The National Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Donald Trump leading up to 2016 presidential election, people familiar with the arrangement told The Associated Press.
The detail came as several media outlets reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors had granted immunity to National Enquirer chief David Pecker, potentially laying bare his efforts to protect his longtime friend Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump's former lawyerto campaign finance violations alleging he, Mr. Trump and the tabloid were involved in buying the silence of a porn actress and a Playboy model who alleged affairs with Mr. Trump.
Several people familiar with the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they signed non-disclosure agreements, said the safe was a great source of power for Pecker, the company's CEO.
The Trump records were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities' catch-and-kill deals, in which exclusive rights to people's stories were bought with no intention of publishing to keep them out of the news. By keeping celebrities' embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.
But after The Wall Street Journal initially published the first details of Playboy model Karen McDougal's catch-and-kill deal shortly before the 2016 election, those assets became a liability. Fearful that the documents might be used against American Media, Pecker and the company's chief content officer, Dylan Howard, removed them from the safe in the weeks before Mr. Trump's inauguration, according to one person directly familiar with the events.
The AP cannot say whether the documents were destroyed or simply were moved to a location known to fewer people.
American Media did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Court papers in the Cohen case say Pecker "offered to help deal with negative stories about (Mr. Trump's) relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided."
The Journal reported Pecker shared with prosecutors details about payments that Cohen says Mr. Trump directed in the weeks and months before the election to buy the silence of McDougal and another woman alleging an affair, porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels was paid $130,000, and McDougal was paid $150,000.
While the president denies the affairs, his account of his knowledge of the payments has shifted. In April, Mr. Trump denied he knew anything about the Daniels payment. He told Fox News in an interview aired Thursday that he knew about payments "later on."
In July, Cohen released an audio tape in which he and Mr. Trump discussed plans to buy McDougal's story from the Enquirer. Such a purchase was necessary, they suggested, to prevent Mr. Trump from having to permanently rely on a tight relationship with the tabloid.
"You never know where that company — you never know what he's gonna be —" Cohen says.
"David gets hit by a truck," Mr. Trump says.
"Correct," Cohen replies. "So, I'm all over that."
While Pecker is cooperating with federal prosecutors now, American Media previously declined to participate in congressional inquiries.
Last March, in response to a letter from a group of House Democrats about the Daniels and McDougal payments, American Media general counsel Cameron Stracher declined to provide any documents, writing that the company was "exempt" from U.S. campaign finance laws because it is a news publisher and it was "confident" it had complied with all tax laws. He also rebuffed any suggestion that America Media Inc., or AMI, had leverage over the president because of its catch-and-kill practices.
"AMI states unequivocally that any suggestion that it would seek to 'extort' the President of the United States through the exercise of its editorial discretion is outrageous, offensive, and wholly without merit," Stracher wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Former Enquirer employees who spoke to the AP said that negative stories about Mr. Trump were dead on arrival dating back more than a decade when he starred on NBC's reality show "The Apprentice."