Alex Finley is the pen name of a former news reporter and former U.S. intelligence officer, writing occasional analyses of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to skew the 2016 presidential election.
This analysis was published in partnership with Vox.
A powerful man holds decades of compromising material on a businessman who has long considered running for president of the United States. He strikes a deal with the future politician, in which he will bottle up any negative information about him and, even better, circulate and amplify negative stories and conspiracy theories about the candidate’s political opponents.
To help foster the deal, the candidate’s lawyer sets up creative workarounds to hide payments related to that help. When asked about it, all sides deny any arrangement. All of this is done with the aim of influencing the U.S. presidential election.
That’s the exact situation we now know occurred during the 2016 election between President Donald Trump and the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid magazine.
And we know all of this because Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer who acted as the go-between making the whole shady deal happen —admitted it in his recent plea agreement and because the publisher’s company filled in details in a public non-prosecution agreement. Cohen pleaded guilty to financial crimes, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress, and on December 12 was sentenced to three years in prison.
The scheme was simple: American Media Inc. (AMI) — the parent company of the National Enquirer, headed by Trump’s longtime friend David Pecker — made hush payments to a woman who claimed she had had an affair with Trump, and tipped off Cohen that another woman was shopping a similar story.
Pecker’s intention was not to publish the information, but rather to keep it hidden from the American public, which was already seeing screamingly negative headlines in the Enquirer about Trump’s opponents—from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton.
Cohen, at the direction of Trump, made arrangements for AMI’s payment to the woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, to be reimbursed. When asked about the arrangement, time and again, Pecker, Cohen, and Trump all denied it. The statement of the participating parties nonetheless now make clear that the Trump campaign colluded with AMI to influence the election.
But hang on — haven’t we heard a similar story before?
Russian President Vladimir Putin held compromising information on Trump — namely, that Trump and his advisers had routinely lied about their contacts and business dealings with Russia — throughout Trump’s campaign, the election, and after taking office.
Putin knew, for example, that Trump and his team had publicly denied having meetings with Russians, while in fact Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had met with a team of Russians — including a lawyer connected to Russia’s top government prosecutor — in Trump Tower in June of 2016.
Trump’s team also lied about the timeline involving discussions about Trump Tower Moscow (Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about this; that is, he lied to Congress, while Putin knew the truth).
And while we don’t know exactly what Trump did during his trip to Moscow in 2013, little that goes on there involving wealthy American businessmen would escape the Kremlin’s attention. So it’s safe to assume that Putin knew details of the trip. He also surely had details of Trump’s financial dealings with pro-Putin oligarchs.
Like Pecker, Putin has denied he has any compromising information about Trump. Also like Pecker, Putin helped direct the release of disinformation meant to promote Trump and hurt Clinton, according to a report by the Director of National Intelligence. We learned from two Senate reports this week that this effort utilized nearly every social media platform and reached more than 100 million potential voters.
In dealings with Putin, Cohen also played a fixer role, wheeling and dealing with the office of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, about a potential Trump Tower Moscow.
When asked later about any business arrangement, all parties denied it, then said it had been discussed but went nowhere and had ended before Trump was the Republican candidate, when in fact, discussions for the project carried on past the Republican primaries (even though the plans did not come to fruition).
It’s an interesting parallel, particularly given how the AMI story is now unraveling. Might the dynamics of the Trump-Pecker relationship provide insight into the perils of the continuing give and take between Trump and Putin?
Collecting dirt and granting favors
According to the Associated Press, Pecker kept a safe full of negative stories on Trump. As multiple sources told the AP, “the safe was a great source of power for Pecker. … By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.” A former National Enquirer reporter described the so-called “catch-and-kill” technique to the AP as: “‘I did this for you,’ now what can you do for me.” The Enquirer, he said “always got something in return.”
And Pecker did get something out of the relationship. In addition to flights on Trump’s private plane, Pecker got access to the gossip about the circles Trump inhabited. Trump is reported to have supplied Pecker with information the National Enquirer could turn into juicy stories. Pecker also received public praise from Trump that may have helped him professionally and financially.
Trump’s election also opened up new avenues for more gossip exchanges and more business opportunities for Pecker. Trump hosted a dinner for Pecker and a French businessman with ties to the Saudi royal family, for example, at a time when, according to The New York Times, Pecker was looking to expand AMI’s business with the Kingdom. Word of Pecker’s access to the White House opened doors in Saudi Arabia for him. And shortly before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tour of the United States last spring, AMI just so happened to publish a glossy magazine that appeared in supermarket checkout aisles that introduced the Crown Prince as “the most influential Arab leader, transforming the world at 32.”
The transactional nature of this relationship between Pecker and Trump tells us a lot about Trump’s approach to business: You do something for me, and I’ll do something for you.
This kind of give-and-take, however, can also leave people exposed. Trump and Cohen seemed to have realized this.
At one point during the campaign, they evidently began to fear Pecker had too much leverage and that they were too reliant on blessings from the tabloid, which has an average weekly circulation of around 265,000. So they decided to try to buy back the rights for the negative stories, according to reports by The New York Times and ABC News. (A lawyer for AMI denied the company would “seek to ‘extort’ the President of the United States,” according to a letter obtained by the AP.)
But in a way, that, too, is a normal state of affairs for Trump and his associates. Everyone in his circle seemed to have embarrassing information about others. Omarosa Manigault Newman underscored this point last summer when she — a favorite but losing Apprentice contestant who later won herself an office in the West Wing—revealed audio recordings she had made to make sure her reputation and position were safeguarded from backstabbing.
The Trump business ethos has long been: Do whatever is necessary to beat your competitors. So if Putin came offering a deal to help Trump win, who was Trump to say no?
Following a similar collusion model
Interestingly, the Steele Dossier — a series of raw intelligence reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele — outlines a deal between Trump and Putin that is very similar to what we now know existed between Trump and Pecker.
In a July 30, 2016, memo to the research firm employing him, Fusion GPS, Steele noted that the Kremlin had plenty of compromising material, or kompromat as it’s known in Russia, on Trump. Steele added that, according to his source for this information, “the Kremlin had given its word that [the compromising material] would not be deployed against the Republican presidential candidate given how helpful and cooperative his team had been over several years, and particularly of late.”
That same memo claimed that Trump was providing information to the Kremlin, mostly on Russian oligarchs and their families. Just as Trump was able to supply gossip to Pecker, Trump might have been able to provide interesting tidbits on Russian oligarchs outside of Russia, particularly given their affinity for investing in Trump properties. As Donald Trump Jr. himself has said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
Some of Steele’s information has been borne out in court proceedings initiated by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Steele’s claims that Trump or his team provided information to the Kremlin has not been proven, along with several additional claims in the dossier. But it would fit into Trump’s pattern of behavior, as evidenced by the arrangement Trump had with Pecker.
We know that Cohen played the fixer in Trump’s dealings with Pecker and that he played a similar role in Trump’s dealings with Putin. Cohen has already confirmed that he was a go-between in Trump’s efforts to secure a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, even lied on Cohen’s behalf, in order to back up Cohen’s story (until Cohen’s public confession).
We also know that Cohen worked with Pecker to cover up embarrassing information about Trump. Did he do the same thing in a collaboration or parallel effort with Putin, as Steele’s document suggests? “According to [a] Kremlin insider,” Steele wrote in a memo dated October 19, 2016, “Cohen now was heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russia being exposed.”
And if so, what favors might Trump have been willing to offer Putin in return for his help? Because like Pecker, you can be sure that Putin, too, keeps a favor bank, including a record of all loans and other disbursements.
What happens when he comes to collect?
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