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National Enquirer publisher fined $187,500 for Trump hush money payment

The FEC found that the cash the tabloid paid to keep Karen McDougal quiet about her alleged affair with Donald Trump was an unlawful campaign contribution.
Illustration of Karen McDougal and Donald Trump
A payment the National Enquirer made to model Karen McDougal to keep her silent about an affair she alleges she had with Donald Trump earned the tabloid a $187,500 fine from the Federal Election Commission.Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Getty Images

The publisher of the National Enquirer agreed to pay a $187,500 fine after the Federal Election Commission found that it "knowingly and willfully" violated campaign law by paying $150,000 to a model who said she'd had an affair with Donald Trump to keep quiet during the 2016 presidential election, according to records released by a campaign finance watchdog group.

The FEC revealed the penalty in correspondence Tuesday with Common Cause, which had filed a complaint against Enquirer publisher AMI, Trump and the Trump campaign about the hush money payout to Karen McDougal after word of the supermarket tabloid's unusual payment to silence a salacious story — dubbed "catch and kill" — became public.

The complaint alleged that the payment was made "for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election."

In a letter to Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause's vice president of policy and litigation, the FEC said the board had found "reason to believe" that AMI had violated campaign law but that there "were an insufficient number of votes to find reason to believe that the remaining respondents" — Trump and the Trump campaign — "violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971."

In a signed agreement with the FEC that was forwarded to Common Cause, an attorney for AMI's successor company, A360 LLC, agreed that the company would pay the fine. It acknowledged "the Commission's reason-to-believe finding that these violations were knowing and willful," but it said it "does not admit to the knowing and willful aspect of these violations."

The FEC is expected to make its findings public within 30 days. The agency would not comment about the documents Wednesday.

Representatives for A360 and Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

Ryan hailed the fine against AMI as "a win for democracy" but said "the FEC's failure to hold former-President Trump and his campaign accountable for this violation lays bare the dysfunction at the FEC."

"All the other actors have been held accountable, but still no accountability for former President Trump," he said.

AMI had previously acknowledged paying McDougal, a Playboy model, as part of a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors who were investigating allegations that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen violated campaign law.

Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to having helped orchestrate the payment to McDougal, as well as a payment to another woman, porn star Stormy Daniels, who said she had slept with Trump, as part of a federal criminal case that sent him to prison.

Last month, the FEC dropped an inquiry into whether Trump should face sanctions for the payment to Daniels after two Republican commissioners voted against proceeding and a third recused himself. The commissioners who voted against moving forward noted that the commission is dealing with a substantial backlog and argued that the case was "statute of limitations imperiled" and "not the best use of agency resources."

In an op-ed last month in The Washington Post, one of the Democratic commissioners, Ellen Weintraub, agreed that the agency had a large backlog to catch up on but said: "Are we too busy to enforce the law against the former president of the United States for his brazen violation of federal campaign finance laws on the eve of a presidential election? No."

Trump has denied having had relationships with McDougal, and he defended the payments in a 2018 interview with Fox News.

"They weren't taken out of campaign finance," he said, adding: "They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me."

The Manhattan district attorney's office is believed to be scrutinizing the payments as part of its investigation of the finances of Trump's company, the Trump Organization.

The six-member FEC board is made up of three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent. Four commissioners have to agree for a case to proceed.

Ryan said he was baffled by how the commission could vote to fine the Enquirer and not Trump.

"It's a good use of resources to hold a tabloid accountable but not a former president. That's an astounding and absurd outcome," he said.

Ben Kamisar contributed.