Monday, February 11, 2019

The entanglements of Trump, the Saudis, the National Enquirer, and Jeff Bezos

Judd Legum, at popular.info, reviews the National Enquirer alleged extortion attempt against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in Enquiring minds want to know (subscription required). Following are essential snippets and Scriber’s comments.

The National Enquirer calls itself a tabloid. But, by its own admission, it has operated as a part of Donald Trump’s political organization. The company has used its financial resources and prime exposure at supermarkets and drug stores across the country to protect Trump, and attack his enemies.

The political and social reach of the Enquirer is huge.

Unlike most magazines, the National Enquirer is heavily dependent on sales of individual copies, not subscriptions. Seventy-five percent of sales come through single-copy sales at chain stores.

The dominant retailers for the National Enquirer are Walmart, which accounts for 23% of all sales, and Kroger, which accounts for 10%. Other major retailers of the National Enquirer include Giant/Food Lion, Albertsons/Safeway, Barnes and Noble, CVS, Publix, Hudson Retail, and Walgreens.

The power of the National Enquirer, of course, comes not only from copies sold but from the millions of the people exposed to the cover of the magazine in checkout aisles. AMI only has that influence because of its relationship with major retailers.

The National Enquirer is using its relationship with these retailers to provide millions in free promotion to Trump. A marketing expert told the New York Times the value of the National Enquirer’s positive Trump covers alone is “$2.5 million to $3 million a month.”

The Enquirer, its parent company, AMI and its CEO David Pecker used this exposure to attack Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Legum provides photos of 18 front-page articles - each of which is mainly sensational BS.

But Pecker and AMI went one step further, namely to protect Trump against negative PR potentially generated by his dalliances with various women. By paying those women and then not running the stories, AMI was subject to an investigation that eventually led to a plea deal regarding campaign finance violations.

In a non-prosecution agreement signed on September 20, 2018, AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, admitted to conspiring with Trump to suppress negative stories about him.

In or about August 2015, David Pecker, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AMI, met with Michael Cohen, an attorney for a presidential candidate, and at least one other member of the campaign. At the meeting, Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. Pecker agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such negative stories.

NBC reported that the “other member of the campaign” was Trump himself. AMI subsequently paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a woman who claimed to have an affair with Trump, and then buried the story.

AMI and Pecker, while securing an immunity agreement in exchange for testimony, admitted that this payment was against the law. The company acknowledged that it was “subject to campaign finance laws” and “expenditures made by corporations, made for purposes of influencing an election and in coordination with or at the request of a candidate or campaign, are unlawful.”

Following the money - AMI and the Saudi Prince

AMI is deeply in debt - to the tune of $882 million.

According to the documents reviewed by the Associated Press, AMI still “isn’t making enough money to cover the interest accruing on its $882 million in long-term debt.” For the time being, it’s being backstopped by “a New Jersey investment fund called Chatham Asset Management,” which now owns 80% of the company. In 2017,“[i]ts top executive dined with Pecker and Trump at the White House.”

Strapped for cash, Pecker used his relationship with Trump to forge ties with Saudi Arabia. At his 2017 dinner at the White House, Pecker brought along Kacy Grine, a French businessman who acts as an intermediary for Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

The visit served as “an unofficial seal of approval from the White House” and “signaled Mr. Pecker’s powerful status in Washington” as he was seeking financial support from the Saudis.

It’s unclear what, if anything, AMI has received in return from Saudi Arabia. In January, however, the company “astonished most media observers by raising $460 million to refinance its debt.” Before AMI raised the money, “many observers thought AMI would have a tough time refinancing because of reported problems with slumping newsstand sales for all titles.”

It is clear, at least to Scriber, that the Saudis got valuable PR for their money. AMI published a glitzy mag that extolled the virtues of Saudi Arabia and its prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), while not bothering to cover the crimes of the “Magic Kingdom.” Such crimes include the strong likelihood that MBS was aware of and even ordered the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

… “ While at the Washington Post, Khashoggi wrote columns that were critical of the Saudi government. Publisher Fred Ryan said, ”The Washington Post will not rest until justice is served on those who ordered Jamal’s killing, those who carried it out, and those who continue to try to cover it up."

And that completes the connection to Jeff Bezos, owner of the Post.

Alleged extortion increases legal exposure of AMI and Pecker

There is one man who has drawn the ire of both Trump and Saudi Arabia: Jeff Bezos.

Trump is upset because he believes Bezos uses the Washington Post as a “political weapon.” Bezos says he has no involvement in the editorial content. Vanity Fair reported on Trump’s vendetta against Bezos last April:

Now, according to four sources close to the White House, Trump is discussing ways to escalate his Twitter attacks on Amazon to further damage the company. “He’s off the hook on this. It’s war,” one source told me. “He gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos,” said another source. “Trump is like, how can I fuck with him?”

[Lauren] Sanchez’s brother, Michael Sanchez, said in an interview that “he was told by multiple people at [AMI] that the Enquirer set out to do ‘a takedown to make Trump happy.’” Bezos launched an investigation and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, said “strong leads point to political motives.”

On Thursday, Bezos published email correspondence from AMI in which the company threatens to publish embarrassing photos – including a “below the belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick.’” The only way to avoid the publication of these photos, AMI said, was for Bezos to release a statement saying he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

Pecker, through his attorney Elkan Abramowitz, denied that he or AMI did anything wrong. …

Not everyone agrees that AMI is in the clear. The nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors requires AMI to commit “no crimes whatsoever” for three years. Attorney Carrie Goldberg said that “AMI threatening to expose Bezos with humiliating material — would fall under coercion laws.”

“This is a completed crime. Based on the coercive nature of the threats, there wouldn’t need to be an actual distribution of the naked pictures for there to be a criminal act,” Goldberg said.

Prosecutors are reportedly evaluating the revelations in Bezos’ post to determine whether the agreement was violated.

If so, ‘there is a very strong chance that David Pecker may end up doing time," Jerry George, a top editor at the National Enquirer for decades, told CNN.’

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