In the midst of an impeachment inquiry regarding President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, allegations about his extramarital affairs — and the efforts by his associates to cover them up — may seem like ancient history.
But in his new book, Catch and Kill, New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow brings those allegations back to the fore. Perhaps the most startling new detail, first reported Monday by Politico: The week before the election, executives at the National Enquirer shredded documents about Trump they’d been keeping in a safe in their offices.
“I need to get everything out of the safe,” Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard told a staffer in November 2016, Farrow writes. “And then we need to get a shredder down there.”
Howard denies shredding documents, and a spokesperson for American Media Inc. (AMI), the Enquirer’s parent company, told Politico that “Mr. Farrow’s narrative is driven by unsubstantiated allegations from questionable sources and while these stories may be dramatic, they are completely untrue.”
But the details about the shredding are the latest in a years-long series of revelations by Farrow about the lengths that executives at the Enquirer and AMI were willing to go to protect Trump, a longtime friend of AMI CEO David Pecker. According to Farrow’s previous reporting in the New Yorker, AMI paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for exclusive rights to her story about an affair with Trump, which it never ran. Deals like this, known as “catch and kill” agreements, give Farrow’s book its title.
The book, published on Tuesday, is part of an ongoing effort by Farrow and other journalists to expose the ways in which powerful men can use their wealth and status to keep damaging information about them from coming to light, especially when that information includes allegations by women. And the revelation about the safe is a reminder that — long before the impeachment inquiry began, long before he was even elected president — there’s evidence that Trump was surrounded by men willing to keep women quiet so that he could acquire and hold onto power.
AMI and the National Enquirer protected Trump for years, Farrow reports
AMI’s relationship with Trump started before the 2016 election, Farrow writes. Pecker has called Trump a “personal friend of mine,” and in the years leading up to 2016, Farrow reports, the AMI CEO enjoyed the perks of friendship with Trump, like flying on his private jet. In return, the CEO routinely killed damaging stories about Trump; one former editor estimates that over the years, Pecker axed about 10 fully reported stories about the Apprentice host turned presidential candidate.
The details of some of these agreements have been reported in the past. By far the most famous was the agreement AMI struck with McDougal, a fitness expert and former Playboy model who says that she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. In August 2016, AMI paid $150,000 to exclusive rights to her story, then never published it, as Farrow reported in the New Yorker in 2018.
McDougal said she felt pressured to sign the agreement, which she believed prevented her from speaking publicly about her experience with Trump. (AMI told Farrow at the time that an amendment to the agreement allowed her to respond to “legitimate press inquiries.”) “It took my rights away,” she told Farrow in 2018. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.”
As Pecker was quietly killing stories that could be damaging to Trump, Farrow reports in Catch and Kill, the Enquirer and other AMI publications ran positive stories about him, with headlines like “HOW TRUMP WILL WIN,” Farrow notes. In an Enquirer feature about “Twisted Secrets of the Candidates,” Trump’s “secret” was: “He has greater support and popularity than even he’s admitted to!”
Then, in the week before the election, according to Farrow, Enquirer and AMI executives learned that the Wall Street Journal was planning to write a story on one of the catch and kill agreements. (The Journal published a story on the agreement with McDougal on November 4, 2016.)
That’s when Howard, the Enquirer editor-in-chief, called for the shredder, Farrow reports. “Later that day, one employee said, a disposal crew collected and carried away a larger than customary volume of refuse,” he writes. “A Trump-related document from the safe, along with others in the Enquirer’s possession, had been shredded.”
Howard says nothing was ever shredded, Farrow reports. But, he writes, “destroying documents would be consistent with a baseline of malfeasance that had, for years, defined the Enquirer and its parent company.”
“We are always at the edge of what’s legally permissible,” one senior AMI staffer told Farrow. “It’s very exciting.”
Trump’s relationship with AMI was part of a bigger pattern
Some of the stories AMI is said to have killed are actually less damning for President Trump than other allegations about his behavior. McDougal, for example, says her affair with Trump was consensual and does not allege any sexual misconduct by him, unlike at least 23 other women who have said Trump sexually harassed, assaulted, or otherwise violated them.
What makes these stories an issue is the alleged cover-up around them. In September, Democrats in Congress announced hearings on the payments made to McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who was also paid to keep quiet about what she says was an affair with Trump. In Daniels’s case, the payout came from Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, not AMI, and landed him in prison for campaign finance violations.
For a time, it seemed as though the payouts to women could lead to Trump’s impeachment — Daniels sued Trump for defamation, a suit that could have given her legal team power to depose Trump and demand documents from him. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted at the time, it was Bill Clinton’s deposition in a lawsuit by Paula Jones that led to his impeachment, and some speculated that the same could happen to Trump. Now, however, with the inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine in full swing, the stories of Daniels and McDougal have receded somewhat from the spotlight.
But Catch and Kill is a reminder of something crucial about them: according to Farrow, Trump was able to manipulate the head of a major media company into withholding damaging information about him, almost certainly helping him win the presidency. That manipulation came at the expense of women’s ability to tell their own stories. According to Farrow’s previous reporting, McDougal didn’t even get to keep all the money she was promised by AMI, with 45 percent going to the men who set up the deal.
It also came at the expense of the American people’s knowledge about the man running for president. It’s a pattern that Farrow and others have exposed again and again in the years since the Me Too movement gained national prominence: Thanks to their wealth, connections, and power, Trump and others including Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein have been able to write the public narrative of their lives, deciding who gets to speak and who must keep silent.
The Me Too movement is only beginning to break down that pattern, as nondisclosure agreements and other ways of securing people’s silence receive more and more opposition. But Catch and Kill is the latest reminder of the extent to which men in power in America can protect one another, and the consequences when that protection succeeds.