Thursday night, former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal appeared in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper where she discussed her alleged affair with President Donald Trump, as well as the contract she signed with American Media, Inc. (AMI). The contract gave AMI the rights to her story (which they did not publish) and provided opportunities for her to write for their publications, with AMI paying $150,000.
After the interview aired, Cooper discussed it with a panel of guests who brought up a number of issues, including whether the deal constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign. McDougal claims in her lawsuit against AMI that she was duped into making the agreement, and that her own lawyer was working with Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen to sign it to ensure that McDougal would remain silent about the alleged affair. While the lawsuit acknowledges that McDougal was later permitted to respond to press inquiries on the subject, she still does not have the freedom to otherwise discuss it.
It has been reported that AMI has a history of “catch and kill” deals, where they pay for the exclusive rights to stories for the purpose of burying them to protect friends. AMI CEO David Pecker is known to be an old friend of Trump’s, so the argument is that the company paid this money to benefit the campaign by keeping it out of the public eye.
“The fact that AMI did this catch and kill thing is a real question about whether this is an in-kind contribution to the campaign,” former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said. By paying $150,000 for McDougal’s silence, she argued, this was really an in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign, because McDougal’s silence was a thing of value that was meant to benefit Trump’s campaign by keeping McDougal’s allegations away from the voting public.
The same argument is being used in an FEC complaint brought by Free Speech for the People, who claim that AMI paid the $150,000 “for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election.”
If the FEC does consider this to be an in-kind contribution, it could be a violation of federal law because it was not reported by the campaign.
The same argument is being made in a different FEC complaint regarding the $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen made to Stormy Daniels. In that case, Daniels received money — that Cohen admitted came from him — in order to remain silent about her own alleged affair with Trump.
Former Trump White House attorney James Schultz responded to Granholm by pointing out a key difference between McDougal’s situation and Daniels’. McDougal actually got something in return, in a type of deal that AMI was reported to have made with other people in the past.
“There was a payment by a company … that people admit happened time and time again, it’s consistent with what happens in the industry,” Schultz said, adding that’s very different from a payoff meant to influence a presidential election.
“There’s no indication that this was an FEC violation, whatsoever.” he said.
Cooper also pointed out that in McDougal’s case, both sides received something, and the fact that Trump may have benefited from it as well doesn’t make it illegal.
That’s a major distinction between the McDougal and Daniels situations. Stormy Daniels’ agreement seems more likely to be an FEC violation because it was a payment from Trump’s lawyer in exchange for her silence. McDougal received payment from a publisher in exchange for not just her silence and the rights to her story, but for actual work that she went on to do for them.
Granholm countered by saying that while AMI may have made deals like this in the past, it’s likely that this is the first time a presidential candidate was involved, which makes it different.
In the meantime, it will be up to the FEC to decide.
[Image via CNN screengrab]