January 2018, with the assistance of the Delaware secretary of state, the reporters established that in fall 2016 Cohen set up a pair of limited liability companies, Essential Consultants and Resolution Consultants, in order to pay off Daniels. Cohen’s name and signature appeared on the legal documents.
In April, the FBI raided Cohen’s home, hotel room and office. Trump bellowed about a “disgraceful … attack on our country”. But the die had been cast.
In the government’s case against Cohen, the president effectively emerged as an un-indicted conspirator. As described by prosecutors in a sentencing memorandum: “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”
Think of Trump as the Tom Brady of the whole desperate mess.
Surveying the carnage surrounding Trump, Palazzolo and Rothfeld observe that those who “pledged loyalty … and made good on their promises … met ignominious fates”. As the Republican political consultant Rick Wilson says, “everything Trump touches dies”.
Cohen languishes in jail and seeks a sentence reduction, claiming to be a victim of prosecutorial “character assassination”. Pecker has reportedly been in conversation with the Manhattan district attorney, having reached a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors and assisted their investigation into Cohen.
Even Daniels didn’t catch a break. After spilling the beans about her purported hook-up with “Mushroom Mario” and penning a bestseller, Trump sued her. Her career has hit a roadblock. Michael Avenatti, her former lawyer, is under criminal indictment.
On Tuesday, the president’s impeachment trial began. Trump’s lawyers have punted on challenging the underlying factual narrative, instead choosing to shout and threaten, as if Mr Smith went to Washington and found the Godfather and Goodfellas waiting. Republican “jurors”, meanwhile, communicate with the White House and appear on Fox News. Fittingly, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is nominated for a run of Academy Awards.