Editor’s note, April 4, 2023: This story was originally published in April 2018. See Vox’s recent coverage of the Trump investigations and indictment here.
In late 2015, Dino Sajudin, a former doorman at Trump Tower, told a reporter for American Media Inc. (or AMI for short, which publishes the National Enquirer among other gossip outlets) that Donald Trump had possibly fathered a child out of wedlock with an ex-employee in the late 1980s. He passed a lie detector test, AMI paid him $30,000 for the exclusive rights to his account, and then the company, whose president is good friends with President Trump, buried it.
Sajudin’s allegation of a $30,000 payoff to kill the story, reported first by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow on Thursday, April 12, has since been corroborated in whole or in part by the Associated Press and the Washington Post. The Post’s Carol Leonnig spoke to Sajudin, who stood by his story and told her it “had to come out.”
In a statement, he elaborated, “I was instructed not to criticize President Trump’s former housekeeper due to a prior relationship she had with President Trump which produced a child.”
NEW: Trump doorman Dino Sajudin releases statement: "I was instructed not to criticize President Trump's former housekeeper due to a prior relationship she had with President Trump which produced a child.” (via @soniamoghe) pic.twitter.com/DYipY5DaY2— MJ Lee (@mj_lee) April 12, 2018
No outlet has confirmed that the underlying story here — that Trump had an affair with a housekeeper, and that this affair produced a child — is true. The woman in question “emphatically” denied the affair to the AP, telling them, “This is all fake. I think [AMI] lost their money.” Sajudin’s ex-wife called his credibility into question as well, telling the New York Daily News, “He’s infamous for making up stories. … He’s seen the chupacabra. He’s seen bigfoot. One of our friends who passed away, he saw him too, walking down the street.”
Still, the story matters because it fits into a broader pattern of payoffs, including from AMI, being used to cover up stories about Trump sex scandals. Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen says he paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to not tell the story of a tryst she says she had with Trump back in 2006; Trump denies knowledge of the payment, but the question of whose money was used remains open — and now potentially under federal investigation.
AMI also, in August 2016, paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, who also says she had an affair with Trump, in exchange for her story, which it also buried. AMI itself appears to have made that payment, but when the FBI raided Cohen’s law offices, reports emerged suggesting that agents were specifically looking for records on the Daniels and McDougal payoffs. That raises obvious questions about who actually funded those payments.
Dino Sajudin’s story of an out-of-wedlock Trump child raises even more of those questions, as well as the question of just how many payoff deals Trump or allied institutions like AMI have made. In Michael Wolff’s explosive book on the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, former campaign chair turned White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is quoted as saying of Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, “Kasowitz on the campaign — what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.”
We don’t have 100 names of women Trump allegedly paid off, and Bannon has been known to speak hyperbolically. But we do have the names of McDougal and Daniels, and, with Sajudin’s story, the possibility of a third woman.
The National Enquirer has taken down politicians before — but also maintained a tight alliance with Trump
American Media Inc.’s disinclination to pursue these Trump stories is, at first glance, puzzling. This is a company that, on Thursday, April 12, was running pieces speculating that Michael Jackson might still be alive. Yet it’s also a publication that has broken important and accurate stories of affairs in the past, most notably the story of John Edwards’s affair and child with Rielle Hunter. (AMI’s willingness to pay sources is one reason it can sometimes break stories that more traditional media outlets can’t.)
Yet the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow has reported that the company was known to sometimes use a tabloid industry practice called “catch and kill” on major celebrity scandal stories. That is: It would pay for exclusive rights to a source’s story about a scandal, and deliberately never publish it. Farrow writes that, per one company sources, AMI’s CEO and chair David Pecker “used the unpublished stories as ‘leverage’ over some celebrities in order to pressure them to pose for his magazines or feed him stories.”
With Trump, there was an added personal element. Pecker told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin last year that Trump is a “personal friend of mine” — they met in the 1990s, he joined Mar-a-Lago in 2003, and he attended Trump’s wedding to Melania. Trump would frequently be a source for Enquirer stories, and in return, the magazine would avoid covering him negatively. (Pecker claims that the National Enquirer’s readers are “white working people” who support Trump.)
This came in handy for Trump during the presidential campaign. “Since the early stages of his campaign in 2015,” the New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg, Emily Steel, and Mike McIntire report, “Mr. Trump, his lawyer Michael D. Cohen and Mr. Pecker have strategized about protecting him and lashing out at his political enemies.”
“In one early interaction,” the Times report continues, “Mr. Cohen helped arrange an ultimately abandoned attempt to buy and bury a potentially damaging photograph of Mr. Trump at an event with a topless woman — what is known in the tabloid world as a ‘catch and kill’ operation.” In February 2015, the Times reports, Pecker and Trump met to strategize about how to release damaging information about the Clintons in a then-hypothetical general election between Hillary Clinton and Trump.
Then there was the $30,000 payment to Sajudin so he wouldn’t come forward with the love child story, in November 2015.
But the Enquirer also stepped in a few months later, as the primary contest between Trump and Ted Cruz got increasingly nasty. First, in early March 2016, the magazine officially endorsed Trump. Weeks later, they ran a story headlined “A hooker, A teacher, & coworkers: 5 romps that will destroy Ted Cruz!” In it, the Enquirer made vague claims about supposed Cruz affairs with several vaguely described women (none of whom were named) and quoted longtime Trump associate Roger Stone saying, “These stories have been swirling around Cruz for some time. I believe where there is smoke there is fire.”
