Mr. Trump’s first fixer was Cohn, the disgraced former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, as a lawyer for the powerful, Cohn manipulated the media and the legal system to secure business advantages for Mr. Trump. He cast his client as a fabulously successful developer who transformed his father’s collection of low-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens into a Manhattan-based empire of luxury condominium towers.
Cohn defined the role of fixer for Mr. Trump, but after Cohn became sick with AIDS in the 1980s, Mr. Trump distanced himself, steering business elsewhere. Weeks after he won the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump told friends at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, that after hosting the dying Cohn for dinner there, "I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware."
Mr. Trump’s views of media and celebrity were shaped by Cohn and his successors, the men he relied on to project a particular version of himself—one that often bore little resemblance to reality. Their careers with Mr. Trump shed light on his rise in public life and his victory in the 2016 presidential election.
This account is based on court and congressional documents, texts and other communications, along with interviews with people involved in or familiar with the events.
Mr. Pecker’s celebrity gossip and personal-lifestyle empire—primarily the tabloid National Enquirer—promoted Mr. Trump’s political aspirations for almost two decades, starting in 1999.
Donald Trump (left) with his attorney Roy Cohn, Oct. 18, 1984. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s special counsel at the Trump Organization, styled himself as the boss’s loyal problem solver. A personal-injury lawyer and taxi-medallion owner raised on Long Island, Mr. Cohen became Mr. Trump’s armed press attaché in the late 2000s. Over the years, he wore a gun in an ankle holster and used legal threats to suppress bad headlines about his boss.
Together with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker worked during the 2016 presidential campaign to "catch and kill" stories about former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who privately alleged that they’d had affairs with the Republican candidate. Both women were paid to keep silent.
Mr. Cohen was charged with campaign-finance violations and is serving three years in prison. Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., admitted breaking the law while doing Mr. Trump’s bidding and reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.
" Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything. "
Mr. Trump’s reward to his fixers was what he offered all those in his service over the decades: exposure to his world, the chance to play a bit part in his story. These operatives were attracted to Mr. Trump’s aura, to the force of the huge personality that led him to the presidency. But when they had fulfilled their missions, they were dispensable. Mr. Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.
Mr. Pecker was the son of a Bronx bricklayer. He became an accountant and then rose in the publishing world through shrewd power plays. Mr. Pecker forged connections with influential figures, whose foibles were off-limits in his publications and were dubbed by staffers FOPs (Friends of Pecker).
In 1997, while running Hachette Magazines Inc., Mr. Pecker hatched a deal to publish a custom magazine called Trump Style. "Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century," Hachette executive Nick Matarazzo said when Mr. Pecker told him of it. When advertisers didn’t bite, Mr. Pecker became enraged.
Tabloid publisher David Pecker, Jan. 19, 2012. Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images
His relationship with Mr. Trump was a series of chits accrued and favors cashed in. Before Mr. Pecker took over at American Media in 1999, the Enquirer had feasted on stories of Mr. Trump’s affairs and breakups. After Mr. Pecker’s arrival, his gossip empire didn’t print a bad word about Mr. Trump.
As the publisher promoted Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Trump fed American Media tips and offered Mr. Pecker business advice. When Mr. Trump spotted an article about the company’s financial troubles, he scrawled over it with a Sharpie: You’ll be on top again in no time. Mr. Pecker framed the note and proudly displayed it in his office.
When American Media was based near Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Pecker would hang around if Mr. Trump was in town so that he could hitch a ride back to New York on the mogul’s jet. Mr. Pecker’s National Enquirer breathlessly promoted Mr. Trump’s 2011 exploratory presidential bid, and his Globe and Star propelled the "birther" conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump used to attack President Barack Obama and raise his own political profile.
Mr. Cohen came to work for Mr. Trump in 2007, after impressing him during a board uprising at a condo building. But the deals he attempted at the Trump Organization fizzled, and the boss came to question his legal skills.
In 2009, Mr. Trump gave company lawyer George Sorial an unpleasant task: persuade Mr. Cohen to resign. He’d had it with Mr. Cohen, who no longer seemed like a good fit. But Mr. Cohen decided to stay, taking a pay cut and doing more thankless work.
One of his duties was telling small-business owners that they could expect severely reduced fees or none at all for the services they provided to Mr. Trump. The boss reveled in hearing these accounts.
" ‘Wouldn’t that be something?’ "
—Michael Cohen on a possible Trump presidential run, 2010
Like Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen encouraged his boss’s ambitions, positioning himself as a political adviser. In 2010, Mr. Cohen showed Mr. Trump a Time magazine story about a poll testing the mogul’s appeal as a candidate. What if Mr. Trump did run? "Wouldn’t that be something?" Mr. Cohen asked.
