The owner of the National Enquirer has agreed to pay a $187,500 civil penalty to the Federal Election Commission for unlawfully aiding former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign by suppressing a story about a woman who said she had an affair with him.
The FEC said Tuesday that it found reason to believe American Media, Inc. (AMI) ― the parent company of the Enquirer ― and former AMI CEO David Pecker “knowingly and willfully” made a prohibited corporate contribution to Trump’s campaign when it bought model Karen McDougal’s story for $150,000 in August 2016.
AMI ― now known as A360 Media, LLC ― and Pecker, a friend of Trump, had no intention of running the story, seeking to influence the 2016 election by suppressing a potentially unflattering story about Trump, according to the FEC. This tactic is known as “catch and kill” in which a publication buys the rights to a story to block an individual from going public with it as a favor to a third party.
In a letter responding to a 2018 complaint filed by Common Cause, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., the FEC said Pecker and former Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Dylan Howard paid McDougal for the rights to her claim that she had a sexual relationship with Trump in 2006.
McDougal has spoken out extensively about her brief affair with Trump, who has denied engaging in such a relationship with her.
AMI admitted to the Justice Department in 2018 that the $150,000 payment to McDougal was more than AMI typically pays for catch and kill stories, but it did so because Trump’s personal attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, said he would reimburse the company, according to the FEC.
In September 2016, Pecker signed over the rights to McDougal’s story to Cohen for $125,000, the FEC stated in its letter. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance laws related to McDougal’s story.
A360 Media agreed to the settlement on May 17, according to the FEC. As per the terms of the agreement, A360 will cease violating the corporate campaign contribution law and pay the $187,500 civil penalty.
A360 Media does not contest that AMI’s purchase of McDougal’s story violated federal election laws, but the company does not acknowledge that it knowingly and willfully broke the law, according to the FEC’s letter.
AMI has argued that its decision to buy McDougal’s story and not publish it was protected by the First Amendment and the press exemption outlined in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The FEC said the press exemption did not apply in this matter since the payments were made to benefit Trump’s campaign.
Paul Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation, said Trump has yet to be held accountable for the McDougal payoff as well as a similar arrangement with porn actress Stormy Daniels.
“Michael Cohen went to prison for these violations. AMI has been fined. But the former president has not yet been held accountable,” Ryan told Politico. “The Department of Justice has until August to prosecute Trump for orchestrating this illegal campaign finance scheme.”