Nothing is happening here. The Sunset Strip is dead on Thursday evening – but down in the flats below the Strip, and up in the Hollywood Hills out back, someone is working away on a screenplay. Someone always is. Someone has to come up with the new best thing ever.
They never do. There are formulas – or formulae, to be formal about it – for what makes money. Wannabe screenwriters stick to those. Someone will come up with a screenplay for another heist movie. This will involve a safe. Cracking that safe will be everything.
That worked in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven – George Clooney and Brad Pitt this time, not Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – the amazing high-tech safe under Las Vegas, a sneaky exact duplicate, and a whole lot of drama. That worked in the remake of The Italian Job – the safe in Venice blown through the floor and cracked open underwater at the bottom of the Grand Canal, the safe blown through the street in the middle of Hollywood and cracked open on the subway tracks below the Chinese Theater – by Charlize Theron, the sexiest safecracker ever. Stick with what works – a heist movie – and a safe. That works. Studios buy those screenplays.
Now think of Donald Trump’s presidency as a heist movie – the heist of the Republican Party and then the heist of the American government. Maybe it’s a gangster movie. It doesn’t matter. There has to be a safe. There’s always a safe. Of course there is. The Associated Press found it:
The National Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Donald Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential election, people familiar with the arrangement told The Associated Press.
The detail came as several media outlets reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors had granted immunity to National Enquirer chief David Pecker, potentially laying bare his efforts to protect his longtime friend Trump.
The hush-money payments were to porn stars and Playboy bunnies. It seems Donald Trump had been a very bad boy, although no aspiring screenwriter would dare to name the main character here “Pecker” – that would be too easy and too absurd – but this was a bit absurd:
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty this week to campaign finance violations alleging he, Trump and the tabloid were involved in buying the silence of a porn actress and a Playboy model who alleged affairs with Trump.
Five people familiar with the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they signed non-disclosure agreements, said the safe was a great source of power for Pecker, the company’s CEO.
And then things changed:
The Trump records were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals, in which exclusive rights to people’s stories were bought with no intention of publishing to keep them out of the news. By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.
But after The Wall Street Journal initially published the first details of Playboy model Karen McDougal’s catch-and-kill deal shortly before the 2016 election, those assets became a liability. Fearful that the documents might be used against American Media, Pecker and the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, removed them from the safe in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, according to one person directly familiar with the events.
That must have been a dramatic scene, and really, a scene from a gangster movie:
Jerry George, a longtime Enquirer reporter who left the publication in 2013, said the practice of catch and kill took root at the Enquirer under Pecker. Though George had no personal knowledge of Trump-specific catch and kills, he said that AMI generally paid hush money only if it believed it had something to gain.
“It’s ‘I did this for you,’ now what can you do for me,” George said. “They always got something in return.”
Jerry George was George Raft here, the bad-guy fixer in a hundred old black-and-white Hollywood gangster movies, but there’s this:
Catch and kills were loathed by the National Enquirer’s reporters, he said, because they robbed the publication of juicy stories.
Those little people, not in on the scam, don’t matter:
Court papers in the Cohen case say Pecker “offered to help deal with negative stories about (Trump’s) relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”
The Journal reported Pecker shared with prosecutors the details about payments that Cohen says Trump directed in the weeks and months before the election to buy the silence of McDougal and another woman alleging an affair, porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels was paid $130,000, and McDougal was paid $150,000.
The scam was about money and it had been going on a long time:
Former Enquirer employees who spoke to the AP said that negative stories about Trump were dead on arrival dating back more than a decade when he starred on NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.”
In 2010, at Cohen’s urging, the National Enquirer began promoting a potential Trump presidential candidacy, referring readers to a pro-Trump website Cohen helped create. With Cohen’s involvement, the publication began questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace and American citizenship in print, an effort that Trump promoted for several years, former staffers said.
