Bad Romance

What happened to the National Enquirer after it went all in for Trump?

Technically, Dylan Howard didn’t invite me to his book party. Howard, a thirty-seven-year-old longtime editor at the National Enquirer, had canceled on me for an interview three times that week and looked mortified when I showed up. But the publicist for the book—Diana, Case Solved: The Definitive Account That Proves What Really Happened, featuring blurbs by Sean Hannity, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew—had forwarded me an invite. When I arrived, at a bar on the second floor of the Moxy, a sexy-trashy boutique hotel in the urban purgatory between Times Square and Penn Station, I found myself among unusual company: Aviva Drescher, formerly of The Real Housewives of New York (2012–2014); Luann de Lesseps, currently of The Real Housewives (fresh off probation for drunken battery against a cop, now promoting a cabaret show); and Megyn Kelly, who hadn’t been heard from since her NBC program succumbed to poor ratings and a blackface comment.

In a corner I spotted Rob Shuter, an Enquirer gossip columnist. You could probably divide the New York media world into people who have and have not heard of Shuter, whose column, “Straight Shuter,” was so named, he says, because “no one gayer has ever set foot in the Enquirer.” In the prestige realm, the realm where people win prizes and argue on Twitter about which New York Times op-ed columnist sucks, no one has heard of Rob Shuter. In the larger parallel universe dominated by morning TV, waiting-room glossies, and celebrity publicists, he is known.

Shuter was talking to Drescher. I asked if she was one of his regular sources. “You’re not a source,” he said to her, quickly. “I have been a source,” she countered. “No, no, you shouldn’t say that,” he explained. “It doesn’t look sexy.” Drescher turned to me: “I’m not a source.” Then she left for the Upper East Side. “She’s famous because she has one leg,” Shuter told me, once she was gone. “And she threw it on the show. Threw it across the restaurant.” As we watched more guests file in, it occurred to Shuter to ask Howard a question. He shouted across the room, “Dylan, darling?” Howard—blond, pink-faced, and pinstripe-suited—looked our way. Shuter gestured at me and asked, “Do you know this chap?” 

From archives: Washington Post apologizes to freelancer after killing story over retweet

Howard, who is Australian, broke into American journalism as a wunderkind Hollywood gossip reporter and was named editor of the Enquirer in 2014. Within a few years, he was presiding over American Media Inc. (AMI), the gossip empire that owns the Enquirer. Now, like his boss, David Pecker, AMI’s CEO, Howard is best known as a scandal-ridden acolyte of Donald Trump. In the summer of 2016, he and Pecker negotiated a $150,000 “catch and kill” payoff that buried the story of an affair between Trump and Karen McDougal, a Playboy Playmate. (Howard also helped arrange Trump’s 2015 payoff to Stormy Daniels, the porn star, even though it didn’t involve AMI.) After Trump’s election, Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Howard had worked with Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer, to help him discredit Rose McGowan, an actress who was accusing him of abuse. (Howard, who has said that he only helped Weinstein while he was still denying the allegations, was the subject of sexual misconduct complaints at AMI, though an internal investigation cleared him of “serious” wrongdoing.) 

Dylan Howard served as editor of the Enquirer for years—until he started making headlines of his own. Lucas Jackson/Reuters Pictures

By the summer of 2018, Howard and Pecker were backed into a corner. So they flipped, testifying to the Justice Department that they coordinated on hush money payments with Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer. (The payments had violated campaign finance law.) Cohen went to jail and they got immunity deals, which were promptly thrown into jeopardy in early 2019, when the Enquirer got the story that Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and Trump bête noire, was having an extramarital affair. After the news broke, Bezos accused Howard of trying to “extort” him over dick pics that Howard was threatening to publish. All this, apparently, was too much for Chatham Asset Management, the New Jersey hedge fund that owns AMI, and in April, AMI announced that it was selling off the Enquirer. There were other worries, too: In a few weeks, Farrow’s damning book, Catch and Kill, in which Howard is a central character, would be released. And any day now, Pecker and Howard may be subpoenaed to testify before Congress.

