The newsroom couldn’t quite believe what was happening. This is no small thing at a tabloid like the National Enquirer, whose business is the unbelievable. Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States, had cited the Enquirer’s story directly linking Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) father to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He’d done this live, on air, and now national outlets were parroting his comments in their headlines about it as well.
“There was shock and horror,” a former employee of American Media Inc., which owns the Enquirer and other tabloids, told HuffPost. (Former employees quoted in this piece requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.)
It was May 3, 2016. Trump had referenced the conspiracy theory on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends.” By that point the Enquirer newsroom had already spent months trying to make every presidential candidate outside of Trump look bad. It had proclaimed that Hillary Clinton had “6 MONTHS TO LIVE!” and yelled about Marco Rubio’s “Cocaine Connection!” The Enquirer had called Carly Fiorina a “homewrecker” and written a story about “bungling surgeon” Ben Carson allegedly once leaving a sponge in a patient’s brain.
By comparison, the tabloid had done seemingly everything it could to portray Trump as a living “legend” who could seemingly do no wrong. Employees would rarely waste time pitching ideas for stories that would cast Trump in a negative light, two former employees said. Two months before, the love affair became official when the Enquirer endorsed him on its cover, proclaiming “TRUMP MUST BE PREZ!”
The stark editorial decisions were not made because the editors and reporters of the Enquirer loved the former reality television star. If anything, the newsroom “probably leaned left,” the former employee said.
A separate former AMI employee agreed with the assessment, adding that many staffers at the Enquirer didn’t consider Trump a realistic threat at the outset of the campaign and found it “fun to play with the idea that Donald Trump was a serious candidate.”
“We all took Donald Trump’s candidacy as a joke,” said the former employee. “The whole idea that he would be elected president was foreign to us when we started.
“There was also a feeling that we can print these silly things and no one’s going to believe them.”
For much of the campaign, Cruz’s team held a similar view of the Enquirer. Rick Tyler, Cruz’s communications director until February 2016, said that while the team was “aware” of Trump’s informal relationship with AMI, “none of us took it very seriously.”
“The attitude about the National Enquirer was kind of like, ’Oh, yeah, that’s that tabloid that prints things that mostly aren’t true. And therefore it didn’t seem to be a political factor,” he added. “I think that was a mistake.” Cruz’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, the reason for AMI’s pro-Trump coverage lay squarely with one man: AMI chairman and chief executive David Pecker, who wanted his staff to do whatever it could to help get his “personal friend” elected president, both former employees said.
By the previous August, Pecker had quietly entered into an agreement with Michael Cohen, Trump’s then-fixer and personal attorney, to suppress potentially damaging stories about Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, according to court documents filed by prosecutors this summer.
But among the Enquirer’s rank-and-file, the directive was slightly different: Fill up the nation’s supermarket lines with negative information about everyone else.
“During the primary season, whoever got close to Trump numbers-wise became the next target, whether it was Jeb [Bush] or Marco [Rubio] or Ben Carson,” said one of the former AMI employees.
“It was really tied to opinion polls,” the former employee added. “When somebody got close to Donald Trump in an opinion poll, that became the next target.”
The story about Carson’s sponge came out in October 2015, when he was closing in on Trump in the national polls. A September piece about Fiorina’s “druggie daughter” followed her vault from 11th place to fourth. When the Enquirer ran with a story about Rubio’s “cocaine connection” in December, he had just finished his own steady three-month climb back into contention.
One of the former employees said the ideas for all three stories came out of editorial meetings at AMI, where the week’s political focus would often be announced by chief content officer Dylan Howard, the former employees said.
“He would give us a name,” said one of the former employees. “He’d say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do Ben Carson this week,’ or ‘We’re going to do Jeb Bush,’ and then we’d go rattle on the trees and see what we could get.”
“In editorial meetings, Dylan Howard would make up this story angle or that story angle, literally just shooting out ideas ― whether it’s ‘Hillary is going to die’ or ‘Trump declares whatever,’” said the other former employee. “It would all be to Pecker’s approval.”
Neither Howard nor an AMI spokesperson responded to multiple requests for comment by phone and email. But earlier this year, Howard told The Washington Post that he didn’t consider it “out of the ordinary” for him to “commission stories” on Trump’s “opponents” during the campaign considering that the Enquirer had made “a very public endorsement of Trump.”
“I didn’t do that at the behest of candidate Trump or anyone associated with him. I did it because we were chasing good stories,” he said.
By the time the Enquirer had officially endorsed Trump in March, the then-candidate already held a firm lead in the Republican primary, but Cruz was the closest thing he had to a competitor. This made him a primary focus of the Enquirer.
That March, the Enquirer had run a series of stories claiming that Cruz had been involved in a number of extramarital affairs. Cruz called the allegations “garbage” and claimed Trump had enlisted “his friends at the National Enquirer ... to do his bidding.” Google searches for “Ted Cruz affair” nevertheless spiked, and his reputation among Republican voters continued to drop precipitously.
The next month, Enquirer employees again found themselves batting around ideas about Cruz, when someone threw out something interesting. On April 7, 2016, the conspiracy-theory-peddling website Wayne Madsen Report had published a story that asked the question, “Was the father of presidential hopeful Cruz involved in the JFK assassination?”
Of central interest were two grainy photos taken of Lee Harvey Oswald passing out pro-Fidel Castro leaflets in New Orleans in 1963, just months before he assassinated John F. Kennedy. Citing a “source,” the website claimed that an unidentified man standing near Oswald was “none other than Rafael Cruz,” Ted Cruz’s father.
