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How Trump turned the 2016 primary into a supermarket tabloid gutter fight

NEW YORK — Back in March 2016, as the Republican presidential primary narrowed to a showdown between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, unsubstantiated rumors about the senator from Texas having extramarital affairs started appearing in the National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid of wide circulation and ill repute.

Cruz called the allegations “complete and utter lies … a smear that has come from Donald Trump and his henchmen.” Trump responded, “I had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Eight years later, testimony in a Manhattan courtroom finally revealed what happened. According to the Enquirer’s then-publisher, David Pecker, Cruz was right. Trump was wrong.

That incident was just one small part of a secret deal and a coordinated campaign that helped transform the Republican Party and American politics. Pecker’s testimony here Tuesday detailed a close alliance between Trump and the National Enquirer that sullied Trump’s rivals while protecting him and lowering the entire race to the level of sordid, sensational scare headlines. Prosecutors argue that the arrangement led to falsified business records to cover up hush money payments to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election.

Trump has denied that affair, and his lawyers argue he committed no crime. But the fresh details about the inner workings of his tactics in the 2016 Republican primaries provide fresh clarity on how his unlikely candidacy upended the customs and logic of presidential campaigns. And in another measure of how completely that overhaul has taken hold, those same rivals maligned by Trump in 2016 are now vocally defending him against the current charges.

Asked Tuesday about Pecker’s testimony pointing to Trump’s involvement in an Enquirer story accusing Cruz’s father of somehow being involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Cruz told NBC News that he is “not interested in revisiting ancient history.” Cruz has criticized the charges against Trump as politically motivated and, in an echo of his own 2016 retort, “utter garbage.”

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung dismissed Pecker’s testimony in a statement Wednesday: “The American people stand with President Trump as he fights against these Crooked Joe Biden-directed Witch Hunts. The Washington Post should be writing about the unconstitutional gagging of the leading candidate for President and not one-sided gossip.”

The judge has prohibited Trump from attacking witnesses or family members of the judge and prosecutors, as is common for criminal defendants. He is considering a motion from prosecutors to fine Trump for violating the gag order.

When Trump announced his 2016 presidential campaign, he had trouble getting mainstream news outlets to take him seriously, recalled former aide Sam Nunberg.

Nunberg said he remembered Pecker visiting Trump Tower and sharing information with Trump and his team before it was published. Trump would sometimes repeat things he had learned from Pecker, Nunberg said. At one point, Trump asked Nunberg to buy copies of several supermarket tabloids because he was interested in a story about former Florida governor and rival Jeb Bush.

“The way we looked at it, the National Enquirer was effective and had a role to play,” said Nunberg, who said he never dealt with Pecker himself. “No other candidate was doing it. People are going to be looking at the cover. It’s a free billboard. Not only useful — it was viewed as important in the scheme of Donald’s strategy.”

As Pecker described it in sworn testimony as the trial’s first witness, he and Trump struck “an agreement among friends” to help his campaign by suppressing bad stories about Trump and planting them about his opponents. Pecker recalled taking direction from Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, on which rivals to attack based on how they performed in polls and debates, even reviewing and commenting on advance copies of stories. (Cohen, who is expected to testify later in the trial, pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign-finance violations arising from the hush money scheme. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.)

“The revelations of just how direct it was — they were brainstorming ideas, they were fabricating things, they were approving the copy,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Bush’s 2016 campaign, in describing his reaction to Pecker’s testimony. “We assumed something was going on, because it was so over the top in the way it was going after his enemies and elevating him, and it’s his tabloid world. We knew something was going on there, but I didn’t realize it was that hand-in-glove.”

Miller recalled people asking him about the Enquirer stories, leading him to conclude that they stuck with people despite the tabloid’s lack of trustworthiness.

“To me, it made a difference, pretty clearly,” he said. “That little germ gets in people’s heads. It’s like, everyone is bad, it muddies the water to allow you to vote for Trump. It brought everyone down to Trump’s level.”

Other campaigns were also participating in the time-honored political tradition of pushing negative stories about their rivals, but they were more interested in credible national publications.

“If I wanted to cause damage, I’d go to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or the AP,” said Barry Bennett, the 2016 campaign manager for candidate Ben Carson, who later became a Trump adviser. “The National Enquirer is a real journalistic magazine? It had no credibility. One week there would be about Martians, the next week it would be about Carson.”

One 2015 Enquirer headline presented in court Tuesday blasted Carson, a former neurosurgeon, for having “Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!” The widely read website the Drudge Report picked up the story, and Carson responded in a radio interview, explaining that a special kind of sponge is sometimes left in, but some patients have a negative reaction.

Other Enquirer stories gained wider exposure through Trump himself, as when he seized on the Enquirer’s story about Cruz’s father to insinuate he had some role in the Kennedy assassination. Cruz’s communications director at the time, Alice Stewart, recalled having to call the candidate’s furious father to ask him about the allegation because reporters were asking how she knew it wasn’t true.

“It was extremely frustrating when you have an absolutely ludicrous story in a trash tabloid that picked up steam, then you have Donald Trump mentioning it on Fox News, and then you have mainstream media picking up tabloid trash, and then we have to defend it,” Stewart said. “We all knew his relationship with David Pecker. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots. We didn’t have the emails or a smoking gun.”

Just as the JFK conspiracy theory tied up the Cruz campaign, the Enquirer also turned its fire on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) whenever his candidacy gained popularity, according to Pecker’s testimony. One headline referenced in court Tuesday suggested a “Love Child” by misrepresenting reporting on research the Rubio campaign had itself commissioned to debunk rumors.

“It’s got to be the first time a presidential campaign has colluded with the National Enquirer — that’s normally something you stay as far away from as you can,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman on Rubio’s 2016 campaign. “It’s the complete opposite of politics as usual.”

Rubio’s office did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment. He has described the hush money case against Trump as “absurd” and reminiscent of “Third World” countries. “We are all going to regret it for a very long time,” he said at the time of the indictment.

Trump has discussed Rubio and Carson as potential vice-presidential picks, advisers said.

Conant said he was unsurprised to see the senator sticking with Trump. “Once you’ve crossed the Rubicon and go from saying the guy is unfit to be president to campaigning alongside him, nothing is going to change your mind,” he said.

The salacious stories about other GOP candidates — not to mention those aimed at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — were mutually beneficial by boosting Trump as well as the Enquirer’s sales, Pecker testified. But in the cases when the Enquirer suppressed stories that would damage Trump, Pecker said only the candidate benefited.

In one instance described Tuesday, the Enquirer paid a Trump Tower doorman for exclusive rights to his claim that Trump fathered a child with a housekeeper. Pecker said he arranged with Cohen to investigate the story, including an offer for Trump to take a DNA test, and concluded that it was not true. Even if it had been true, Pecker testified, he agreed with Cohen that he would have waited to publish it until after the election.

“If the story was true and I published it,” Pecker said, “it would be probably the biggest sale of the National Enquirer since the death of Elvis Presley.”

Pecker’s testimony, covering payments to suppress publication of stories about Trump’s alleged affair with a Playboy model and later with the adult-film actress that led to the criminal charges, is set to continue Thursday. Before a break Tuesday, the witness flashed a wide grin at Trump as he left the room.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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