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So I get why Howard didn’t invite me to his party. But he didn’t ask me to leave, either. It was a big night for him: Following the Bezos showdown, Howard had been stripped of his title and removed as editor of the Enquirer. Instead, according to AMI, Pecker directed him to “focus on new business opportunities,” including TV programming, podcasts, and special-interest publications. Since then, Howard has churned out heaps of schlock—see his podcast Fatal Voyage: The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, plus an announced nineteen more books in the pipeline. The idea, it seemed, was that, while a public hanging awaited him, he’d pivot to true crime and cocktails. And he was enjoying the show of support: Megyn Kelly declined to provide a quote about Howard, though she did lament the general cruelty of the press and urged me not to write a negative story. (The Enquirer used to savage Kelly, but AMI titles have lately been running puff pieces about her. The week after the party, she was in the Enquirer, photographed in front of a poster for Howard’s Princess Di book.)

Soon, the room quieted. Howard began delivering remarks in a syrupy drawl. “Most of you here know that the last couple years have been a very challenging time for me personally,” he said. “Not as challenging a time as it’s been for some other people. Megyn Kelly has sixty million reasons to be happy!” The crowd tittered. Kelly interjected: “Reportedly!” Howard went on. “One of the questions I was asked earlier was, ‘Are you trying to reinvent yourself as an author?’ I said to myself, it doesn’t take much for me to host a party and have an alcoholic beverage. So I’m not reinventing myself. No. And with that, I have a very special announcement.” In time for the holidays, he told the crowd, a brand-new book would hit the shelves, Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales. “If anyone doesn’t see me in the next six weeks,” he said, “it’s because I’m pumping that book out.”

 

There’s a temptation, in a story like this, to write about the sorry “TMZ-ification” of American media. About how a gossip rag like the Enquirer laid the groundwork for the rise of fake news and a mendacious president. But the real shame is that, in the Trump era, the Enquirer strayed from its underappreciated penchant for muckraking. The establishment press has long sniffed at the Enquirer’s methods, which include paying for tips, yet over the decades, the paper has broken major scandals without much of an agenda besides wreaking havoc and flipping the bird to stodgy mainstream journalists. “People say prostitution’s the oldest profession,” Shuter remarked at the party. “Gossip is. Go to the Temple of Dendur. You’ll see gossip carved on the walls. They’ll be like, ‘Aphrodite was a slut.’ ” (Afterward, Jon Hammond, AMI’s PR person, told me, with an eye roll, not to believe anything Shuter says.)

A brief history: In 1952, Generoso Pope Jr., an MIT-educated scion of a Mob-connected newspaper publisher, bought a middling broadsheet called the New York Enquirer. He turned it into a tabloid and, in 1957, renamed it the National Enquirer. For about fifteen years, the Enquirer ran gruesome domestic-horror stories like I WATCHED MY 2 BABIES BURN TO DEATH and PLEASE DON’T MOMMY SAID THE BOY SHE BEAT TO DEATH. By the late sixties, the paper’s audience shifted from the city to the suburbs, where supermarkets refused to stock it. Pope shifted to celebrity gossip, which was a smashing success; in the seventies, the Enquirer was selling close to six million copies a week. 

For the next few decades, the Enquirer perfected the art of publishing thinly sourced celebrity drivel next to explosive scoops. We had it to thank for the infamous 1987 photo of Senator Gary Hart with Donna Rice, his mistress, on his lap. In 1995, the Enquirer published damning photos of O.J. Simpson in the “ugly ass” suede Bruno Magli boots he swore he didn’t own (prints from a pair in size twelve had been found all over the scene of his wife’s murder). In time, circulation dipped, staff thinned, editors were repeatedly sacked, ownership changed, offices moved, vultures circled, and an anthrax attack took an employee’s life. But the headlines kept coming: Rush Limbaugh Addicted to Pills! John Edwards’s Secret Love Child! Steve Jobs, Weeks to Live! 