Cruz responded with fury, calling the story “garbage” and “utter lies” spread by “Donald Trump and his henchmen.” Trump, meanwhile, released a statement saying he had “nothing to do with the National Enquirer” that also stressed that “they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others.”
In April, the Enquirer published a photo it claimed showed Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed John F. Kennedy, a story that Trump seized on and used to attack Cruz, insinuating that Cruz’s father might have had something to do with the assassination as well. The Enquirer took a number of smaller shots at Cruz as the primary wrapped up, including describing Carly Fiorina as a “homewrecker” after Cruz announced she would be his pick for vice president if he were nominated.
The Enquirer also brought toxically negative and largely fictional coverage of Hillary Clinton to checkout lines around the country. The magazine “routinely depicted Clinton as crazed, diseased, near death, an ISIS-supporting traitor, a liar, a blackmailer, corrupt and a member of a crime family,” Jack Shafer wrote for Politico Magazine.
And then in August 2016, AMI did an even more expensive favor for Trump behind the scenes, when it paid $150,000 for exclusive rights to Karen McDougal’s story of her affair with Trump — and didn’t run it. McDougal claims that Cohen, the Trump lawyer, was involved in her talks with the company about the hush money. AMI told the New York Times that it did, indeed, discuss McDougal’s story with Cohen during the summer of 2016, though it claimed it only did so as part of the reporting process. McDougal’s lawyer, Keith Davidson, who would go on to represent Stormy Daniels when she made her own hush money deal with Cohen, got in touch via email and phone with Cohen to tell him the deal had been completed.
The Enquirer’s extremely close relationship with Trump and his team reportedly continued after he entered the White House. The New York Times reported that in July of last year, Pecker visited Trump at the White House and brought along French businessman Kacy Grine, who “sometimes acts as an intermediary between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Western businesses.” Pecker pursued business with the Saudis soon afterward, and AMI published a special propaganda magazine promoting the crown prince.
There were also some suggestions that AMI was continuing to target Trump’s enemies. MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough wrote last June, “This year, top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked. We ignored their desperate pleas.” (The article eventually revealed the widely rumored fact that they had had an affair and left their spouses for each other.)
Gabe Sherman provided more details in a New York magazine piece. The background, as he tells it, was that Brzezinski and Scarborough had been harshly critical of Trump’s new administration. Then in April, Sherman writes, Scarborough texted with Jared Kushner about the forthcoming story, and “Kushner told Scarborough that he would need to personally apologize to Trump in exchange for getting Enquirer owner David Pecker to stop the story.” (He did not do so, and the Enquirer published the story in June.)
The FBI was looking for Michael Cohen’s communications with David Pecker during this week’s raid
On Monday, April 9, the FBI raided Cohen’s office and a hotel room where he had been staying. Per later reports describing their warrant, agents were looking for information on Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels shortly before Election Day 2016.
But that’s not all they wanted — the New York Times reports that they also wanted all communications Cohen had had with AMI’s David Pecker, as well as National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard (who’s embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal). Agents were also looking for any information Cohen might have on AMI’s $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal. And they sought Cohen’s communications with Trump himself, and other Trump associates, about “potential sources of negative publicity” before the election. (However, there’s no evidence that they specifically named the payment to Sajudin.)
The idea that a tabloid magazine editor might slant his coverage to help a friend may not sound so outrageous. But the fact that such large sums of money were involved seems to have caught investigators’ interest. Was this a major, off-the-books spending operation aimed at making problems for Trump’s presidential campaign go away? And since we’ve just learned of a new AMI Trump hush money payment this week, how many other payments don’t we know about?
Finally, there’s the question of whether this money truly did come from American Media Inc., as claimed — or whether it traces back to Trump himself, companies controlled by him, or some other wealthy figure. If the money didn’t come from Trump, what did the generous spender want in return for it? And even if it did turn out to be Trump’s funds in the end, this would still give Pecker and AMI massive leverage over him — they’d know all about his sex scandal hush money, so he’d be very motivated to keep them happy.
Regardless of where the money ultimately came from, if AMI was making payments with a goal of helping the Trump campaign, it could have run afoul of campaign finance law. Under federal law, individuals can donate a maximum of $5,400 to a presidential campaign, and corporations are barred from making direct donations. Payments of $30,000 and $150,000 from AMI, to Sajudin and McDougal respectively, are clearly above the individual limit, and since they came from a company, they could run afoul of the corporate direct donation ban as well.
As UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen told the New Yorker’s Farrow, press organizations are often subject to lower levels of scrutiny in these kinds of cases. The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press gives press outlets latitude to endorse or condemn candidates without being prosecuted. But, he told Farrow, “If a corporation that has a press function is being used for non-press purposes to help a candidate win an election, then the press exemption would not apply to that activity.”
Common Cause, the left-leaning watchdog group, strongly believes that the McDougal payment was not a legitimate press function, and has filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against both Trump and American Media Inc. over the payment, calling it “an illegal corporate in-kind contribution to the 2016 Trump campaign.”