WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief executive of the publisher of the National Enquirer was granted immunity by prosecutors investigating payments arranged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to silence two women who said they had sex with Trump, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
Another AMI executive, Dylan Howard, also received immunity, Vanity Fair magazine reported.
American Media Inc’s (AMI) Chief Executive Officer David Pecker met with prosecutors to describe Trump and Cohen’s involvement in hush-money deals with adult-film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing sources. Pecker is a longtime friend of Trump and Cohen.
Federal prosecutors in New York and the White House declined to comment. AMI’s general counsel, Eric Klee, did not respond to a request for comment on the reports. Trump has denied having sex with Daniels or McDougal.
Cooperation with authorities by Pecker and Howard could further implicate Trump in connection with the payments, which prosecutors have said violated campaign finance laws.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday to campaign finance violations and other charges, said in court that Trump directed him to arrange the payments to avoid damaging publicity shortly before the November 2016 election.
Pecker and Howard corroborated Cohen’s account, according to Vanity Fair.
Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 (£101,443) in exchange for her silence, according to court papers. McDougal, who has said she had a months-long affair with Trump, sold her story for $150,000 to AMI but it was never published, a practice known as “catch and kill” to prevent a potentially damaging article from being published.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported, citing people familiar with the arrangement, that the Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on hush-money payments and stories it killed as part of its relationship with Trump in the run up to the 2016 election.
The Associated Press reported, citing one person with direct knowledge, that the documents were removed from the safe prior to Trump’s inauguration and that it was unclear if they were moved to another site or destroyed.
AMI’s general counsel Klee did not respond to a separate request for comment on the Associated Press story.
Trump initially denied knowing anything about the payments. He later acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
In an interview with Fox News aired on Thursday, Trump said he paid Cohen out of personal funds and the payments were intended to resolve a personal matter, not to benefit his campaign. He told Fox he found out about the McDougal payment “later on.”
Under U.S. election law, campaign contributions, defined as things of value given to a campaign to influence an election, must be disclosed.
A payment intended to silence allegations of an affair just before an election could constitute a campaign contribution, which is limited to $2,700 per person per election and must be reported, some experts said.
While many legal experts have said that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the reports could add to political pressure on Trump ahead of the 2018 midterm congressional elections and could further fuel talk of impeachment.
The investigation into Cohen stemmed in part from a referral by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether there was coordination between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. Trump has denied there was any collusion and has called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
Russia has denied meddling in the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded it did interfere.
In addition to the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid, AMI’s celebrity and health publications include Us Weekly, OK! and Men’s Journal.
Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington, D.C.; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld in Washington and Nathan Layne and Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Jonathan Oatis, Toni Reinhold