Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was handed a task considered critical to the president’s operations. In addition to serving as a senior adviser in the White House, he would also be playing the role of the main conduit between Trump and his friend David Pecker, the National Enquirer publisher and chief executive of AMI, who prosecutors said on Wednesday admitted to making a $150,000 hush-money payment “in concert with” the Trump campaign.
During the early months of the Trump era, Kushner performed the task admirably, discussing with Pecker various issues over the phone, including everything from international relations to media gossip, according to four sources familiar with the situation. Pecker, for his part, bragged to people that he was speaking to the president’s son-in-law and, more generally, about the level of access he had to the upper echelons of the West Wing, two sources with knowledge of the relationship recounted.
The relationship underscored both the wide breadth of responsibilities that Kushner was given in the White House—a portfolio that saw him serve as a point person on some of the most critical government functions and as a chief protector of the Trump family image—as well as the degree to which Trump continued to value the relationships he’d built up with key media figures during his time in New York real estate and reality TV.
Pecker, after all, was no bit player. He has been a valuable asset within Trump’s orbit, at least until federal investigators came knocking. His ties to Trump began well before the president was elected to office. But before Kushner was his main conduit, that role was played by Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney and fixer.
During the heat of the 2016 election, Pecker’s AMI and Enquirer—with Cohen helping facilitate matters behind the scenes—endorsed Trump, ran a catch-and-kill operation to suppress damaging stories of Trump’s alleged affairs, and published numerous negative articles on Trump’s political enemies and adversaries in the Republican primary. Trump himself used to contribute to the Enquirer and the future president reportedly also used the tabloid to settle his pettier, more personal scores. In late 2016, actress Salma Hayek claimed on a conference call hosted by the Hillary Clinton campaign that Trump had tried to date her and when she rejected him, he planted a false story about her in the Enquirer.
Pecker had banked on Cohen remaining in Trump’s political inner sanctum after the election. But during the presidential transition, it became clear that Trump’s then-fixer wouldn’t be landing a plum job in the administration—though he had told people close to him that he expected a senior position, even White House chief of staff, two sources with direct knowledge recall.
Matters only grew worse from there. Cohen became embroiled in a months-long legal saga over his private business ventures in New York City, the work he did for Trump, and the lobbying efforts he launched after the 2016 election. This week, those troubles landed him with a three-year sentence in prison.
Trump insists he is innocent of any related crimes because he never explicitly asked for Cohen or AMI to violate campaign-finance law by sitting on stories of his extramarital affairs. And the president’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, contends that the scandal is overblown entirely.
“Nobody got killed, nobody got robbed… This was not a big crime,” Giuliani told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. He added, sardonically, “I think in two weeks they’ll start with parking tickets that haven’t been paid.”
(In a subsequent phone call after this story was first published, Giuliani said he meant it was "not a big crime" from the viewpoint of prosecutors. The Trump attorney stressed that it is his position that "no crime was committed whatsoever" when it came to the campaign-finance charges.)
But Cohen’s slow-burning troubles and exile from Trumpworld nevertheless meant that Pecker needed a new point person in the White House. And according to four sources, he settled on Kushner.
It was an easy choice, given that the two men had a pre-existing relationship. Two people with direct knowledge of their acquaintance say that Kushner and Pecker got to know each other years before Trump’s election, when Pecker was thinking about forging a business relationship with Kushner, who at the time owned The New York Observer. Two other knowledgeable sources say that then Observer Editor in Chief Ken Kurson, a close friend of Kushner’s, had even visited the AMI offices in 2016, and sat in on an editorial meeting.
In a brief telephone call Thursday, Kurson told The Daily Beast that although he had visited the AMI offices, he had never sat in on an editorial meeting. According to Kurson, he had been seeking senior AMI exec Dylan Howard’s advice on how to “pivot to video,” the digital journalism buzz term describing social video content, and Howard had briefly shown Kurson around the office. AMI declined to comment.
Starting in late 2016, AMI’s priorities shifted from a potential business deal with Kushner to one focused on access to political power. Shortly after the Trump presidency began, Kushner and Pecker talked repeatedly, on subjects ranging from relations with the Saudi regime, to possible dirt that the Enquirer had on Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, according to the four sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Last year, Brzezinski and Scarborough, who had increasingly become Trump critics, made the explosive allegation that three senior aides to President Trump “warned” the couple that the Enquirer would publish a negative story on them unless they “begged” Trump to intervene on their behalf. The couple’s account was disputed by White House officials, who said the conversations were far more cordial than the TV hosts described.
As The Daily Beast reported last year, Kushner was one of the senior officials who privately spoke to Scarborough about the matter. According to two White House officials, Scarborough had “calmly sought” advice from Kushner, who “recommended he speak with the president.” Scarborough did not know that Kushner had also been directly in touch with the Enquirer’s publisher at the time, according to a source familiar with the matter.
In July 2017, after the Scarborough-Brzezinski drama, Pecker visited both Trump and Kushner at the White House, bringing along with him Kacy Grine, a French businessman with ties to the Saudi business elite and royal family, as The New York Times reported early this year.
Nowadays, Pecker’s level of access to Trump and the president’s inner circle has dramatically diminished. Soon after the feds raided Cohen’s office—which started a chain reaction leading to Cohen turning against Trump and fingering him as an unindicted co-conspirator—Pecker and the Enquirer’s top brass made a calculated decision to begin tiptoeing away from the president, and to cease featuring their usual glut of pro-Trump coverage.
Reached for comment on this story, Cohen simply messaged back, “Who is this?” and didn’t respond to follow-up messages. The White House didn’t return a request for comment.
This week came another fissure in the relationship. AMI formally acknowledged that its involvement with the pre-election hush-money scheme was explicitly done in relation to the Trump campaign, directly contradicting the president’s position that the payments were not related to the election.
A relationship built up over many years, and cared for by two of the president’s closest advisers, appears to be close to coming apart. Some National Enquirer alums say they would be overjoyed to see the fissure actually happen.
“This is beyond the scope of David Pecker's collusion or cooperation in snuffing out bad stories,” said Jerry George, a former Enquirer Los Angeles bureau chief and assistant managing editor of all the AMI titles. “It goes to the core of Trumpworld."