The Wayne Madsen post didn’t garner much attention for understandable reasons. While Rafael Cruz had been born in Cuba and did, at one point, support Castro’s revolution, he was firmly anti-Communist by 1963 and no longer sympathetic to Castro; there was no information linking him to the actual assassination. Even on the incredibly pro-Trump subreddit “The_Donald,” a Reddit user wrote that the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination seemed “pretty farfetched.”
But the conspiracy theory had the makings of a great Enquirer story ― old photos, “secret U.S. government files” and a connection to one of Trump’s political foes. It seemed perfect.
“We all sort of went, ’What?! That’s insane. Yes, let’s do that!’” one of the former employees said.
AMI reached out to purported experts like “court certified witness” Dr. Carol Lieberman and “respected photo editor” Mitch Goldstone and asked them to compare photos of Cruz’s father as a young man with the unidentified man in question. The Enquirer staff got the quotes they were looking for ― “There’s more similarity than dissimilarity,” Goldstone told them ― and rushed out an online preview of the story on April 20 under the headline “Ted Cruz’s Father — Caught With JFK Assassin.” The actual magazine went further, proclaiming in no uncertain terms, “TED CRUZ FATHER LINKED TO JFK ASSASSINATION!” Next to the bold assertion was the photo of Oswald in 1963 with another man, whom the Enquirer labeled unequivocally on its cover as Rafael Cruz.
Cruz’s team put out a firm denial soon after. “The story is false; that is not Rafael in the picture,” Cruz’s communications director told McClatchy shortly after the article’s release. And the conspiracy theory initially struggled to gain a foothold in the national conversation. That is, until May 3, when Trump asked live on “Fox & Friends” why the Enquirer’s latest story had not received more attention.
“His [Cruz’s] father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Donald Trump told the hosts. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
“I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?” Trump added. “It’s horrible.”
It was the morning of the Indiana primary, a critical day for the flailing Cruz campaign, and Cruz felt compelled to respond. Calling the Enquirer “tabloid trash,” he alleged that Trump was using the magazine to “smear anybody and everybody.”
“Donald was dismayed that the folks in the media weren’t repeating this latest idiocy, so he figured he’d have to do it himself,” he said.
Because of the hubbub, the conspiracy theory went viral. Unable to definitively say on the fly that it wasn’t Ted Cruz’s father in the photo, many media outlets that day ran straightforward headlines: “Donald Trump links Ted Cruz’s dad to JFK assassination”; “Donald Trump associates Ted Cruz’s father with JFK’s assassin”; “Donald Trump Accuses Ted Cruz’s Father of Plotting J.F.K.’s Assassination”; and “Donald Trump Suggests Ted Cruz’s Father Was Involved in the JFK Assassination.” Google searches for “Ted Cruz JFK” skyrocketed.
That such a far-fetched Enquirer story was suddenly driving the national conversation wasn’t lost on staffers across the company, the former employees said.
“I remember Dylan Howard expressing disbelief that this completely bullshit story had resonated,” one of them said.
“I think we were all pretty stunned,” said the other. “We all found it very amusing that suddenly something we wrote that we knew to be bullshit was, you know ― suddenly leading presidential candidates are talking about a National Enquirer story that had no merit.”
Later that day, Trump easily won the Indiana primary, and Cruz officially dropped out of the race, clearing the path for Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination. The next day, Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he didn’t actually believe the Enquirer story ― “Of course I don’t believe that,” said Mr. Trump. “I don’t believe it, but I did say let people read it” ― and “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade said he regretted not pushing back harder against Trump.
But in July, one day after he formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Trump brought up the Enquirer’s JFK story once again, stating that Cruz had never denied the man in the photo was his father (even though Cruz’s communications director had done exactly that) before defending himself.
“All I did is point out the fact that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast,” said Trump, who then proceeded to ask why the Enquirer had never won a Pulitzer Prize.
One of the experts interviewed for the Enquirer’s story was taken aback by the comment. Goldstone, the “respected photo editor” who runs a company called ScanMyPhotos.com, stands by his comment that there was “more similarity than dissimilarity” between the two photos, even if he didn’t entirely agree with the article’s conclusions. But he told HuffPost that Trump’s mention of a supposed breakfast between Oswald and the unidentified man confused him.
“I don’t know where he got that from,” Goldstone said. “He must have seen different pictures than I saw.”
The Enquirer’s editorial strategy continued after Cruz dropped out. While the top brass at AMI allegedly helped coordinate deals to suppress stories about Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, its editors turned their attention more squarely toward Clinton. Eventually, the Trump-obsessed approach wore on the newsroom. “It just got tedious,” one of the former employees said, “and it was so relentless that we stopped enjoying it. It became difficult each week to come up with a way to kill Hillary and attack Trump’s enemies and make Trump look good all at the same time.”
Whether AMI’s actual stories influenced the election, or to what degree, is difficult to determine. But Tyler, Cruz’s former communications manager who was fired before the Oswald story ran, wouldn’t discount their influence.
“Everybody reads them,” he said. “And what we’ve learned from Trump [is] if you repeat the lie often enough, there’s a scary amount of people who will believe it.”
When Trump won the election, AMI staffers throughout the company were shocked. “Even Dylan was stunned and didn’t know what to do next,” said one of the former employees. “There was plenty of self-reflection … the guilt was pretty heavy, too.”
“I definitely think there was a sense of horror for many people there,” said the other. “I know for sure some people had a serious problem with what they had helped wrought.”
Trump, however, wouldn’t change a thing. Last week, before heading out to Houston to rally for Cruz in his battle against Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke, Trump was asked whether he regrets some of his past comments about Cruz’s father.
“I don’t regret anything, honestly,” Trump said. “It all worked out very nicely.”