Meet the reporters who started exposing Michael Cohen's payments two years ago

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. ...

Posted: Dec 13, 2018 10:48 AM
Updated: Dec 13, 2018 10:48 AM

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

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President Trump is reportedly "seething." His lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for committing serious campaign finance violations. And Trump has been implicated in two felonies.

As CNN's Jake Tapper said on Wednesday: "The president's attorney is going to jail -- jail -- for crimes that the prosecutors say, two of them at least, the president told him to do. I know that we have all kind of gotten numb to all of the daily chaos of this administration. But this is huge."

Yes. So try to think back to the beginnings of this scandal. When did you first heard about it? I first read about it in the Wall Street Journal. The paper exposed this scandal. The WSJ first published a story about the $150,000 payoff to Karen McDougal four days before -- before! -- the 2016 election.

"The Wall Street Journal broke the original stories of payments made by Michael Cohen and has owned every step of this story, from the role of the National Enquirer to the tactics of the investigators," EIC Matt Murray told me Wednesday night. "Importantly, no one, ever, has substantively challenged the facts we have reported—and in fact subsequent events have time and again confirmed them."

So let's go back in time and revisit that very first story. The headline: "National Enquirer Shielded Donald Trump From Playboy Model's Affair Allegation." IMHO, it's a headline for the history books, now that it's been determined to be a campaign finance violation.

Way back then, Hope Hicks was quoted saying, of the deal with McDougal, "We have no knowledge of any of this." And American Media was quoted saying, "AMI has not paid people to kill damaging stories about Mr. Trump." On Wednesday, the company admitted otherwise...

AMI confesses to "catch and kill"

After Cohen was sentenced, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York revealed that they have a non-prosecution agreement with American Media Inc., "effectively ruling out charges for the tabloid publisher," Tom Kludt reported. AMI finally confessed to using "catch and kill" tactics to help Trump and hurt his opponents.

Tom Kludt emails: "Perhaps it's helpful to spell it out in plain terms: A supermarket tabloid worked in concert with the eventual president's 2016 campaign. Even in 2018, that remains extraordinary. AMI managed to avoid charges, but it came at a cost. AMI boss David Pecker was a longtime friend and confidant of Trump's. The Enquirer's coverage of Trump verged on hero worship. But that's over now..."

The Enquirer has stopped supporting Trump

On Wednesday I went back and reviewed every Enquirer cover this year. The tabloid was one of Trump's biggest boosters, right up until April, when the feds showed up at Cohen's door.

At that point the pro-Trump covers stopped.

In May there was one anti-Cohen cover. And that was it: Trump hasn't been mentioned once on the cover of the Enquirer since May. The mag hasn't attacked any of his enemies on the cover, either. So it has stopped being a part of Trump's promotional media machine. Here's my full story...

→ Related: Tom explored the Enquirer's Trump worship in this video in March...

Reactions from the WSJ

Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo led the way on the WSJ's reporting. On Wednesday night, they told me, "Even though we were certain of our reporting about Michael Cohen and American Media paying women on behalf of Donald Trump to keep silent during the presidential campaign, despite their strong denials, it is gratifying to see both of them admit what they had done."

So many investigative journalists can relate to that feeling...

Murray credited Rothfeld and Palazzolo for their "groundbreaking work," first and foremost, and pointed out that a big team was involved in the coverage: Reporters Rebecca Davis O'Brien, Nicole Hong, Rebecca Ballhaus, Mark Maremont, Rob Barry, Lukas Alpert and Ali Berzon... And editors Mike Siconolfi, Jennifer Forsyth and Ashby Jones "have shepherded the entire effort with grace and rigor," he said...

"The walls are closing in..."

The NYT has also been doing great work on this story... Here's Thursday morning's print headline: "Tabloid Publisher's Deal In Hush-Money Inquiry Adds to Trump's Danger."

Don Lemon framed it this way on his Wednesday night show: "If this President feels as if the walls are closing in tonight, he's right, because they are."

And former National Enquirer L.A. bureau chief Jerry George said this on "Erin Burnett OutFront:" "I don't think that the President is going to be able to wiggle out of it this time. I think this could very well be the beginning of the end..."

Was it worth it for Trump?

Tom Kludt adds: Was any of this worth it? Obviously, from a legal perspective, the answer is no. But just looking at in strictly political terms -- which is how Trump and company viewed it when they struck the deal with Pecker before election day -- would this have damaged Trump's candidacy at all? His philandering and treatment of women was well-documented by that point, and the "Access Hollywood" tape did nothing to derail his campaign a month before the election. Something tells me that he would have survived this, too...

Trump's 40th interview with Fox...

It will take place on Thursday on Harris Faulkner's 1 p.m. show, "Outnumbered Overtime." Fox notes that this is Faulkner's first interview with Trump. She will tape the interview at the W.H. on Thursday morning, then anchor her show from the North Lawn. It will bring the total number of Fox News/Fox Biz/Fox Radio interviews with POTUS to 40...