When it came to the “tabloid president,” however, the Enquirer buried the news. Recently, I sat down to read what it’s produced over the past few years. (You can do this too, in the periodicals room of the New York Public Library on Forty-Second Street. People will look at you funny.) For the first six months of 2015, aside from the odd item on Michelle Obama’s supposed taxpayer-funded Botox injections, the Enquirer barely covered Washington. In the second half of that year, however, after Trump declared for president, the Enquirer changed course. It began running a few kinds of stories: One, nonstop pathological content about how Hillary Clinton was on the verge of jail or death. Two, unprovable scoops about Trump’s primary-campaign rivals (e.g., Ben Carson left a sponge in someone’s skull). Three, uncomfortably gauzy first-person tell-alls from Trump. 

David Pecker, who runs American Media Inc., used to taunt Megyn Kelly in the Enquirer; lately, he’s been cheering her on. Mark Peterson/Redux

At the time, journalists began noticing that the Enquirer was up to something, and recalled that Trump and Pecker went way back: in the late 1990s, when Pecker ran Hachette Filipacchi, a New York publishing house, he put out a short-lived mag called Trump Style. Trump, in 2013, tweeted that Pecker should be CEO of Time. AMI’s board meetings regularly took place at Mar-a-Lago. But nobody really took either man seriously. And when Pecker claimed that readers were loving the maga coverage, it didn’t seem like an assertion worth challenging.

In 2016 and 2017, the Enquirer went into overdrive for Trump, even handing him its first ever political endorsement. When Pecker and Howard were questioned about their coverage, they said that Trump’s base and the Enquirer’s base just so happened to overlap: both were “deplorables,” basically, who reveled in stories about corrupt and ruined elites. There’s something to this; Jack Shafer, Politico’s media critic, wrote in late 2016 that the two demographics shared not a “post-truth” but a “pre-truth” sensibility, in which tribal grudges and gut feelings reign. But the new, politicized Enquirer also risked alienating other portions of its readership: Black people, gay people, anyone who didn’t care about politics. It’s hard to prove that the coverage hurt circulation—according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, Clinton covers overperformed, while Trump covers slightly underperformed—but it certainly didn’t help. In 2018, the Enquirer shrank to forty-eight pages a week, after holding steady for years at sixty. Average weekly newsstand sales plummeted from roughly 250,000 at the start of 2016 to 120,000 today.

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Jon Hammond, AMI’s PR guy, told me that the Enquirer’s political coverage was merely a product of campaign season interest. Yet the trend continued after the election. In 2017, thirty covers featured Trump, Clinton, or Barack Obama. (After Trump took office, Obama was reintroduced as a major character, constantly trying to sabotage his successor.) The next year started with more of the same. 

And then, suddenly, in the spring of 2018, it stopped. No more Trump ass-kissing. No more Hillary deathwatch. Thanks to the Justice Department—or, per Hammond, because “sales of issues covering politics had a fatigue factor”—it was back to good old kidnapped Suri Cruise and emaciated Nicole Richie. Everything snapped into place, as if the Enquirer’s maga era had been nothing more than a wavy-lined dream sequence.

That doesn’t change the fact that, as of now, the Enquirer’s arrangement with Trump is the first paragraph of its obituary. Not to be too Enquirer-y about it, but the Enquirer is facing an identity crisis. Did its drift into propaganda doom it for good? Or can it return to tastelessly, gloriously airing the dirty laundry of the rich and famous? After all, whatever the motives behind it, the Enquirer’s Bezos story can be viewed as an all-time classic, and it led directly to the divorce of the world’s richest man. “In the wake of all the Bezos reporting, we have people saying we write about alien babies and things like this,” a senior AMI figure told me. “At the same time, they’re saying, well, you just cost a man $75 million. We can’t be both.”

