NEW: Trump doorman Dino Sajudin releases statement: "I was instructed not to criticize President Trump's former housekeeper due to a prior relationship she had with President Trump which produced a child.” (via @soniamoghe) pic.twitter.com/DYipY5DaY2
— MJ Lee (@mj_lee) April 12, 2018
Can we trust this guy? He allegedly passed a polygraph test a few years ago administered by a PI on behalf of the National Enquirer. If that’s accurate, he was indeed told by someone that Trump had had a child with a former employee — which of course is not to say that what he was told was true.
On the other hand:
"He’s infamous for making up stories," Nikki Benfatto said of her former husband Dino Sajudin.
"He’s seen the chupacabra. He’s seen bigfoot. One of our friends who passed away, he saw him too, walking down the street." https://t.co/hwfBqKvf7G
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) April 12, 2018
Let’s back up. Where’s all this coming from? Turns out Sajudin has been claiming for the past few years that he heard from members of the Trump Organization that Trump fathered a child with a mistress in the late 1980s. That claim naturally attracted media attention, first from the tabloid Enquirer and more recently from more traditional media outlets. The the AP checked it out and Ronan Farrow checked it out annnnd … no one could find proof that it was true. The Enquirer admits to having paid $30,000 to Sajudin but they couldn’t confirm the underlying facts either. So they never ran it.
Farrow and the AP are interested anyway because of the possibility that this is another example of the Enquirer practicing “catch and kill” on Trump’s behalf, just as they allegedly did with Karen McDougal. They bought the rights to the story of her relationship with Trump in 2016, paid her money and promised her publicity in return, and then … they never ran it. To all appearances, McDougal was telling the truth, yet a tabloid that could have made bank by exposing their affair didn’t run with it for some reason. Is that because they thought they couldn’t clear the very, very low bar for First Amendment protection from a defamation suit given the facts that they had or is it because they’re in the habit of doing campaign favors for Trump?
Because if they are, the payoff to McDougal might count as an unreported campaign contribution, a violation of federal law.
In this case, though, with Sajudin’s story unverifiable, what else was the paper supposed to do but spike it? In fact, they say that they ultimately released him from the exclusivity clause under the contract they had with him after they determined his story was false. At first blush, then, it looks like the AP and Farrow are just trying to smuggle a dubious rumor about Trump into print under cover of reporting about the reporting process.
But wait. From the AP:
[F]our longtime Enquirer staffers directly familiar with the episode … said they were ordered by top editors to stop pursuing the story before completing potentially promising reporting threads.
They said the publication didn’t pursue standard Enquirer reporting practices, such as exhaustive stake-outs or tabloid tactics designed to prove paternity…
The Enquirer staffers, all with years of experience negotiating source contracts, said the abrupt end to reporting combined with a binding, seven-figure penalty to stop the tipster from talking to anyone led them to conclude that this was a so-called “catch and kill” — a tabloid practice in which a publication pays for a story to never run, either as a favor to the celebrity subject of the tip or as leverage over that person.
“AMI doesn’t go around cutting checks for $30,000 and then not using the information,” said one former staffer of the Enquirer’s parent company. Other sources told Farrow the same story. The Enquirer seemed oddly uninterested in finding out whether there was anything to Sajudin’s story despite having paid him five figures for the rights to it. In fact, they allegedly took the extra step of trying to discourage the AP from writing about the story and their handling of it after they had supposedly lost interest in it themselves.
Shortly after the company paid Sajudin, the chairman and C.E.O. of A.M.I., David Pecker, who has spoken publicly about his friendship with Trump, ordered the A.M.I. reporters to stop investigating, the sources told me. One of the employees involved said, “There’s no question it was done as a favor to continue to protect Trump from these potential secrets. That’s black-and-white.”…
Another source, who believed that A.M.I. suppressed the story to help Trump, said of Sajudin, “It’s unheard of to give a guy who calls A.M.I.’s tip line big bucks for information he is passing on secondhand. We didn’t pay thousands of dollars for non-stories, let alone tens of thousands. It was a highly curious and questionable situation.”
