Shortly after the feds raided the office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s now estranged personal attorney and longtime enforcer, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker went into a state of calculated retreat.
For years, Pecker’s tabloid had promoted and puffed up Trump’s political rise and his presidency. But once a regular fixture on the cover of the National Enquirer, Trump hasn’t appeared on it since an issue dated early May. That appearance was for a cover story on the various scandals swirling around... Cohen.
In that same issue detailing Cohen’s dirty work—work in which the Enquirer itself played a key role—there was another story showing how the Enquirer’s “lie detector examination” supposedly absolved Trump of any Russia-related collusion. Since then, the tabloid's approach to the saga has ranged from muted to silent. The most recent issue of the Enquirer, dated July 30, 2018, doesn’t feature a single item on Trump in the entire 47-page edition—though the issue did have room for a story on how the late James Bond actor Roger Moore “SMELLED BAD!” due to “rampant flatulence.”
The president’s disappearance from the pages of Pecker’s famous, Trump-endorsing supermarket tabloid was no coincidence. It also further demonstrates how so much of what President Trump touches, including the tabloids that relish the drama he produces, seems to suffer under the weight of scandals.
According to multiple sources familiar with the situation, Pecker and the Enquirer’s top brass made a conscious decision to pull back on their pro-Trump coverage, just as Pecker’s media empire found itself increasingly embroiled in Trumpworld’s legal and public-relations woes.
A month after the Enquirer’s last Trump cover, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal authorities had subpoenaed Pecker and other executives at American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the tabloid. They sought records related to allegations that the company purchased the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump, then killed the story for Trump’s benefit, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Prosecutors are exploring whether such an agreement may have constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign by AMI.
But the dialing-back of Trump content may have come with a cost. The National Enquirer's circulation numbers declined in the first half of the year, according to industry metrics compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media. The tabloid lost about 4,700 paid subscriptions from January through June, about six percent of its total at the beginning of the year.
An AMI spokesperson acknowledged the downturn in an emailed statement. “AMI is not immune to the challenges facing the publishing industry, which is why we have continued to diversify and grow our revenue with new channels and acquisitions,” the spokesperson wrote.
The rep also dismissed any implication of its lack of Trump covers or coverage of late, saying, “any decisions about our covers are driven by proprietary data on what our readers are most interested in and what is most likely [to] perform well at the newsstand, period.”
Nevertheless, the seven National Enquirer issues in the first half of the year that featured Trump on the cover sold, on average, about 13,000 more newsstand copies than issues that did not, according to the data. The president graced the cover of the two most widely circulated issues of the first six months of the year.
As Pecker and his team were distancing themselves from Trump publicly, a more surreptitious effort was underway to cleanse the public record of details of Pecker’s involvement in the McDougal scandal and the AMI boss’s relationship with the president.
Over the course of a week last month, an anonymous Wikipedia user repeatedly tried to scrub Pecker’s page of damaging information regarding his alleged links to the McDougal hush-money scandal, removing huge blocks of text describing Pecker’s and AMI’s roles in paying the model for her story. The edits also removed references to Pecker as “a close friend of Donald Trump” and a supporter of his 2016 presidential campaign in addition to scrubbing mention of a federal investigation of the payment that stemmed from the raid on Cohen’s office (In a recently leaked tape, Trump told Cohen to make the payment “in cash” to “our friend David,” assumed to be Pecker.)
The origin of the edits was even more interesting. They were made by someone using an I.P. address associated with the high-powered Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor, according to publicly-available web database information. The same I.P. address has been used to edit pages for WME itself, the head of the agency’s literary division, and a number of WME clients. A Wikipedia editor using a second I.P. address associated with the agency previously attempted to edit the page of agency’s chief— super-agent Ari Emanuel—by scrubbing details of a former WME employee's sexual harassment lawsuit against the agency (WME denied her allegations, and the suit was settled for $2.25 million). An anonymous editor using that second IP address later said he or she had made other tweaks to Emanuel’s page at his behest.