 

The dominant theme of Pecker’s reign at AMI has been consolidation. Since taking over, in 1999, Pecker, a former accountant, has snapped up the Globe, the Examiner, Men’s Journal, Muscle and Fitness Hers, Radar Online, OK!, Closer, In Touch, Life & Style, and Us Weekly. Editorially, there are obvious advantages to this arrangement. Experienced gossip reporters share tips and exclusives with one another, forming a virtual monopoly, since publicists and leakers have nowhere else to go.

It also allows AMI to use its publications as bargaining chips to placate, or blackmail, celebrities. In 2007, in exchange for squashing a story on an extramarital relationship with a waitress, Tiger Woods, who almost never appears on magazines, agreed to pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness. In 2011, Omarosa Manigault Newman, the Celebrity Apprentice antihero and future White House employee, threatened AMI with a lawsuit over its coverage of her recently deceased brother. According to Newman’s memoir, Unhinged (2018), Pecker called Trump and asked him to reason with her; Trump, as a favor to Pecker, talked her out of the lawsuit, and AMI gave her a bogus job as its “West Coast editor.” Karen McDougal, too, was given a contract to write health-and-wellness columns (“How to Shine All Summer”; “Spring Tune-Up”). In 2017, they were published word for word across several AMI titles, including Star and OK! McDougal also appeared as a cover model for AMI’s Men’s Journal and Muscle and Fitness Hers. That way, at least in theory, her payoff didn’t look bogus. (“Keep praying! It’s working!!” Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications director, texted to Michael Cohen.) 

AMI also apparently took advantage of its portfolio to satisfy—of all people—Tom Arnold, a semi-beloved comedian known for appearing on Roseanne, marrying Roseanne Barr, divorcing Roseanne Barr, and gamely debasing himself in a host of D-list movies. While his ex-wife became a Trump supporter, Arnold transformed himself into a #Resistance crusader, on the hunt for a handful of mythic tapes that he believed could bring down the president. In late 2017, without evidence, Arnold began tweeting about a “Trump elevator tape,” possibly in the possession of either TMZ or the Enquirer, in which Trump was “roughing up” his wife, Melania. Later, he pursued it in a show for Vice. (“There has never been any thread of reality or hope in any such tape whatsoever,” Hammond told me.) 

Arnold had a history with the Enquirer—when he and Barr were on the outs, he told me, they sold it tips about each other—but his lawyer said that AMI was threatening to sue if he didn’t shut up. In February 2018, a lunch was arranged at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel between Arnold and Dylan Howard. According to Arnold, he flipped the script on the Enquirer: “Look, fuck you,” he said he told Howard. “You’re not going to fucking sue me. That would be insane.” He said he demanded that Howard fork over some dirt on Trump, to prove he wasn’t protecting the president. “You’re going to have to be on the right side of America very soon,” Arnold recalled saying. He told me, “In my mind, Dylan Howard had tears in his eyes.” Howard didn’t hand him any tapes, Arnold said, but he did promise to break news that Donald Trump Jr. once had an extramarital affair with a cast member of Celebrity Apprentice. A couple weeks later, AMI’s Us Weekly reported the story. (Howard wouldn’t comment on the exchange; when I asked Hammond if Howard had made legal threats over lunch, he said, “My guess is it would have been in jest.” He added, “Treat Tom for what Tom is—which is entertainment.”)

Long term, AMI’s structure has as much to do with power as it does with money. Pecker has repeatedly shown a genius for staving off bankruptcies and securing eleventh-hour investments. He has done so largely by going into debt, buying up more magazines, and creating efficiencies—that is, laying people off. A couple years ago, Howard said that, without relinquishing any of its titles, AMI had managed to cut newsroom costs in half. “When you acquire something and you have synergies in certain areas, certain people go,” Kevin Hyson, AMI’s longtime chief marketing officer, told me. “Whatever the duplication, you can’t keep two people doing the same job.” 

The office vibe is somewhere between the Seventh Circle of Hell and a life raft full of plane crash survivors with no hope of being rescued.”

