By the time David Pecker arrived at American Media Inc. in the late 1990s, Jerry George already found himself firmly entrenched in the tabloid empire.
Hired by the National Enquirer’s late publisher Generoso Pope Jr. in 1985, George went on to work at the Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, for 28 years, earning the titles of senior editor and West Coast bureau chief before eventually leaving the company in 2013.
The Enquirer changed dramatically when Pecker was named chairman and chief executive of AMI. A well-resourced, gleefully lowbrow gossip rag became, in George’s telling, a spare operation that at times acted as a protection racket for certain favorite celebrities — especially Donald Trump, Pecker’s close “personal friend.” This week Pecker was granted immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for information related to payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Prosecutors in the Cohen case claimed that Cohen and Pecker struck an agreement in 2015 to “deal with negative stories” about Trump, two months after he announced his candidacy for president. But George said AMI had already become the “official organ” of Trump long before that.
George spoke with HuffPost this week about Pecker, the evolution of the Enquirer and the role it played in reshaping Trump’s image (AMI did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.)
A transcript of the interview, edited and condensed, is below.
The prosecution in the Michael Cohen case claimed this week that there was a coordinated campaign between AMI and Cohen from the beginning of Trump’s campaign to catch and kill negative stories about Trump. Did that surprise you?
Well, it’s obvious that the Trump presidency is crumbling, and I think American Media was a pillar of it and is certainly complicit in any collusion. Thanks to AMI smothering anything that was negative about him, he gained the traction to become presidential timber and a more appealing candidate.
But the degree of coordination between the company and a presidential candidate to explicitly catch and kill stories: Does that line up with what you knew about the company while you were there? Or does that seem like a more extreme version of what you saw?
It grew progressively worse through the years. David Pecker and American Media were encouraged to be of more assistance in any way they could. I think their last concern was their readers. It was more a front for generating cash to continue to build their empire.
When the first Karen McDougal story broke back in October 2016, AMI said to The Wall Street Journal that it has never paid to kill damaging stories about Trump, and now it seems that is not so. Do you have any idea why they would say something like that?
I think it’s just basic corruption. David Pecker’s last interest is in reporting the facts. He’s traditionally not a journalist. He’s a businessman. It’s a company that is motivated by greed, not public interest and not perpetuating the values of the fourth estate.
Did you know that while you were there?
It was becoming more and more obvious as David Pecker became entrenched. Now keep in mind, I’ve been gone almost five years, but from the moment he took over it was made clear that Trump was his close friend and we would be the official organ for Donald Trump.
All the way back then?
Oh yeah, going back to whenever Pecker took over, the late ’90s, suddenly we stopped reporting negative stories on Donald Trump, and there were many! In the old days, Trump was good copy. His foibles, his divorces, his romances, his sexual escapades ― and then all that stopped.
How did he get that to happen? Was it explicitly stated? Was it stated to the top people who then pushed that message downward?
It became obvious. We would aggressively cover Trump through the ’90s, which brings us to the end of the marriage to ― who’s the wife who was the beauty queen?
Marla Maples. We chased that storyline like demons. It was a great story! And they ultimately married, and then David Pecker came in and all of a sudden any negative stories on Donald Trump [were quashed]. Story leads were submitted and quickly declined. It became obvious he wore the editors down. It was not verbalized on my level, but it was obvious that his mission was to sanitize Donald Trump’s image because he had political ambitions.
Pecker did? Or Trump?
Trump. I think David Pecker fancied himself Donald Trump’s sidekick. They were brothers of a sort. Neither of them have ever really been accepted by polite society. They had a lot in common that way. They were the social underdogs that just missed the mark as far as society went, and an alliance was formed.
But Pecker never said anything about this out loud? It was just something that came to be understood by employees?
If the topic of Trump came up, say, socially, in lunches or in staff meetings, it was clear that he was not interested in aggressively pursuing Trump as a celebrity. It became clear in the ensuing pages that he only wanted puff pieces done on his friend Donald Trump.
Were there any other friends of Pecker’s who rose to the level of Donald Trump?
No, no one rose to that level. He came to American Media as the first friend. He was very close with David. From the get-go, every story on Donald Trump was sanitized. Up until that point, Donald Trump was great copy. And everyone knows how much he [Trump] loved the publicity. He would call reporters. The whole thing about pretending he was his own publicist and that sort of thing. [Before Pecker], when we did unflattering stories, he might come back and we’d do something nicer on him. He didn’t take it as seriously as he did once Pecker came into management.
What were things like before David Pecker arrived at AMI?
Prior to Pecker’s arrival, the philosophy was the same as it had always been: to aggressively cover sensational stories on a worldwide level. We were well-funded, had a huge editorial budget and we chased everything of interest to our readers.
How did things start to change once Pecker arrived?
Budgets were slashed. Staffs were cut. Generally, it was a cost-saving approach, trying to deliver the same product but on the cheap.
What’s a typical reason for catching and killing a story at the Enquirer?
It could be at the direction of the editorial board. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a member of our editorial board at the time of his gubernatorial race, so there were catch and kill stories then. I was actually involved in them ― one woman specifically, who later talked about this, her name is Gigi Goyette. She and Arnold have made up, but at one point we had optioned her life story to keep it contained until after the race.