The Enquirer endorsed Trump for president in 2016, the first time it had ever officially backed a candidate. In the news pages, Trump’s coverage was so favorable that the New Yorker magazine said the Enquirer embraced him “with sycophantic fervor.”
Positive headlines for Trump, a Republican, were matched by negative stories about his opponents, including Hillary Clinton, a Democrat: An Enquirer front page from 2015 said “Hillary: 6 Months to Live” and accompanied the headline with a picture of an unsmiling Clinton with bags under her eyes.
It was a sweet deal, but Josh Marshall notes that it had to fall apart:
If you read the Cohen Information, which is essentially the charging document, it makes clear that the Trump-Enquirer arrangement wasn’t just a friend keeping an eye out for his friend – the way the relationship and modus operandi had been portrayed in the media. It was a very specific arrangement: The Enquirer would troll for Trump-damaging stories, which there were obviously going to be a lot of, buy them and then sell them to Trump. The last part is the key thing here, and we didn’t know that until Tuesday. This wasn’t just being a pal. It was a specific, standing financial arrangement. The Enquirer would essentially act as a cut-out, buying stories on Trump’s behalf without the seller of the story knowing what was happening.
It was a great convenience. It’s obviously inherently difficult to Trump to purchase stories about his affairs from former mistresses or sex partners. Obviously he did that too. But in many cases it was going to be easier for the Enquirer to trick the sellers by making them think they were selling their story to a publisher rather than Trump.
Marshall says that could not be sustained:
It’s one thing to do something like this as an individual. But the Enquirer was doing this as a company, with multiple employees involved. Given the various ancillary crimes involved and the potential for other crimes that remain un-charged, that’s a big problem and a real threat to the company.
I see no reason why Pecker would not turn on Cohen and Trump more or less immediately. He’s a big time operator in his own right. He definitely does not need this crap. There is potentially real legal jeopardy for him and AMI Media.
He bailed, and Marshall notes that Pecker may have more information to share than anyone yet realizes – which has to worry Trump. Trump knew there was a safe. Trump thought that he was safe – but his Pecker turned on him. Yes, that man’s name makes such jokes too easy, but in this heist movie, this gangster movie, no one is safe.
Gabe Sherman adds more detail:
“Holy shit, I thought Pecker would be the last one to turn,” a Trump friend told me when I brought up the news. Trump and Pecker have been close for years. According to the Trump friend, Pecker regularly flew on Trump’s plane from New York to Florida. In July 2013, Trump tweeted that Pecker should become CEO of Time magazine. “He’d make it exciting and win awards!”
During the 2016 campaign, Pecker provided invaluable media support to Trump by regularly attacking his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton. At times, it seemed like the Enquirer operated as a de-facto arm of the campaign. In October 2015, I reported that Trump aides were a source for an Enquirer article exposing Ben Carson’s malpractice lawsuits (“Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!”). Pecker denied it at the time. In June, the Washington Post reported that the Enquirer routinely sent stories to Trump to review prior to publication. (The Enquirer denied that as well.) During the transition, rumors circulated that Trump was considering Pecker for a prime ambassadorship. Last summer, Pecker reportedly brought an adviser to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet Trump in the Oval Office to help him expand AMI’s business.
But that was before federal prosecutors investigating Cohen subpoenaed AMI. Pecker’s friendship with Trump now seems to be over. According to a source close to AMI, Pecker and Trump haven’t spoken in roughly eight months. Howard remains particularly angry at Trump, two people close to Howard told me. “There is no love lost,” one person familiar with Howard’s thinking said. Another person said Howard “hates Trump” and feels “used and abused by him.”
