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This isn’t democracy

What happens when “journalism” becomes an illegal campaign contribution


“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence the election. It’s called democracy.”
So said defense attorney Todd Blanche last week as he tried to favorably frame Donald Trump’s alleged conspiracy involving Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who spent much of last week on the witness stand in Trump’s ongoing trial in Manhattan.
Blanche is right, at least to a point. Unfortunately for his client, the actions recently described under oath by Mr. Pecker go well beyond that point and begin to look a lot like the criminal conspiracy outlined by Manhattan prosecutor Joshua Steinglass.
There are many ways to influence an election. Some are legal and some aren’t, and the rules get a lot stickier when a corporation, like American Media (which published the National Enquirer at the time) get involved. Corporations, in fact, are prohibited from donating to campaigns, and that includes both cash and in-kind contributions.
Yet, what Mr. Pecker described was exactly that, a corporate contribution that went well beyond the money paid out to buy up exclusive rights and then bury (known as “catch and kill”) unsavory stories about Donald Trump. According to Pecker’s testimony, he met with Trump and Cohen ahead of the campaign and set up a scheme to aid Trump’s presidential run by suppressing unflattering stories about Trump and headlining false stories attacking his political opponents. The National Enquirer, with direct coordination from Cohen and Trump, ran only flattering stories about Trump along with an endless stream of false political hits on Trump’s opponents, typically timed just as they were rising in the polls.
“Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain”; “Ted Cruz Sex Scandal—5 Secret Mistresses”; “Ted Cruz Father Linked to JFK Assassination”; “ ‘Family Man’ Marco Rubio’s Love Child Stunner!” were just some of the phony National Enquirer covers published during the Republican primaries.
Hillary Clinton, of course, became the focus of the Enquirer’s false attacks once Trump had won the GOP nomination in 2016. Headlines at various times accused her of being corrupt, racist, or simply dying. “Hillary’s hit man tells all!”; “Hillary: Six months to live!” were among the weekly false smears against Clinton that appeared on the cover of the Enquirer.
The impact of these headlines was enormously beneficial to Trump’s campaign and amounted to a corporate contribution worth millions. Not only did the Enquirer headlines generate tens of millions of looks at grocery checkouts around the country, the headlines generated significant additional coverage as the phony claims bounced around the right-wing media echo chamber. While most Americans probably know to look askance at anything in the Enquirer, at the time it was highly influential with low-information Americans, the kind who flocked to the polls to back Trump in 2016. And as those claims became fodder for cable news chatterers and social media, these falsehoods were amplified and made more credible simply through repetition.
The Enquirer’s actions were plainly a violation of federal campaign finance laws, which is why the company admitted as much as part of a cooperation deal it signed with prosecutors, in which it agreed to pay a $187,500 fine and testify truthfully about the arrangement between its publisher and Trump.
While Trump could certainly be prosecuted federally for his role in this crime, federal prosecutors have their hands full with Trump’s even weightier violations. Prosecutors in Manhattan, who can’t charge the federal violations themselves (though state campaign finance rules may apply to the case), do have a means of holding Trump accountable because he disguised the payments to the porn actress Stormy Daniels as legal expenses attributed to his business. Ironically, had Trump accounted for the payments to Daniels properly, he likely wouldn’t be facing 34 felonies, since paying hush money isn’t a crime on its own. While his actions still almost certainly violated federal campaign laws, it’s doubtful that federal prosecutors would make that charge by itself.
Yet, by falsifying his business accounts, Trump ran afoul of a New York law that makes such falsifications a felony if they are done to cover up a related crime. In this case, it appears the mischaracterization of the expenses was done to cover up the illegal scheme that Trump, Cohen, and Pecker undertook, to use the Enquirer to influence the 2016 election in a manner that was both illegal and highly unethical.
That is perhaps the clearest message in this entire affair. Donald Trump is a sleazy individual who willingly conspired with a bottom feeding yellow journalist, like David Pecker, to win an election at any cost. Whether he is ultimately judged guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there is no doubt that Donald Trump is a man without principles, one who should never be allowed to set foot in the White House again.