A.M.I. later attempted to prevent other outlets from reporting on the story or the company’s payout. In the summer of 2017, the Associated Press began investigating A.M.I.’s suppression of the story. At one point, reporters were hours away from posting a piece, but A.M.I. assembled a legal team to lobby against publication.
The news here isn’t the underlying rumor, it’s the fact that AMI and the Enquirer appear to have done yet another expensive campaign-related favor for their favorite politician. Sajudin signed his rights away to the story in late 2015, months after Trump had jumped into the presidential race and with the Iowa caucuses approaching. The payments made to McDougal, Stormy Daniels, and Sajudin all came after Trump announced his candidacy, a fact that’ll be of interest to the feds vis-a-vis campaign-finance violations. That’s especially noteworthy in the cases of Daniels and McDougal because their relationships with Trump had happened many years before. If the payoffs to them weren’t campaign-related, it’s odd that their stories of an affair with an ultra-famous playboy like Trump coincidentally didn’t become interesting to the Enquirer or to Michael Cohen until 2016.
That’s the other newsy part: Cohen. Both the AP and Farrow claim that Cohen was aware of the Enquirer’s pursuit of Sajudin’s story. Cohen told the AP that there’s an innocent explanation for that, that he was in the loop only because he was Trump’s spokesman and the paper was naturally interested in his reaction to the rumor. Farrow’s sources, though, imply something more: “Two of the former A.M.I. employees said they believed that Cohen was in close contact with A.M.I. executives while the company’s reporters were looking into Sajudin’s story,” with one saying that “Cohen was kept up to date on a regular basis.” What we’re talking about potentially, in other words, is coordination between Team Trump and the Enquirer to kill stories on Trump’s behalf. If true, that the Enquirer was acting at Trump’s and/or Cohen’s behest in chasing down damaging stories and killing them, that would bolster the idea that these payments were made not for journalistic purposes, to snare a big story, but as de facto contributions to Trump’s campaign. What the feds will want to know is whether Trump, Cohen, and AMI chief David Pecker explicitly discussed catching stories for the purpose of killing them. After all, what legitimate non-campaign reason would a newspaper have to chase — and pay big bucks for — news that it *didn’t* want to publish?
In fact, the Times had a story out this morning claiming that law enforcement is increasingly interested in AMI’s relationship with Trump and Cohen. A key bit:
Since the early stages of his campaign in 2015, Mr. Trump, his lawyer Michael D. Cohen and Mr. Pecker have strategized about protecting him and lashing out at his political enemies…
As Mr. Trump ramped up his campaign in 2015, he, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Howard and Mr. Pecker engaged in more serious discussions about how A.M.I. could be helpful, according to several people familiar with the efforts.
In one early interaction, Mr. Cohen helped arrange an ultimately abandoned attempt to buy and bury a potentially damaging photograph of Mr. Trump at an event with a topless woman — what is known in the tabloid world as a “catch and kill” operation.
Was the Enquirer’s core mission in 2016 to break juicy stories and sell papers or was its core mission to collect dirt on Donald Trump and sweep it under the rug? You wouldn’t need to strain hard to call money paid in furtherance of the latter goal de facto unreported campaign contributions. And the more catch-and-kill examples there were in 2015-16, the stronger the case becomes.
As I’m writing that, the following is breaking on MSNBC. One last point: Don’t forget that not every communication between Trump and Cohen is privileged. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney shouldn’t be able to see any communications between them that were given *in the course of seeking or giving legal advice*, but Cohen’s portfolio for Trump was much broader than law. If he and Trump huddled to discuss killing an unflattering story that the Enquirer had the rights to and there’s a record of that conversation, that discussion wouldn’t necessarily be privileged. It could be used in a campaign-finance prosecution to show that AMI intended to contribute to Trump’s campaign.
BREAKING: Federal investigators have requested all communications between two top execs. at American Media Inc. — which publishes the National Enquirer — and Michael Cohen, multiple sources confirm to NBC News. pic.twitter.com/QoTty8NvC9
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) April 12, 2018