Politics

What David Pecker Could Have Learned From Paul Manafort

Did the National Enquirer’s CEO try to blackmail Jeff Bezos? If so, what on earth was he thinking?
February 8, 2019
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(David Ryder/Getty Images)

David Pecker appears to have made a huge mistake. Last month, Pecker’s publication, the National Enquirer, published a story revealing that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had been having an affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. The story included lurid text messages between the two, which prompted Bezos to announce he would hire an investigator, Gavin de Becker, to determine how the Enquirer had acquired them. Then, on Thursday night, Bezos published at Medium a startling account accusing the National Enquirer boss of trying to blackmail him into stopping his investigation by threatening to publish lewd photos of him and Sanchez.

“Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail,” Bezos wrote, “I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.

With this accusation, Bezos turned what had previously been merely a celebrity gossip story, albeit a particularly juicy one, into a full-blown national news event—particularly in his suggestion for why the Enquirer had wanted to put a hit on him. The Amazon billionaire indicated that the Enquirer, already known to be a close ally of the Trump administration, is also in cahoots with the government of Saudi Arabia—“powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage [and] wrongly conclude I am their enemy.”

Bezos’s suggestion is apparently based on his investigator de Becker’s belief that the text messages were obtained not by a private entity hacking his or Sanchez’s phones, but by a “government entity” accessing their texting records—presumably, the Saudis. It’s an explosive assertion, and if it proves true, will no doubt cause new headaches for the Trump administration, which gave Pecker a hand as he courted Saudi favor in early 2016, and which was roundly criticized for tiptoeing around the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Turkish consulate in October.

But it’s unquestionably worse news for Pecker himself, who is only a few months removed from his last brush with the law: Last summer, he found himself caught up in the federal case against Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who was charged with making illegal hush-money payments to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal, both of whom have alleged that they once had affairs with Donald Trump. Pecker, who admitted to helping Cohen kill the McDougal story in particular, turned state’s evidence against Cohen and the Trump Organization, and received prosecutorial immunity for his trouble.

What Pecker is about to learn, to his sorrow, is that prosecutors tend not to extend that kind of deal twice. Prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York already picked Pecker’s brain and his organization’s records for anything they could use in their case against Cohen, which was apparently enough to get him off with a warning. If he’s hauled back into court on extortion charges, they’re likely to throw the book at him.

It’s a lesson Pecker could have learned from another former Trump associate who, in service of the Donald, also ran afoul of the law: Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign manager who was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in October 2017 for a bevy of charges related to his prior lobbying work for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. Manafort wasn’t able to give prosecutors enough goods to score immunity, but he did eventually manage to scrape together a plea deal in August 2018—until a few months later, when Mueller announced Manafort had continued to lie to them even after he began cooperating. Now, steamed prosecutors are back to throwing the book at Manafort, whose chances of ever getting out of jail again are growing dimmer by the day.

What kind of person walks away from a near-catastrophic brush with federal prosecutors, only to immediately resume committing the silliest, most foolish of crimes? Or perhaps the better question is: What conclusions can you draw about a leader who has surrounded himself with this sort of people all his professional life?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.