There’s no way of gleaning from Wikipedia edit logs whether any of those changes were the work of the same person, or even how many different people have edited the various pages using WME IP addresses. WME declined to speak on the record about the edits, but a source familiar with the agency’s work downplayed their significance, saying they were not undertaken on behalf of a client or in any official capacity.
The source, however, said that the stealth-edits purging the page of Trump scandal could have been made by any individual with access to the company’s wireless internet network.
A representative for AMI claimed that neither Pecker nor AMI had requested the Wikipedia stealth-editing campaign. WME subsidiary IMG “only represents AMI in regard to various licensing opportunities for its brands, as it has for many years,” an AMI spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an email. All of the anonymous user’s edits were subsequently reinstated by other Wikipedia editors.
WME is a noteworthy nexus between Pecker and Trump. The agency currently counts AMI as a client. It also formerly represented the president. Emanuel, the oft-branded “King of Hollywood,” has a history with both men and, like other power players of his stripe, he has often leveraged his relationship with AMI’s chief executive to kill negative or potentially embarrassing stories about his rich and famous friends and clientele.
Emanuel and Pecker are known in tabloid and entertainment circles as chummy, reportedly socializing and dining together over the years. In a 2014 interview with The Native Society, an exclusive club for New York’s elite power brokers, Pecker named both Emanuel and Trump as close friends he admired.
Last year, Emanuel introduced Pecker to a French businessman, Kacy Grine, at a White House meeting hosted by Trump. Grine has acted as a middleman between Pecker and members of the Saudi royal family, whom Pecker has subsequently approached about business opportunities in the kingdom. AMI would later publish a glossy magazine hailing the greatness of Saudi Arabia and its autocratic rulers.
Pecker is also a longtime financial supporter of Chicago’s Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ari’s brother, who courted the AMI chief’s business during his tenure at investment firm Wasserstein Perella & Co. Trump, too, is a Rahm campaign-booster, having donated $50,000 to his mayoral campaign in 2010, reportedly at Ari’s request.
An unnamed associate of Pecker told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year that both Ari and Rahm previously worked for Pecker’s magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi in the early 90s, with Ari “representing its magazine editors on the talent side,” and Rahm as an advisor to the Hachette business.
Trump’s business and personal relationship with Emanuel has also been comparably warm in recent years, despite their political differences. Emanuel served as the president and former reality-TV star’s former agent. And during the presidential transition, following Trump’s shock election victory, he met with the president-elect despite having supported Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. A few months later, Emanuel followed Trump into the political arena, co-founding a political action committee with WME co-CEO Patrick Whitesell to engage politicians on civic issues during the Trump presidency.
Trump campaign sources recounted to The Daily Beast that Trump would talk about Emanuel in glowing terms, with one former senior official likening Trump’s admiration of the Hollywood power player to a “man crush.” The president is especially fond of Emanuel’s notoriously hard-charging, take-no-prisoners (and often loudly vulgar) business style, and his unique brand of celebrity, power, and financial success—traits that inspired the character Ari Gold on the HBO series Entourage.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter mid-2016, Trump claimed that Emanuel is “a very good friend of mine” who “calls me a lot,” and, according to Trump’s version of a conversation, had even offered to help make a pro-Trump mini-movie to be played at the Republican National Convention.
“I call him a lot and we talk,” Trump added. “He gets it. You're shocked to hear that, right, [about the alleged convention movie offer]? But, yeah, I might do something with Ari."
Even before THR’s piece had run, Clinton’s campaign had heard rumors of an Emanuel-Trump collaboration, according to two Clinton-world sources. And aides began making calls to figure what “the hell was actually going on,” said a former senior aide. The aide recalled asking, “Would Ari really do that [to us]?”
In the end, the 2016 GOP convention came and went without any Ari Emanuel-produced short film.