Exclusive: investigation suggests Washington Post owner was targeted five months before murder of Jamal Khashoggi
The Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sources have told the Guardian.
The encrypted message from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated the phone of the world’s richest man, according to the results of a digital forensic analysis.
This analysis found it “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video file sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.
The two men had been having a seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange when, on 1 May of that year, the unsolicited file was sent, according to sources who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.
Large amounts of data were exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Guardian has no knowledge of what was taken from the phone or how it was used.
The extraordinary revelation that the future king of Saudi Arabia may have had a personal involvement in the targeting of the American founder of Amazon will send shockwaves from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.
It could also undermine efforts by “MBS” – as the crown prince is known – to lure more western investors to Saudi Arabia, where he has vowed to economically transform the kingdom even as he has overseen a crackdown on his critics and rivals.
The disclosure is likely to raise difficult questions for the kingdom about the circumstances around how US tabloid the National Enquirer came to publish intimate details about Bezos’s private life – including text messages – nine months later.
It may also lead to renewed scrutiny about what the crown prince and his inner circle were doing in the months prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was killed in October 2018 – five months after the alleged “hack” of the newspaper’s owner.
Saudi Arabia has previously denied it targeted Bezos’s phone, and has insisted the murder of Khashoggi was the result of a “rogue operation”. In December, a Saudi court convicted eight people of involvement in the murder after a secret trial that was criticised as a sham by human rights experts.
Digital forensic experts started examining Bezos’s phone following the publication last January by the National Enquirer of intimate details about his private life.
The story, which included his involvement in an extramarital relationship, set off a race by his security team to uncover how the CEO’s private texts were obtained by the supermarket tabloid, which was owned by American Media Inc (AMI).
While AMI insisted it was tipped off about the affair by the estranged brother of Bezos’s girlfriend, the investigation by the billionaire’s own team found with “high confidence” that the Saudis had managed to “access” Bezos’s phone and had “gained private information” about him.
Bezos’s head of security, Gavin de Becker, wrote in the Daily Beast last March he had provided details of his investigation to law enforcement officials, but did not publicly reveal any information on how the Saudis accessed the phone.
He also described “the close relationship” the Saudi crown prince had developed with David Pecker, the chief executive of the company that owned the Enquirer, in the months before the Bezos story was published. De Becker did not respond to calls and messages from the Guardian.
The Guardian understands a forensic analysis of Bezos’s phone, and the indications that the “hack” began within an infected file from the crown prince’s account, has been reviewed by Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur who investigates extrajudicial killings. It is understood that it is considered credible enough for investigators to be considering a formal approach to Saudi Arabia to ask for an explanation.
Callamard, whose own investigation into the murder of Khashoggi found “credible evidence” the crown prince and other senior Saudi officials were responsible for the killing, confirmed to the Guardian she was still pursuing “several leads” into the murder, but declined to comment on the alleged Bezos link.
When asked by the Guardian whether she would challenge Saudi Arabia about the new “hacking” allegation, Callamard said she followed all UN protocols that require investigators to alert governments about forthcoming public allegations.
Saudi experts – dissidents and analysts – told the Guardian they believed Bezos was probably targeted because of his ownership of the Post and its coverage of Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi’s critical columns about Mohammed bin Salman and his campaign of repression against activists and intellectuals rankled the crown prince and his inner circle.
Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the national security council under President Obama, said if Bezos had been targeted by the crown prince, it reflected the “personality-based” environment in which the crown prince operates.
“He probably believed that if he got something on Bezos it could shape coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Post. It is clear that the Saudis have no real boundaries or limits in terms of what they are prepared to do in order to protect and advance MBS, whether it is going after the head of one of the largest companies in the world or a dissident who is on their own.”
The possibility that the head of one of America’s leading companies was targeted by Saudi Arabia could pose a dilemma for the White House.
Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have maintained close ties with the crown prince despite a US intelligence finding – reportedly with a medium–to–high degree of certainty – that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Both Saudi Arabia and AMI have denied that the kingdom was involved in the publication of the Bezos story.
A lawyer for Bezos who was contacted by the Guardian said: “I have no comment on this except to say that Mr Bezos is cooperating with investigations.”
The Guardian asked the Saudi embassy in Washington about the claims. It did not immediately return a request for comment.
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The mogul-turned-president has long relied on loyalists to push the limits in defense of his image, but Roy Cohn, David Pecker and Michael Cohen all wound up out in the cold
For decades, Donald Trump has depended on loyalists to take care of especially sensitive and difficult tasks. These guardians of his image—including the
- Red-baiter Roy Cohn, the
- tabloid publisher David Pecker and the
- lawyer Michael Cohen
—learned a hard lesson from their service. They pledged fealty to Mr. Trump and dedicated themselves to shielding him. For a while, they became wealthier and more powerful through their association with him. But Mr. Trump ultimately offered little back in protection or respect.