Mr. Cohen turned to Mr. Pecker for help. Mr. Cohen and National Enquirer staff produced a series of increasingly obsequious tabloid stories hyping Mr. Trump’s unofficial candidacy and directing readers to Mr. Cohen’s website, ShouldTrumpRun.com.
Mr. Cohen’s tough-guy routine raised some eyebrows. In 2012, he horrified a campaign aide for Mitt Romney, pulling up a pant leg to show off his pistol during a fundraiser before stashing the gun in a car. Another time, he tried to barge past Mr. Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, after being informed that the boss was in a meeting. Mr. Schiller threw him to the ground and said, I told you, you’re not going in.
Mr. Trump kept Mr. Cohen around but didn’t seem to respect him. When Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the evangelical leader, told Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign that he and his wife really liked Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump responded, Really? Really?
Mr. Cohen played a behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, to the chagrin of the actual campaign staff. For the launch event, Mr. Cohen proposed bringing an elephant to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. After that was rejected, he coordinated with a friend—whom Mr. Trump had nicknamed "The Screamer" for his boisterous voice—to pay 55 actors in cash to attend the event.
Mr. Cohen’s most significant task, along with Mr. Pecker, was to identify potential threats to Mr. Trump’s campaign and squash them. The three men met at Mr. Trump’s office in August 2015, and Mr. Pecker offered to use the Enquirer—in coordination with Mr. Cohen—to intercept harmful stories and ensure they never surfaced.
On June 27, 2016, after Mr. Trump learned that Ms. McDougal was shopping around her story of an alleged affair with him, he phoned Mr. Pecker. Can you make this go away? Mr. Trump asked.
Mr. Pecker bought the story for $150,000, under a contract designed to appear as a content pact guaranteeing the model two magazine covers. In return, Ms. McDougal had to keep quiet. Mr. Pecker and his top editor, Dylan Howard, also helped to broker a deal in which Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company to buy her silence.
Adult-film actress Stormy Daniels arrives at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for a hearing related to Michael Cohen, President Trump's longtime personal attorney and confidante, April 16, 2018. Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
The Wall Street Journal later revealed both hush-money deals. After the Daniels agreement became public, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen—with Melania Trump on the line. "Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?" Mr. Trump asked. "Why didn’t you tell me about it?"
" ‘Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?’ "
—President Trump to Michael Cohen, with Melania Trump on the line
Mr. Cohen, who later said that he had consulted extensively with Mr. Trump about the payment, picked up the cue. Mr. Cohen said he’d planned to tell him after the election but had thought it safer to keep Mr. Trump out of it. He assumed the first lady saw through the lie.
In the predawn hours of April 9, 2018, FBI agents filtered into a side entrance of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel and took the service elevator to room 1728. As Mr. Cohen’s wife sat on a bed, the agents, bearing a warrant, carted away materials relating to the hush-money agreements and Mr. Cohen’s private business affairs.
That same morning, other agents arrived at Mr. Pecker’s and Mr. Howard’s residences with warrants authorizing the seizure of their cellphones. Mr. Pecker gave his lawyers a simple instruction after the FBI showed up: "Get me out of this." The publisher received immunity against federal charges; he told prosecutors that the true intent of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing an embarrassing story about the candidate. Prosecutors also declined to charge Mr. Howard, his deputy.
" ‘One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail.’ "
Mr. Trump predicted that Mr. Cohen wouldn’t turn on him, but the fixer was frantic. "One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail. Never," Mr. Cohen told two lawyers who met with him eight days after the raids. As Mr. Cohen’s legal fees mounted, the Trump Organization resisted paying, and Trump lawyers were lukewarm to inquiries on Mr. Cohen’s behalf about a presidential pardon.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Cohen broke from Mr. Trump, a man for whom he once had said he’d take a bullet. He pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including two campaign-finance related counts related to the hush-money payments, which he accused the president of directing.
Mr. Trump had said he didn’t know about the payments and later that he’d learned of them after the fact. After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, Mr. Trump tweeted, "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law."
American Media’s nonprosecution agreement offered a path out of trouble for Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. But soon an Enquirer story about an extramarital affair by Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, who had been at odds with Mr. Trump, fueled speculation that Mr. Pecker was back protecting the president, and federal authorities began investigating again. A spokesman for American Media declined to comment on the ongoing probe.
American Media’s largest financial backer could brook no more scandals. In April 2019, the publisher said that American Media was putting its tabloids, including the Enquirer, up for sale. Nine months later, that sale hasn’t been completed.
Mr. Pecker has ceded his title. His tabloid has become a toxic asset, and his legacy will forever be connected to Mr. Trump’s hush-money scandal.
—Mr. Palazzolo, an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and Mr. Rothfeld, now an investigative reporter at the New York Times, led The Journal team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. This essay is adapted from their new book "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, and Porn Stars Who Created the 45th President," to be published Tuesday by Random House.
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