But four longtime Enquirer staffers directly familiar with the episode challenged Howard’s version of events. They said they were ordered by top editors to stop pursuing the story before completing potentially promising reporting threads.
They said the publication didn’t pursue standard Enquirer reporting practices, such as exhaustive stake-outs or tabloid tactics designed to prove paternity. In 2008, the Enquirer helped bring down presidential hopeful John Edwards in part by digging through a dumpster and retrieving material to do a DNA test that indicated he had fathered a child with a mistress, according to a former staffer.
The woman at the center of the rumor about Trump denied emphatically to the AP last August that she’d ever had an affair with Trump, saying she had no idea the Enquirer had paid Sajudin and pursued his tip.
The AP has not been able to determine if the rumor is true and is not naming the woman.
“This is all fake,” she said. “I think they lost their money.”
The Enquirer staffers, all with years of experience negotiating source contracts, said the abrupt end to reporting combined with a binding, seven-figure penalty to stop the tipster from talking to anyone led them to conclude that this was a so-called “catch and kill” — a tabloid practice in which a publication pays for a story to never run, either as a favor to the celebrity subject of the tip or as leverage over that person.
One former Enquirer reporter, who was not involved in the Sajudin reporting effort, expressed skepticism that the company would pay for the tip and not publish.
“AMI doesn’t go around cutting checks for $30,000 and then not using the information,” said Jerry George, a reporter and senior editor for nearly three decades at AMI before his layoff in 2013.
The company said that AMI’s publisher, David Pecker, an unabashed Trump supporter, had not coordinated its coverage with Trump associates or taken direction from Trump. It acknowledged discussing the former doorman’s tip with Trump’s representatives, which it described as “standard operating procedure in stories of this nature.”
The Enquirer staffers, like many of the dozens of other current and former AMI employees interviewed by the AP in the past year, spoke on condition of anonymity. All said AMI required them to sign nondisclosure agreements barring them from discussing internal editorial policy and decision-making.
Though sometimes dismissed by mainstream publications, the Enquirer’s history of breaking legitimate scoops about politicians’ personal lives — including its months-long Pulitzer Prize-contending coverage of presidential candidate Edwards’ affair — is a point of pride in its newsroom.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Enquirer published a string of allegations against Trump’s rivals, such as stories claiming Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was a bisexual “secret sex freak” and was kept alive only by a “narcotics cocktail.”
Stories attacking Trump rivals or promoting Trump’s campaign often bypassed the paper’s normal fact-checking process, according to two people familiar with campaign-era copy.
The tabloid made its first-ever endorsement by officially backing Trump for the White House. With just over a week before Election Day, Howard, the top editor, appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars program by phone, telling listeners that the choice at the ballot box was between “the Clinton crime family” or someone who will “break down the borders of the establishment.” Howard said the paper’s coverage was bipartisan, citing negative stories it published about Ben Carson during the Republican presidential primaries.
In a statement last summer, Howard said the company doesn’t take editorial direction “from anyone outside AMI,” and said Trump has never been an Enquirer source. The company has said reader surveys dictate its coverage and that many of its customers are Trump supporters.
The company has said it paid McDougal, the former Playboy Playmate, to be a columnist for an AMI-published fitness magazine, not to stay silent. McDougal has since said that she regrets signing the non-disclosure agreement and is currently suing to get out of it.