Mr. Trump’s first fixer was Cohn, the disgraced former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, as a lawyer for the powerful, Cohn manipulated the media and the legal system to secure business advantages for Mr. Trump. He cast his client as a fabulously successful developer who transformed his father’s collection of low-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens into a Manhattan-based empire of luxury condominium towers.
Cohn defined the role of fixer for Mr. Trump, but after Cohn became sick with AIDS in the 1980s, Mr. Trump distanced himself, steering business elsewhere. Weeks after he won the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump told friends at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, that after hosting the dying Cohn for dinner there, “I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware.”
Mr. Trump’s views of media and celebrity were shaped by Cohn and his successors, the men he relied on to project a particular version of himself—one that often bore little resemblance to reality. Their careers with Mr. Trump shed light on his rise in public life and his victory in the 2016 presidential election.
This account is based on court and congressional documents, texts and other communications, along with interviews with people involved in or familiar with the events.
Mr. Pecker’s celebrity gossip and personal-lifestyle empire—primarily the tabloid National Enquirer—promoted Mr. Trump’s political aspirations for almost two decades, starting in 1999.
Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s special counsel at the Trump Organization, styled himself as the boss’s loyal problem solver. A personal-injury lawyer and taxi-medallion owner raised on Long Island, Mr. Cohen became Mr. Trump’s armed press attaché in the late 2000s. Over the years, he wore a gun in an ankle holster and used legal threats to suppress bad headlines about his boss.
Together with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker worked during the 2016 presidential campaign to “catch and kill” stories about former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who privately alleged that they’d had affairs with the Republican candidate. Both women were paid to keep silent.
Mr. Cohen was charged with campaign-finance violations and is serving three years in prison. Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., admitted breaking the law while doing Mr. Trump’s bidding and reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.
Mr. Trump’s reward to his fixers was what he offered all those in his service over the decades: exposure to his world, the chance to play a bit part in his story. These operatives were attracted to Mr. Trump’s aura, to the force of the huge personality that led him to the presidency. But when they had fulfilled their missions, they were dispensable. Mr. Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.
Mr. Pecker was the son of a Bronx bricklayer. He became an accountant and then rose in the publishing world through shrewd power plays. Mr. Pecker forged connections with influential figures, whose foibles were off-limits in his publications and were dubbed by staffers FOPs (Friends of Pecker).
In 1997, while running Hachette Magazines Inc., Mr. Pecker hatched a deal to publish a custom magazine called Trump Style. “Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century,” Hachette executive Nick Matarazzo said when Mr. Pecker told him of it. When advertisers didn’t bite, Mr. Pecker became enraged.
His relationship with Mr. Trump was a series of chits accrued and favors cashed in. Before Mr. Pecker took over at American Media in 1999, the Enquirer had feasted on stories of Mr. Trump’s affairs and breakups. After Mr. Pecker’s arrival, his gossip empire didn’t print a bad word about Mr. Trump.
As the publisher promoted Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Trump fed American Media tips and offered Mr. Pecker business advice. When Mr. Trump spotted an article about the company’s financial troubles, he scrawled over it with a Sharpie: You’ll be on top again in no time. Mr. Pecker framed the note and proudly displayed it in his office.
When American Media was based near Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Pecker would hang around if Mr. Trump was in town so that he could hitch a ride back to New York on the mogul’s jet. Mr. Pecker’s National Enquirer breathlessly promoted Mr. Trump’s 2011 exploratory presidential bid, and his Globe and Star propelled the “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump used to attack President Barack Obama and raise his own political profile.
Mr. Cohen came to work for Mr. Trump in 2007, after impressing him during a board uprising at a condo building. But the deals he attempted at the Trump Organization fizzled, and the boss came to question his legal skills.
In 2009, Mr. Trump gave company lawyer George Sorial an unpleasant task: persuade Mr. Cohen to resign. He’d had it with Mr. Cohen, who no longer seemed like a good fit. But Mr. Cohen decided to stay, taking a pay cut and doing more thankless work.
One of his duties was telling small-business owners that they could expect severely reduced fees or none at all for the services they provided to Mr. Trump. The boss reveled in hearing these accounts.
Like Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen encouraged his boss’s ambitions, positioning himself as a political adviser. In 2010, Mr. Cohen showed Mr. Trump a Time magazine story about a poll testing the mogul’s appeal as a candidate. What if Mr. Trump did run? “Wouldn’t that be something?” Mr. Cohen asked.