You told a reporter that Trump stories sometimes had changes attached to them labeled “per Pecker.” What were some of the changes you would see with those sort of stories?
Just minor things. If Trump was referred to as a billionaire, the fix would come back: “multi-billionaire.” It was all blowing smoke ―
― to feed his ego.
To make him seem grander.
You’ve also said that Pecker built up a “favor bank” with Trump. What was the point of that?
Pecker is quite the suck-up. He gets off on being able to say to his pal who is now president: “Look, I bought up another one. I have this arsenal of stories. I’ve protected you from all of this. Look what I’ve done for you? Aren’t I a good friend?”
How many potential Trump-related stories were killed in your time once Pecker was there?
I would say 10.
And hundreds of story leads that were never approved, that would come in and we just wouldn’t explore.
I read it was rare for the Enquirer to pay for stories that never ran. So Trump in that way was the exception.
Exactly. It makes no sense to pay in advance. You never want to pay [for a tip] until publication, so that you’re assured you get your money’s worth. If you pay in advance, that is suspicious.
Because it implies that there are other reasons beyond the editorial ones.
Right, it is obviously to keep a story off the market.
And some reporters you knew worked on Trump stories that were run by the Trump Organization.
Every story was run by Trump’s attorney, which it turns out was Cohen, or by reps with his organization.
How do you know that?
I know it because we talked to editors who ran them, and they would come back with fixes. They were given not only copy approval and headline approval and photo approval, but they would actually be sent pages, covers to show how the story was displayed and if they didn’t like the photo or the headline or the prominence, they had input, and it was always acted on. American Media was very, very accommodating.
You were tangentially involved in one dispute and a Trump associate right, Omarosa [Manigault-Newman]?
No, I was only the bureau chief at the time, and I just had to assign [Manigault-Newman] her office once they hired her. I didn’t edit the story, but I think I sent someone from our office that worked on that story regarding ― was it her brother or her fiancé?
Yeah, something like that. [Manigault-Newman threatened to sue AMI after the company sent a reporter to cover her brother’s funeral in 2011. Sources told The Wall Street Journal she dropped the suit in exchange for a job.]
The story was accurate. The story was spot-on, but she threatened to sue and David Pecker never wants a lawsuit on the books.
Why is that?
Because he wants to keep the company unencumbered on the outside chance that somebody might want to acquire it. Lawsuits are baggage, and that was one thing he brought philosophically to the Enquirer. We changed law firms. We had been with Williams & Connolly, who are perhaps among the best for copy review ― represented presidents, represents Donald Trump now, I believe [Clarification: Williams & Connolly partner Emmet Flood left the firm to join President Trump’s legal team earlier this year]. But David Kendall at the time was President Clinton’s personal attorney and he was also part of our legal review, but they were the best in the business, and they fought when they thought we were wrongly accused. The philosophy now is total capitulation. If somebody sues, we just roll over. The nondisclosure agreements that AMI now offers to sources are worded such that the company’s completely indemnified.
How do you mean?
You look closely at the nondisclosure ― when we buy a source, there really is no protection for the source. If we get in a legal bind, the source will be revealed. You have to look at it closely, but there is no protection for the source. It is all to benefit the company.
By the time you left what was your feeling about where AMI was and where it was going?
When I left there had been maybe four or five staff reductions, and money was really, really tight. By then they were making employees pay for their own parking, and they eliminated messenger services and Federal Express, and it was penny-wise, pound-foolish moves ― things that the bean counters could act on ― that would point out ― that were wasteful and then they would turn around and they would buy the stories for Donald Trump and never run them. It became frustrating.
The New York Times this week described AMI as agreeing to turn the organization’s tip line into a ”trip wire” around 2015, but according to your experience that really happened years earlier.
In retrospect, Donald Trump was always presidential timber we just never took it seriously. He always talked about running for president, but no one believed it would ever be possible. Looking back now, it became possible because of the assistance of at least this organization. It certainly didn’t hurt to have the most dominant presence on the supermarket rack in his pocket.
Do you think AMI readers will care about something like this?
I think you can fool the public for just so long. I think that for years the editorial board of American Media has been talking down to its readership and certainly it included the Trump base as part of their readership, but it’s becoming more and more obvious how corrupt this administration is and I think ultimately the readers are going to turn on them.
Do you think the amount of publicity that Pecker and AMI have gotten will convince them to halt these tactics? Or do you think it’s too inbred in who they are at this point?
I think American Media obviously is squirming. They’re in the hot seat now and everybody is on to them. You saw the publication of McDougal that was featured in Men’s Journal? I’d love to see the numbers on that sale. They’re still complying, albeit hesitantly, but everybody is on to them now. It’s all happening.
I assume you don’t have any thoughts about Mr. Dylan Howard.
I knew Dylan. I thought Dylan was a gentleman. My dealings with him were always fine. I have no axe to grind, but it’s clear that as he gained traction with the company, he embraced the company line, which was protect Donald Trump above all else.
You might be surprised to learn this but it just came across that Pecker has been granted immunity in the Michael Cohen case and that he’s going to speak freely about what he knows about Donald Trump, and I believe Dylan Howard is as well. Does that surprise you?
Actually, nothing surprises me.