A couple suggested Q's

Trump only appeared in front of cameras once on Wednesday, for an event about "Opportunity Zones." As he left the room, the press pool tried to ask questions -- CNN's Kaitlan Collins invoked Cohen's comments in court and said, "Mr. President, did Michael Cohen cover up your 'dirty deeds?'" He didn't respond. She also tried it this way: "What 'dirty deeds' is he talking about, Mr. President?" There you go, two options for the Fox interview...

"The president lies as a reflex..."

Chris Cuomo's advice to Trump on Wednesday night: "Lying to insulate yourself can be a trap. That's what this president faces now. And he is particularly vulnerable to this because of a habit he developed over many, many years. The president lies as a reflex. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. He does a dance of hyperbole for his rallies that is intoxicating to them, he does it with the media in a way that they chase and are effective about it, but at the end of the day, in this context, it spells nothing but trouble..."

FOR THE RECORD, PART ONE

-- Melania Trump gave an interview to Sean Hannity on Wednesday night... She said the hardest part about being FLOTUS is "the opportunists who are using my name or my family name to advance themselves, from comedians to journalists to performers, book writers..." (CNN)

-- A troubling story about the U.S. Agency for Global Media: The "U.S. taxpayer-funded news agency reported not one but two anti-Semitic stories about George Soros in the last year -- and it published an anti-Muslim screed, warning of an 'Islamization' of Europe, destroying its Christian culture," Aaron C. Davis reports... (WaPo)

-- Coming Thursday on The Ringer: "An oral history of the most important deal in sports TV history, when Rupert Murdoch and Fox stole the NFL and John Madden out from under the Big Three networks..." I can't wait to read it...

Kadro on the way out at CBS

Ryan Kadro, the executive producer of "CBS This Morning" since April 2016, is on the way out, a source with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed Wednesday night.

Irin Carmon broke the news for Vulture earlier in the evening. Carmon and Amy Brittain wrote the first WaPo story about Charlie Rose, prompting CBS to fire Rose in November 2017. In a followup story, they reported that a CBS employee, Chelsea Wei, said she warned Kadro about Rose's behavior toward a colleague, Brooks Harris. Kadro acknowledged that he talked with Wei about Rose, but said, "Wei did not tell me about inappropriate behavior by Charlie Rose towards Ms. Harris at any time."

Wei, Harris, and a third woman sued Rose and CBS News in May. CBS recently settled the suit. But I'm not aware of any direct link between the Rose scandal and Kadro's impending departure. The indirect link might be the fact that the morning show's ratings have slumped ever since Rose was fired. Per my source, Kadro has been in talks to step down for several months. CBS News confirmed the talks — but not his exit — saying "these conversations are unrelated to the settlement."

→ Inside the morning show: Kadro has a lot of fans. The question now: Who will succeed him?

Is Mika's apology enough?

"MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski apologized Wednesday for a remark she made on air that drew criticism for its homophobic implications," Tom Kludt reports.

She tweeted and said "so sorry!" after the show... But I presume and hope she will repeat the apology on Thursday morning... Details here...

New revelations about former Tronc boss Michael Ferro

Tom Kludt emails: NPR media correspondent and Tronc/Tribune chronicler David Folkenflik served up another bombshell Wednesday, reporting that former Tronc chairman Michael Ferro made an anti-Semitic remark about SoCal billionaire Eli Broad. It happened at a swanky dinner in 2016 attended by about 20 people, Folkenflik reported. Ferro allegedly said that Broad was part of a "Jewish cabal" that runs Los Angeles.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Ferro, was emphatic in his denial when I spoke to him on the phone. "If there are such recordings, I've never heard them. Mr. Ferro's never heard them," Culloton told me, adding that Ferro and Broad are "personal friends."

Here's why he mentioned "recordings." According to Wednesday's report, the remarks were memorialized by Davan Maharaj, former publisher and EIC of the LA Times. The two men clashed, and Maharaj was eventually fired, so he "hired a prominent Beverly Hills attorney to pursue a wrongful termination suit. Maharaj had ammunition, having recorded Ferro in unguarded conversation with associates." The result of all this: Tronc "agreed to secretly pay Maharaj more than $2.5 million."

→ On Wednesday night, Maharaj said through an attorney, "We reject any assertion that Davan received any payments to keep information secret..."

LA Times staffers are appalled

Tom Kludt adds: You can about guess the reaction from staffers at the LA Times. The paper isn't owned by Tronc anymore, but the Ferro-era wounds are still raw. That Maharaj seemingly sat on such explosive info, and walked away with millions himself at a time when the paper was struggling, has rankled those still at the Times. "You're the editor of the LA Times," tweeted Times investigative reporter Harriet Ryan. "You find out the CEO is an anti-Semite. Do you: a) confront him? B) assign an investigative reporter to expose him? Or c) use the information to get a $2.5 million personal payout at a time the company is laying off journalists and closing bureaus?"

Read more of Wednesday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

FOR THE RECORD, PART TWO

-- Gerry Smith's latest: Apple's "Netflix for magazines" approach, with an app called Texture, is "getting a chilly reception..." (Bloomberg)

-- NYT publisher A.G. Sulzberger has updated the paper's mission and values statements. The mission: "We seek the truth and help people understand the world." Here are the docs... (Twitter)

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