Mr. Cohen turned to Mr. Pecker for help. Mr. Cohen and National Enquirer staff produced a series of increasingly obsequious tabloid stories hyping Mr. Trump’s unofficial candidacy and directing readers to Mr. Cohen’s website, ShouldTrumpRun.com.
Mr. Cohen’s tough-guy routine raised some eyebrows. In 2012, he horrified a campaign aide for Mitt Romney, pulling up a pant leg to show off his pistol during a fundraiser before stashing the gun in a car. Another time, he tried to barge past Mr. Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, after being informed that the boss was in a meeting. Mr. Schiller threw him to the ground and said, I told you, you’re not going in.
Mr. Trump kept Mr. Cohen around but didn’t seem to respect him. When Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the evangelical leader, told Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign that he and his wife really liked Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump responded, Really? Really?
Mr. Cohen played a behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, to the chagrin of the actual campaign staff. For the launch event, Mr. Cohen proposed bringing an elephant to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. After that was rejected, he coordinated with a friend—whom Mr. Trump had nicknamed “The Screamer” for his boisterous voice—to pay 55 actors in cash to attend the event.
Mr. Cohen’s most significant task, along with Mr. Pecker, was to identify potential threats to Mr. Trump’s campaign and squash them. The three men met at Mr. Trump’s office in August 2015, and Mr. Pecker offered to use the Enquirer—in coordination with Mr. Cohen—to intercept harmful stories and ensure they never surfaced.
On June 27, 2016, after Mr. Trump learned that Ms. McDougal was shopping around her story of an alleged affair with him, he phoned Mr. Pecker. Can you make this go away? Mr. Trump asked.
Mr. Pecker bought the story for $150,000, under a contract designed to appear as a content pact guaranteeing the model two magazine covers. In return, Ms. McDougal had to keep quiet. Mr. Pecker and his top editor, Dylan Howard, also helped to broker a deal in which Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company to buy her silence.
The Wall Street Journal later revealed both hush-money deals. After the Daniels agreement became public, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen—with Melania Trump on the line. “Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?” Mr. Trump asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
Mr. Cohen, who later said that he had consulted extensively with Mr. Trump about the payment, picked up the cue. Mr. Cohen said he’d planned to tell him after the election but had thought it safer to keep Mr. Trump out of it. He assumed the first lady saw through the lie.
In the predawn hours of April 9, 2018, FBI agents filtered into a side entrance of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel and took the service elevator to room 1728. As Mr. Cohen’s wife sat on a bed, the agents, bearing a warrant, carted away materials relating to the hush-money agreements and Mr. Cohen’s private business affairs.
That same morning, other agents arrived at Mr. Pecker’s and Mr. Howard’s residences with warrants authorizing the seizure of their cellphones. Mr. Pecker gave his lawyers a simple instruction after the FBI showed up: “Get me out of this.” The publisher received immunity against federal charges; he told prosecutors that the true intent of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing an embarrassing story about the candidate. Prosecutors also declined to charge Mr. Howard, his deputy.
Mr. Trump predicted that Mr. Cohen wouldn’t turn on him, but the fixer was frantic. “One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail. Never,” Mr. Cohen told two lawyers who met with him eight days after the raids. As Mr. Cohen’s legal fees mounted, the Trump Organization resisted paying, and Trump lawyers were lukewarm to inquiries on Mr. Cohen’s behalf about a presidential pardon.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Cohen broke from Mr. Trump, a man for whom he once had said he’d take a bullet. He pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including two campaign-finance related counts related to the hush-money payments, which he accused the president of directing.
I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly……43.3K people are talking about this
Mr. Trump had said he didn’t know about the payments and later that he’d learned of them after the fact. After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, Mr. Trump tweeted, “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”
American Media’s nonprosecution agreement offered a path out of trouble for Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. But soon an Enquirer story about an extramarital affair by Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, who had been at odds with Mr. Trump, fueled speculation that Mr. Pecker was back protecting the president, and federal authorities began investigating again. A spokesman for American Media declined to comment on the ongoing probe.
American Media’s largest financial backer could brook no more scandals. In April 2019, the publisher said that American Media was putting its tabloids, including the Enquirer, up for sale. Nine months later, that sale hasn’t been completed.
Mr. Pecker has ceded his title. His tabloid has become a toxic asset, and his legacy will forever be connected to Mr. Trump’s hush-money scandal.