Right now, for instance, AMI’s head of news is a twenty-nine-year-old Welshman named James Robertson. I met Robertson at Howard’s book party. He struck me as a decent guy, and told me that he counts investigative reporters like the Times’ Jodi Kantor, who co-broke the Weinstein scandal, among his heroes. Being from the United Kingdom, where tabloids are mainstream, Robertson seemed a bit bewildered to have landed in such an indecorous environment. He also appeared brutally overworked. His position as head of news for AMI’s “Celebrity Group” means that he oversees all of AMI’s gossip titles; in addition, he serves as the editor of OK! A few weeks after we met, he would be named editor in chief of Us Weekly. With Howard on sabbatical, Robertson is basically propping up the entire newsroom. (He also walks Smokey, Howard’s Maltipoo, when Howard is away.)

The consolidation is why, if you pick up AMI’s celebrity glossies for any given week, you’ll start noticing repeated items. In September, for instance, Robertson sent a reporter to Korea to get a quote from Maddox Jolie-Pitt, who was attending college there. “We got the first quotes of him talking about Brad Pitt,” Robertson told me, a few days after the party. “We made a spread in In Touch, a spread in the Enquirer, a gossip item in OK! magazine, and rolled it out on digital.” That’s par for the course at AMI, whose celebrity publications all share a newsroom, on the second floor of a building in Lower Manhattan. “If someone’s struggling right now on Star magazine,” Robertson explained, “I’ll go over and give them features or articles we’ve already filed, to help relieve some of the strain.”

In April, shortly after the Bezos meshugaas, AMI announced that it would sell off the Enquirer and its oddball sister publications, the Globe and the Examiner. That made sense; the Enquirer was toxic. What made less sense was the $100 million sale price. It’s not that the Enquirer is necessarily unprofitable; an AMI source told me that it makes $25 million a year. (If you multiply about six million in annual newsstand sales by the $4.99 cover price, plus ads and subscriptions, subtracted by meager staff costs, that’s not an implausible figure.) Still, the amount was high for a rapidly declining print product with a negligible online presence. Shortly after the deal was reported, Keith Kelly, who as the media reporter for the New York Post has been monitoring Pecker for years, wrote that it looked like a “parked transaction”—that is, a BS agreement in which AMI would quietly reclaim control or back the investment itself. As the summer dragged on, the deal hadn’t closed, and no one at the Enquirer so much as moved desks; that hypothesis gained traction. 

The Enquirer’s buyer was James Cohen, heir to the Hudson News newsstand empire and a friend of David Pecker’s. When Cohen and I spoke, he was poker-faced. What did he think of the paper’s election coverage? “Donald Trump is actually in the dead center of the Enquirer’s audience. I think that was the decision to focus on him.” Why was he buying such a troubled asset? “Negative publicity aside, it’s a solid moneymaker.” What is his relationship with Pecker? “Mostly business. We have some social events we go to.” Isn’t print dying? “They have stuck primarily to a print audience, so, the other side of the coin is, there’s nothing but upside.” Are you really funding this yourself? “Financing has been secured.” Can you tell me who your investors are? “No.” Why is the deal taking forever to close? “It’s a myriad of different loose ends.”

Not only was the deal legit, Cohen insisted, but it made perfect sense for him to make the purchase. He sold the Hudson News newsstands a decade ago, he explained, but he retains ownership of the distribution business—the part of the company that negotiates with supermarkets and stands for prime placement of titles. Crucially, Hudson News and—you guessed it—Chatham Asset Management control close to a hundred percent of the newsstand distribution market in America. Which means they can control where the Enquirer ends up in the Walmart checkout line. “The Enquirer has historically been one of our larger publishers,” Cohen told me. “My father lived next door to Gene Pope in Englewood, New Jersey. They were great friends.”

But here’s what you really need to know: Cohen does not plan to change editorial personnel, move offices, or alter the print product in any way. The Enquirer will continue to share resources, staff, and tips with all of the existing AMI titles. “It would certainly be more efficient if it were in its current location,” Cohen said. “The main reason the Enquirer is still so profitable is because it’s in a weekly shop that does weeklies.” Officially, David Pecker and AMI no longer run the National Enquirer. Actually, nothing is changing.