Fade to black, then fade-in to this scene:
Trump, meanwhile, is struggling to develop a strategy to push back on the damaging headlines. He largely avoided the topic of Cohen and Paul Manafort during his relatively subdued rally on Tuesday night in West Virginia. On Wednesday, he gave a meandering interview to Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt, in which he suggested the stock market might crash were he to be impeached. One source close to the White House said Trump is considering announcing he’s revoked additional security clearances to create a new story line. The source added that Trump is even considering taking clearances from former members of his administration, including former national security adviser H. R. McMaster and secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Pecker flipped. McMaster and Tillerson have flipped on him, or might flip on him, or will flip on him. Everyone is flipping on him. He hates that. In this gangster movie his heist is falling apart, and Jonathan Chait does see a gangster movie:
Last November, a person close to the Trump administration speaking to the Washington Post invoked a chilling metaphor. “This investigation is a classic Gambino-style roll-up,” the source said. “You have to anticipate this roll-up will reach everyone in this administration.” This turns out to be a perfectly apt and quite literal description not only of the investigation, but of Trump’s own ethos and organizing principles.
The way a roll-up of the Gambino family, or any other crime organization, would work is that the FBI would first find evidence of crimes against lower-level figures, and then threaten them with lengthy prison sentences unless they provide evidence against higher-ranking figures in the organization. The roll-up moves from bottom to top. It would be extremely difficult to prosecute any organized crime if it were not possible to trade lenient sentences in return for cooperation.
In an interview with Fox News, President Trump offers his view that flipping is dishonorable, and is so unfair it “almost ought to be outlawed.”
That’s what a mob boss says:
Trump does add that a scenario in which Manafort cooperates with federal investigators would involve him “making things up.” And it is certainly true that rewarding cooperation can give witnesses an incentive to fabricate testimony. However, Trump has also made clear, in tweets over the weekend, that he is not only opposed to false testimony. He opposes flipping on the boss as a matter of principle.
Trump did call President Nixon’s lawyer, John Dean, a “rat” in one of those tweets, which Chait finds telling:
Dean famously testified about Nixon’s obstruction of justice. Nobody claims that Dean lied about Nixon. The sin in Trump’s eyes is that he flipped, violating the omerta. Trump even uses Mafia lingo, “rat,” to describe Dean’s cooperation with law enforcement. To gangsters, a rat is considered the worst kind of person because they pose the greatest danger to their ability to escape prosecution.
It is obviously quite rare to hear a high-ranking elected official openly embrace the terminology and moral logic of La Cosa Nostra. But Trump is not just a guy who has seen a lot of mob movies. He has worked closely with Mafia figures throughout his business career. “I know all about flipping, for 30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers,” he tells Fox News. “Everything’s wonderful, and then they get ten years in jail and they flip on whoever the next-highest one is, or as high as you can go.”
Trump would know:
Trump’s claim of expertise in his area is not some idle boast. He hired Roy Cohn, by that point a mob lawyer, worked closely with figures linked to the Russian-American mafia, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen, and made money in his properties attracting money launderers.
Like a mobster, Trump takes an extremely cynical view of almost every moral principle in public life, assuming that everybody in politics is corrupt and hypocritical. (Hence his defense of Vladimir Putin’s murdering journalists: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) He also follows mafia practice of surrounding himself with associates chosen on the basis of loyalty rather than traditional qualifications.
Since the greatest threat to a mafia don’s business is that subordinates will betray him, he typically surrounds himself with family members, even if they are not the smartest or best criminals. Trump has accordingly surrounded himself with his children, or demonstrated loyalists who would have trouble finding remotely comparable jobs at another business.
And that led to this:
In the same interview, Trump casually admits that he selected Jeff Sessions as attorney general for precisely this reason – he assumed that, as one of the first members of Congress to endorse him, Sessions would show true loyalty. “The only reason I gave him the job is I felt loyalty.”
Trump has internalized the mob ethos so deeply that he sees this as an indictment of Sessions. He gave the guy a job only because he assumed he was loyal, and here Sessions betrays the loyalty by recusing himself from the Russia investigation – because of a blatant conflict of interest. Trump cannot imagine that admitting he picked an attorney general solely out of the expectation of personal loyalty is a confession of the intent to corrupt law enforcement.
