FEC socks Nat'l Enquirer parent with $187K penalty over McDougal "catch and kill" -- but passes on Trump

AP Photo/John Raoux

It’s a victory overall for Common Cause, who pushed this complaint about the National Enquirer’s political interference for Donald Trump, although their obvious target got let off the hook. The Federal Election Commission fined American Media $187,500 for using a “catch and kill” strategy to help Trump out by essentially muzzling a woman who claimed an affair with the then-candidate. The FEC ruled it an unreported and illegal in-kind contribution:

The Federal Election Commission has fined the National Enquirer’s parent company $187,500 for “knowingly and willfully” violating election law by making a payment in 2016 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with former president Donald Trump years before he was elected.

The decision came in response to a complaint made more than three years ago by the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause, which was notified of the FEC’s findings Tuesday.

The group had alleged that the company’s $150,000 payment to McDougal months before the 2016 election was effectively an illegal in-kind corporate contribution to Trump’s presidential campaign. The payment allegedly benefited Trump’s campaign by suppressing McDougal’s story of an alleged relationship with Trump before voters went to the polls.

That ruling seems pretty obvious in retrospect. American Media, now known as A360Media, admitted in a 2018 negotiation with the Department of Justice that the move was intended to help Trump out in the election. Former employees of AMI leaked information that the company had done this in the past with other celebrity friends of former CEO David Pecker, but this time it put the company afoul of election laws.

If the case against AMI/A360Media is clear-cut, it’s much less so against the candidate himself. To fine Trump over the matter, the FEC would have to find that Trump knew of the in-kind contribution and failed to report it, if not actively sought it. They had a better shot at a similar case involving Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen, where there was obviously a closer working relationship between Trump and Cohen. The FEC dropped that inquiry a month ago, however, probably on the basis that their star witness has been convicted of perjury. Democrats on the panel apparently missed that development, as they complained about Republican commissioners’ decision to drop it:

“To conclude that a payment, made 13 days before Election Day to hush up a suddenly newsworthy 10-year-old story, was not campaign-related, without so much as conducting an investigation, defies reality,” Chair Shana Broussard and Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub said in a statement Thursday. “But putting that aside, Cohen testified under oath that he made the payment for the principal purpose of influencing the election. This more than satisfies the Commission’s ‘reason to believe’ standard to authorize an investigation.”

“Cohen testified under oath” is probably not the dunk that Weintraub believes. He got convicted of perjury in testimony before Congress and got sentenced to three years in prison for it. In an attempt to mitigate that sentence, Cohen apparently perjured himself again before Congress, although the DoJ didn’t follow up that time. If the only evidence of connection comes from a principal in the transaction with a history of perjury, there’s not really much of a case to pursue.

At any rate, Trump and the campaign are apparently off the hook in regard to the FEC. They have bigger problems in Manhattan and the state of New York, however, so don’t expect them to pop champagne corks over the end of this story.