 

Of course, if you cut staff to the bone and produce a garbage magazine, you’ve got a whole other problem on your hands. “This is a game of musical chairs,” a former Enquirer staffer told me. “It just ends at some point. Everything has been cut back to the point where it can’t be cut back anymore.” With the exception of Hyson, who was forced to interrupt a vacation in the Netherlands to speak with me, approximately zero people I talked to had anything positive to say about their experience working for the Enquirer. For corroboration, another former staffer suggested that I browse AMI’s Glassdoor.com ratings. They don’t disappoint. From October 2018: “The office vibe is somewhere between the Seventh Circle of Hell and a life raft full of plane crash survivors with no hope of being rescued.” From March 2016: “You might want to look into a more honorable line of work—baby seal hunting or sex trafficking, for instance.”

The misery follows people out the door. When I interviewed past employees of the Enquirer, they exuded paranoia, muttering about hit jobs and warning of lethal nondisclosure agreements. Finally, someone told me that we could talk once he verified that I wasn’t an AMI spy. We met at a crummy bar in the Port Authority, where I bought him whiskeys. I can’t say exactly what his job was or when he left—that was a condition of our conversation. Let’s call him Max.

During the Trump era, Max said, Enquirer reporters kept their heads down. “If you were handed an assignment to write a critical piece about one of the president’s foes, you did it,” he told me. When I asked why he thought the assignments suddenly began materializing, he replied, “I didn’t think that deeply. I just wanted to get in and out.” The real indignity was that, as staff continued to shrink, the Enquirer relied increasingly on half-baked rumors, goosed details, and recycled stories from its archives, all of it on the cheap. 

I’d brought with me several recent issues for us to read together. Jeffrey Epstein, who had just been found dead, graced the cover of the first one we flipped through. “This cover you’re showing me is so typical. I mean, ‘House of Horrors.’ They have nothing.” (Correct. Just regurgitated material.) Max turned to an item about Reba McEntire’s “crippling arthritis” and told me about the Enquirer’s stable of hack sources, called upon to offer armchair medical diagnoses of celebrities. “They’ll take a picture of someone looking horrible and have an ‘expert’ weigh in,” he said. “Then we’ll run a story.” On the flip side, the Enquirer is said to keep a “no fly list”—names of famous people the paper agrees not to write articles about, as a form of settlement, after one of them threatens legal action. (AMI would say only: “We do not comment on settlements or litigation.”) 

I asked Max how paying for tips works. “People call saying they have a story and they want money for it, and leave a message,” he said. “We call back. We vet it. Most people are crazy. We get calls from people who are one step away from shooting up a Walmart.” If the story’s good, the source asks for massive sums of money and eventually ends up settling for a couple hundred bucks, or less. Then the Enquirer sends them a W-9 to fill out. 

The real mystery about the Enquirer, I came to find, is who actually works there. Virtually none of the articles are bylined, and it appears that Howard stopped publishing mastheads sometime in 2017. (Why? I asked Max. “Because it’s junk,” he replied. “Why would you want to be associated with that?”) Technically, as Robertson supervises most of the newsroom, the Enquirer’s editor in chief is a veteran AMI employee named Dan Dolan. He is also editor of the Examiner and the Globe. I didn’t learn much about Dolan, except that he assumed control after Howard moved into podcast-land and, according to a non-Max ex-staffer, that he is known to carry a massive knife around the office, apparently for protection. (“ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE,” Hammond countered in an email.)

According to Robertson, eight reporters contribute to the Enquirer, not all of them on staff. And that number could be high. Most of the paper’s Trump-era journalists are gone. Alan Butterfield is now at the Daily Mail. Ralph Ortega is also at the Mail. Lachlan Cartwright, at the Daily Beast. Sharon Churcher, freelancing. Mike Walker, dead. Barry Levine, just out with an anti-Trump book called All the President’s Women. Mike Jaccarino, who I’m told listened to Disney soundtracks while he worked, is also publishing a book. It is said that the only legitimate reporter left on staff is a chain-smoking Enquirer veteran named Doug Montero. These days, much of the reporting is done by a Los Angeles–based paparazzi agency, Coleman-Rayner, the same firm that Howard dispatched to collect dirt on Rose McGowan. 