Much remains mysterious about the Enquirer’s actions, and in particular its connections, if any, with President Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia — a possibility that Bezos alluded to in his blog post. Both the Saudis and Trump are aggrieved at The Post, and Trump wrongly blames Bezos for the newspaper’s accurate but unflattering coverage of him. When the Enquirer’s initial article about Bezos’s extramarital relationship was published, the president gloated in a tweet: “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
The president would obviously love to see a sale of The Post to a friendlier owner — perhaps Trump pal David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive of AMI. (One is reminded of autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have benefited from bullying media organizations into submission in their own countries.) The Enquirer was threatening Bezos in order to get him to affirm that its coverage was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Might the Enquirer have, at a minimum, pursued the story to curry favor with Trump?
.. This is apparently not the first time the publication has been accused of extortionate demands. Other journalists, including Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, have said they were threatened by the Enquirer’s lawyers while investigating the tabloid’s relationship with Trump. And Bezos wrote that “numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI.” These machinations are now being exposed because of Bezos’s smart and courageous decision to confront the Enquirer rather than give in. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,
.. I suspect David Pecker will rue the day that his friend Donald Trump became president — if he does not already. And he is not alone.
- Paul Manafort had a flourishing business as an international influence-peddler before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. He now faces a long stretch in prison after having been convicted of felony financial charges. Trump’s friend
- Roger Stone has now been indicted for the first time after a long career as a political dirty trickster.
- Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, has gone from well-respected general to felon.
- Michael Cohen had a cushy career as Trump’s personal lawyer before his client became president. Now Cohen, too, is a felon. Numerous other Trump associates and family members are facing, at a minimum, hefty legal bills and, at worst, serious legal exposure.
Every organization Trump has been associated with — the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration — is being investigated by prosecutors and lawmakers. His name, long his biggest asset, has become so toxic that bookings are down at his hotels. And Trump, a.k.a. Individual 1, faces a serious threat of prosecution once he leaves office. Before it is all over, Trump himself may regret the day he became president. His unexpected and undeserved ascent is delivering long overdue accountability for him and his sleazy associates. We have gone from logrolling to having logs rolled over — and it’s about time.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accuses the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail with compromising photos unless the Washington Post ended an investigation into how the magazine obtained private texts related to his divorce
Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.
AMI, the owner of the National Enquirer, led by David Pecker, recently entered into an immunity deal with the Department of Justice related to their role in the so-called “Catch and Kill” process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign. Mr. Pecker and his company have also been investigated for various actions they’ve taken on behalf of the Saudi Government.
“After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions…”
Here’s a piece of context: My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me. It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy.
President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets. Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.
.. Back to the story: Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is “apoplectic” about our investigation. For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.
.. In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.
Be assured, no real journalists ever propose anything like what is happening here: I will not report embarrassing information about you if you do X for me. And if you don’t do X quickly, I will report the embarrassing information.
.. These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism.
Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos said Thursday that he was the target of an extortion and blackmail effort by the National Enquirer, which he accused of threatening to publish intimate pictures of him unless he backed off an investigation of the tabloid.
In an extraordinary post to the online publishing platform Medium, Bezos said the Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc., made the threat after he began investigating how the tabloid obtained text messages that revealed his relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, wrote that the Enquirer wanted him to make a false public statement that he and his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Bezos declined to do so.
Instead, he published what he said were emails from Enquirer executives to a lawyer representing de Becker. In one, top Enquirer editor Dylan Howard appears to suggest that the tabloid would publish a series of salacious photos of Bezos and one of Sanchez if AMI’s terms weren’t met.
“I wanted to describe to you the photos obtained during our newsgathering,” Howard wrote, going on to say that the Enquirer had a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, among other shots. Howard added, “It would give no editor pleasure to send this email. I hope common sense can prevail — and quickly.”
Bezos noted that the email “got my attention,” but said that “any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
.. On Feb. 5, The Post reported that Bezos and de Becker suspected that the source of the text and photo leaks may have been Sanchez’s brother, Michael, a California public relations executive who is close to Pecker and various figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Carter Page. Michael Sanchez denied any involvement in revealing his sister’s relationship with Bezos.
The Post reported that Sanchez said he was told by multiple people at AMI that the Enquirer set out to do “a takedown to make Trump happy.”
.. “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,”
.. “This could constitute criminal conduct in the eyes of a prosecutor, if these allegations are true,” said Mintz. “For prosecutors, your worst nightmare is watching a cooperation deal unravel. Alleged conduct like this puts them in the position to rethink that deal and potentially turn around and have to prosecute AMI, and that undermines their ability to continue to use them to assist other ongoing investigations.”
.. Bezos said in his Medium post that the tabloid threatened to keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future “if we ever deviate from [the] lie” that politics played no role in the Enquirer’s pursuit of Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez.