Jeff Sessions will be gone soon. The headline reads Key Republicans Give Trump a Path to Fire Sessions After the Election – they’ve given up and will let Trump be a mob boss. The next attorney general will protect Trump. The next attorney general will shut down the Mueller investigation. That’s inevitable, but these key Republicans know Trump’s base can destroy their careers. They’ve made their choice. They’re okay with that. Trump won’t be around forever. He’ll be gone one day. When he’s gone they can recreate the old and quite normal Republican Party from the ashes, and let the justice department get back to doing what it’s supposed to do – one day – one day when they’re still around and Trump isn’t. That seems to be the thinking. The opposite might happen.
But while they’re waiting, this was happening:
President Trump recently asked his lawyers for their advice on the possibility of pardoning Paul Manafort and other aides accused of crimes, his lawyer said Thursday.
The subject of pardoning Manafort came as Trump’s former campaign chairman faced multiple charges of bank fraud and tax evasion in an Alexandria criminal case, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said in an interview.
Trump’s lawyers counseled the president against the idea of pardoning anyone linked to the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, according to Giuliani, saying Trump should at least wait until special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has concluded his probe. Giuliani said the president agreed and did not push the issue further…
Giuliani said he and fellow personal attorney Jay Sekulow had advised waiting to see whether Mueller delivers a damning report that accuses the president of trying to block a federal probe of his campaign’s contacts with Russians.
In short, don’t do it. Don’t even think about it:
Giuliani clarified in a follow-up call to the Washington Post that his conversation with Trump was a general discussion about potential pardons for a range of people under investigation, including but not limited to Manafort.
Some experts have argued Trump could expose himself to more legal danger if he were to pardon aides who are witnesses in the Mueller probe, because Mueller is examining the president’s own conduct and whether he sought to obstruct justice.
Giuliani acknowledged that risk.
“We sat him down and said you’re NOT considering these other pardons with anybody involved in the investigation. He said yes, absolutely, I understand,” Giuliani said.
But both Giuliani and Sekulow know their man. He’s likely to do it. He scoffs at danger. He scoffs at legal danger.
He shouldn’t. Josh Marshall posts, with permission, a short note from a former federal prosecutor:
Trump is clearly gearing up to pardon Manafort and wants desperately to do so. Such a pardon in my view would be thoroughly corrupt, an egregious abuse of power, and would likely constitute obstruction of justice. He has a deep personal interest in protecting Manafort and this would be no different than taking a bribe in exchange for a pardon. Anyone who assists him in taking such an action would have aiding and abetting and conspiracy exposure. Those around Trump, including the lawyers who he is going to want to provide him legal cover, need to think hard before they facilitate a pardon under these circumstances.
A pardon under these circumstances would be a bribe – say nothing, or lie, and you get your pardon. The “family” will take care of you. Trump might as well throw in a free lifetime membership at Mar-a-Lago too. Giuliani and Sekulow have to talk him out of this. That’s gangster stuff. Giuliani and Sekulow also have to run away from this – they have to show that they tried to talk him out of this. Otherwise, they’re gangsters too.
There really is a screenplay here. Think of Donald Trump’s presidency as a heist movie – the heist of the Republican Party and then the heist of the American government – and it’s a gangster movie too. Open with the National Enquirer safe full of incriminating documents – and then the Pecker turns on the mob boss. Then the mob boss vows to get those who flip on him. Those disloyal to him, those who rat him out, will pay. Then the mob boss finds a foolproof way to buy the silence of those who know too much, and no one can stop him. His lawyers hide. His political party is too frightened of “his people” to do anything at all about any of this. The other political party can’t decide whether to call him a thug or be the good guys and play nice. He pulls off the heist. Fade to black. Roll the end-credits.
One of the major studios might buy that screenplay. Here it is. Contact my agent.