Still, Max had come to possess a kind of warped nostalgia for his time at the paper. “The Enquirer is a forum for dreamers, and conspiracy theorists, and haters, where everybody comes together to say ‘Look at that asshole, what a schmuck, he deserves what he gets,’ ” he said. “It’s about the gut reaction average people have to big, important people.” For those readers, he didn’t have contempt. For the place itself, nothing but. “AMI, it’s a festering cancer,” he told me. And of the office, he added, “It’s suffocating.” I assume he was speaking metaphorically, but I don’t know for sure, since AMI didn’t let me in the building. Then he said, “Simon, honestly, you gotta be careful. Everything I’ve told you—I trust you. We’ve never had this conversation.”

 

Despite the apparent horror of working there, it appears the Enquirer was getting back to something like normalcy in the past year and a half. The paper had returned to its celebrity coverage and its top executives, thanks to their plea deal, had dodged a legal bullet. But when it came to the Bezos story, a political dimension once again entered the picture. 

The texts Bezos sent to Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom he was having an affair (“Your energy and ideas and competence and spirit turn me on”), were leaked, by all accounts, to the Enquirer by Sanchez’s brother, Michael, for a reported sum of $200,000. Michael was a celebrity publicist who had slipped tips to the Enquirer before; nothing new there. But he was also a vocal Republican who counted among his friends Trump associates such as Roger Stone and Carter Page. In addition, according to Bezos and his private security investigator, Gavin de Becker, the Enquirer hadn’t just relied on Michael, but also had an external source that had hacked Bezos’s phone. The source, de Becker floated in the press, was Saudi Arabia. 

In the Daily Beast, de Becker argued that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, had it out for Bezos’s Washington Post, thanks largely to Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s coverage of his regime. (Salman is believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s execution, at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.) What’s more, Pecker had recently met with Salman in Saudi Arabia, in order to seek funding for AMI. As part of Pecker’s efforts, he had published, in March 2018, an incredibly weird pro-Salman propaganda glossy, with no ads, distributed as a $13.99 one-off in Walmarts and other chain supermarkets. (It doesn’t appear that AMI ever landed the investment; according to Hammond, the company “has not received any funding directly from Saudi Arabia.”) De Becker’s smoking gun: in exchange for not publishing dick pics, Howard had asked Bezos to deny that the Enquirer’s coverage of his affair was politically motivated or had come about as a result of “electronic eavesdropping.” And Salman, of course, was close with Trump. Michael Sanchez, the theory went, was the dot connecting Page, Stone, Bezos, the president of the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Enquirer. 

Few people I spoke with, including highly critical ex-Enquirer sources, found the Saudi angle persuasive. Given Michael Sanchez’s widely reputed involvement as a paid source, many observers saw that argument largely as de Becker and Bezos’s (successful) attempt to distract from Bezos’s indiscretions. Michael and I emailed a few times, but mostly he just updated me on whatever glamorous vacation spot he was bouncing off to (Cannes, Mykonos). The Enquirer announced an internal investigation into the Bezos story, about which AMI told me little. “The only thing I’m aware of is that it’s done,” a company source said. “But I haven’t heard of any findings.”

Whatever the truth, the contretemps rocked AMI. According to the Wall Street Journal, Cameron Stracher, a longtime legal counsel who had negotiated catch-and-kill payments, left over a row with Pecker on how Michael had been compensated. Pecker and Howard’s immunity agreement, meanwhile, contingent on AMI not breaking the law, was suddenly under review by the Justice Department. And that’s when Howard stepped back. (Hammond says his role changed because his contract was up, and that AMI’s pivot to multimedia projects was strategic.) From a public relations perspective, the Bezos story was a bust. The Enquirer’s scoop was almost immediately overshadowed by a pervasive assumption that the paper was targeting Bezos on the president’s behalf. And it was another tabloid, the New York Post, that got the last word: “Bezos Exposes Pecker.”