.. The Enquirer has said that it obtained the texts and photos lawfully, and that it had the right to publish the material under the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law. It also said the photos were newsworthy, given Bezos’s prominence.
But as Bezos began to investigate the leak, the tabloid’s parent disputed any suggestion that its story was politically motivated. The company “emphatically rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated, dictated or influenced in any manner by external forces, political or otherwise,” Fine wrote in an email to de Becker’s lawyer, Martin Singer, which Bezos shared. “Simply put, this was and is a news story.”
Ted Boutrous, a veteran lawyer who briefly represented McDougal in a dispute with the Enquirer, said the emails Bezos described in his post are “a textbook example of blackmail and extortion. It’s ripped right out of the law books.”
He added, “At an extreme level, this shows how frightening it should be to the citizens of the United States that the National Enquirer reportedly has a safe full of information about the president of the United States. That’s one of the dangers to democracy of what they were engaged in when they were catching and killing information they could have used against Candidate Trump and now President Trump. . . . It’s a shocking and frightening thing Mr. Bezos has revealed.”
— The National Enquirer kept a safe containing damaging documents on hush-money payments and other stories that it killed on Trump’s behalf. The AP’s Jeff Horwitz reports: “Several people familiar with the National Enquirer’s parent company … said the safe was a great source of power for [Pecker]. The Trump records were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals … By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return. But after [Karen McDougal’s catch-and-kill deal was revealed], those assets became a liability. … Fearful that the documents might be used against American Media, Pecker and [Howard] removed them from the safe in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration … It was unclear whether the documents were destroyed or simply were moved to a location known to fewer people.”
.. The Enquirer’s efforts to kill negative Trump stories extended way beyond the 2016 campaign: “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 [Obama’s] birthplace and American citizenship in print.”
.. — The Manhattan district attorney’s office is also weighing possible criminal charges against the Trump Organization and two of its senior officials. The New York Times’s William K. Rashbaum reports: “A state investigation would center on how the company accounted for its reimbursement to Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 he paid to [Stormy Daniels] … [Two] officials stressed that the office’s review of the matter is in its earliest stages and prosecutors have not yet made a decision on whether to proceed. State charges against the company or its executives could be significant because Mr. Trump has talked about pardoning some of his current or former aides who have faced federal charges. As president, he has no power to pardon people and corporate entities convicted of state crimes.”
.. “Trump’s lawyers counseled the president against the idea of pardoning anyone linked to the investigation … saying Trump should at least wait until [Mueller] has concluded his probe.
.. Asked about a pardon, one senior White House official said: ‘What does it accomplish? You pardon him, it doesn’t get rid of the Mueller probe, it causes you more headaches, he still has another trial, you have more Republicans coming after you.’”
.. “Trump’s consideration of pardons, while he praises associates who don’t cooperate with investigations and help those who praise him, also could have a chilling effect, law enforcement officials said,”
.. ‘The president has not a whit of respect for institutions, whether it’s the DOJ or the Fed or the FBI,’ said one former senior administration official. ‘If you are a threat to him, he is going to try to kill you.’
.. Two powerful members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who have been shielding Sessions gave air cover for Trump to fire him after Fox aired the interview. This is significant because a new AG who is not recused from the investigation could oversee Mueller’s work and rein in his probe.
.. — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently golfed with Trump, said it’s “very likely” that the president will oust Sessions but urged him to wait until after the midterms to do so. “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham said. “Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.” (Graham sung a different tune last July. “If Jeff Sessions is fired,” he said then, “there will be holy hell to pay.”)
.. — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also shifted his position and announced he will now be able to find time to hold a confirmation hearing for a new attorney general this fall after the Supreme Court vacancy is filled. “Grassley said he was not advocating for a change at the Justice Department but simply responding to questions about timing,” Devlin Barrett, John Wagner and Seung Min Kim report. “Asked whether he still has confidence in Sessions, Grassley said: ‘Let’s put it this way, he’s a good friend.’
.. “Part of the disenchantment stems from a growing rift between Grassley and Sessions over Grassley’s legislation to change criminal justice policy. Sessions, whose views on law enforcement are shaped largely by 1980s-era mandatory-minimum sentences and harsh penalties for drug dealers, came out against the measure earlier this year, saying it ‘risks putting the very worst criminals back into our communities.’ Grassley has been willing to work with Democrats on legislation that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders. He was furious that Sessions opposed his bill, one of his biggest legislative priorities… ‘It’s Grassley’s bill, and when the attorney general said he wouldn’t support it, Grassley said that was disloyal,’ said a person close to Sessions. ‘But … the attorney general isn’t going to be blackmailed.’”