business

A National Enquirer scandal timeline, from Trump to Bezos

By Breeanna Hare

Published May 15, 2020

Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the past two years, America's most notorious tabloid has sat at the center of complex investigations involving hush money payments; the 2016 presidential campaign; and claims of extortion by one of the richest people in the world.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How did the National Enquirer become the connection between these salacious and complicated stories?

Untangle the key players and events with this timeline.

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1999

In the late 1990s, New York businessman David Pecker, pictured here in 1995, took over American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer.

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1999

At the time, Pecker was friendly with fellow New York businessman Donald Trump. They'd previously worked together on a custom publication called Trump Style.

Diane Freed/Getty Images

August 2015

Now fast-forward to two months after Trump's presidential campaign announcement. That's when AMI chief Pecker offered to help Trump's campaign "deal with" negative stories by finding them, buying the rights … and then never publishing them, according to a non-prosecution agreement. The tactic is known as "catch and kill."

Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

November 2016

Days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal reported on such a case. The National Enquirer, the paper said, paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The story never ran. AMI said at the time the money was for fitness columns, and Trump denied the affair.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Playboy

2017

As Trump began his presidency, media reporters took notice of how David Pecker's National Enquirer had become one of Trump's biggest boosters. Yet the Enquirer's coverage of Trump, pictured here with Pecker in an undated photo, was just one part of the story.

Michael DiVito Photography

January 2018

A year into Trump's presidency, a report emerged that another woman had been paid not to talk about an alleged affair with Trump during his presidential campaign: Adult film star Stormy Daniels.

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February 2018

Trump's personal attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, said he paid Daniels $130,000 to keep her story to herself. A few days after Cohen's admission, the report of McDougal being paid by the National Enquirer resurfaced with new detail in the New Yorker.

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April 2018

President Trump has long denied the allegations of affairs. Yet the fallout from the allegations of "hush money" payments snowballed rapidly. Complaints were filed calling for an investigation into whether the payments violated campaign finance laws, and by April, the FBI raided Cohen's office.

EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

August 2018

Within months, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, among other charges. He told the court that he worked with National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and others to bury Daniels' and McDougal's potentially damaging stories during Trump's 2016 campaign.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

December 2018

As Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, federal prosecutors said they'd struck a non-prosecution deal with AMI. As part of the agreement, AMI admitted to working with members of Trump's presidential campaign to pay McDougal in order to prevent her affair allegations from going public during the election.

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January 2019

American Media's non-prosecution deal meant the company wouldn't face charges as long as the organization remained cooperative and didn’t commit any future crimes. A January 2019 story the National Enquirer published on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos threw that into question.

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January 2019

On January 9, Bezos tweeted a joint statement with wife Mackenzie Bezos that they were getting a divorce. Hours later, the National Enquirer said it was publishing a story with evidence – including personal text messages – that Bezos had an affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor pictured here with Bezos in 2019.

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

January 2019

Remember that Bezos also owns the Washington Post, a paper Trump often criticizes for its coverage. As Bezos investigated how the National Enquirer gained access to his text messages, one question he had was whether the Trump-friendly tabloid targeted him for political reasons.

ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

February 2019

Then, in an explosive blog post on Medium, Bezos accused Pecker and AMI of trying to blackmail and extort him. Bezos said the publisher threatened to release nude photos the Enquirer had obtained if Bezos and his team didn't walk back their questions about the Enquirer's motivations.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

February 2019

Bezos didn't comply; in fact, he doubled down. His team began to investigate whether the source of the Enquirer leak was the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which the Post has aggressively reported on as part of its coverage of the 2018 death of Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. He is seen here on a 2018 memorial service poster.

Yasin AKGUL / AFP

February 2019

In his Medium post, Bezos shared an Associated Press report on AMI’s publication of a glossy magazine about Saudi Arabia ahead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's April 2018 US visit. The report noted that "the worlds of Trump, the Saudis and AMI have overlapped before." AMI and Saudi Arabia both denied the kingdom had anything to do with the Bezos story.

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February 2019

In the middle of the Saudi theorizing, CNN confirmed that the tipster who provided information to the Enquirer about Bezos' romance with Lauren Sanchez was Michael Sanchez, Lauren's brother.

Sujit Jaiswal / AFP

April 2019

With Bezos’ team saying they had "high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos' phone, and gained private information," federal prosecutors started reviewing Bezos' private investigators' documents. They were trying to determine whether AMI had committed the crime of extortion – which would violate their immunity deal – as well as what role, if any, Saudi Arabia played.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

January 2020

As of January this year, the prosecutors' investigation was ongoing. The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors have come across evidence indicating Bezos' girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, sent her brother Michael Sanchez the text messages that were later published in the Enquirer.

Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

February 2020

Now Michael Sanchez is suing Bezos for defamation, saying that while he did work with the Enquirer on the story about the affair he never had any nude photos of Bezos. Bezos' forensics team has also concluded with "medium to high" confidence that Bezos' phone was hacked by an account controlled by the Saudi crown prince – a statement Saudi Arabia has denied.

Emma McIntyre / Staff

Meanwhile, the National Enquirer – which has denied any extortion attempt, or ties to Saudi Arabia – is reportedly still being sold for $100 million to Hudson News, the company known for its newsstands at airports across the US. The sale was first announced in April 2019.

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For more, watch CNN Films' "Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer" on Saturday, May 23 at 10 p.m. ET.

CNN Films