 

I never did get to sit down with Howard. I blame Tom Arnold. One morning, I woke to a text from Arnold: a screenshot of an email he had sent Howard, telling him he thought that it would be advantageous for him to speak with me. Apparently, Arnold had decided that Howard was redeemable and could begin to clear his name by dissociating from the rest of AMI. “This guy is worth saving,” he told me. “The other guys are cowards and bullies. He’s got talent. That book is shitty. But he’s got dreams. That’s what we’ve got to hold onto. Dreams. Dreams of doing something better.” Howard promptly forwarded the email to Hammond, who then called to tell me that the odds of us talking had decreased considerably. 

Still, it does appear that Howard, slowly but surely, is trying to launder his reputation in the press. In July, after months of silence, he appeared on the podcast of Bo Dietl, media personality and former New York City mayoral candidate, One Tough Podcast. The Enquirer was not mentioned. “Someone from the New York Times once called me Harvey Weinstein’s ‘chief media enabler’—what sort of sick comment is that?” Howard complained to Dietl. “That makes the perception that I was somehow complicit in whatever actions he was involved in. Of course I wasn’t. It’s just absolute frog shit.” He added: “No one knows my political allegiance.”

His efforts may already be paying off. Michael Wolff’s follow-up to Fire and Fury, called Siege, released last September, featured a chapter portraying Howard as an unwitting accomplice to Pecker during the Enquirer’s catch-and-kill era. Whoever Wolff’s source was, the book’s innocent portrayal of Howard can be hard to square with text messages that Howard and Michael Cohen exchanged about the payments to McDougal and Daniels. (“We just need her to disappear,” Howard wrote in November 2016, about McDougal.)

Howard’s story became even more complicated this fall. In October, when Farrow released Catch and Kill, which delved into Howard’s efforts on behalf of Trump and Weinstein, he sued to try to halt its publication; some Australian booksellers pulled the title. In November, just in time for awards season, a documentary about the Enquirer, Scandalous, hit theaters. Around the same time, the Daily Beast reported that Howard had tried to secretly pay $1 million to R. Kelly, an accused sexual abuser, to secure his participation in an AMI television series that Howard would pitch to television networks—without disclosing their financial relationship. In a way, Howard might do well to testify before Congress and bury Trump in public. There’s no surer path to reputational redemption these days than through second-act #Resistance stardom. And if anyone understands the American appetite for celebrity downfall—and the American genius for reinvention—it’s got to be the Enquirer. 

At the Moxy, Howard and I spent the night circling each other. He didn’t want anything to do with me, and I didn’t want to scare him off. To break the ice, I asked him to sign one of his Diana books. He wrote, in an elegant Sharpie’d scrawl, “We brought you into the ‘Gilded Cage’ tonight. Respect it. Nice to meet you finally.” 

Eventually, after the two of us listened to Dietl—also at the party—go on for a while about why the Nazis never bombed Switzerland, Howard told me that, if we were to talk at length, there would have to be ground rules. He could talk about news gathering. He could talk about the techniques of the Enquirer. But, he said, poking my chest, he could not talk about Bezos. “Not because I don’t want to talk about Be-zos—I’ll talk about Be-zos as much as I fucking want,” he clarified. “And I can give you the fucking real story.” I asked what that meant. “I have audiotapes, kay?” he confided, leaning close. “I have audiotapes.” Was Howard planning to bring down the world’s richest man—again!—by leaking me a Bezos hot mic? I’m not holding my breath. But with the Enquirer, you never really know.

ICYMI: Everyone is admitting what they get paid to work in journalism

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Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a freelance writer based in New York City. He has written for New York, Bloomberg Businessweek, Politico Magazine, ESPN.com, Newsweek, and other publications.