By Jeff Horwitz – The Washington Times – Thursday, August 23, 2018

WASHINGTON — The National kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with leading up to the 2016 presidential election, people familiar with the arrangement told The Associated Press.

The detail came as several media outlets reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors had granted immunity to National chief , potentially laying bare his efforts to protect his longtime friend .

’s former lawyer pleaded guilty this week to campaign finance violations alleging he, and the tabloid were involved in buying the silence of a porn actress and a Playboy model who alleged affairs with .

Five people familiar with the National ’s parent company, , who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they signed non-disclosure agreements, said the safe was a great source of power for , the company’s CEO.

The Trump records were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals, in which exclusive rights to people’s stories were bought with no intention of publishing to keep them out of the news. By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.

But after The Wall Street Journal initially published the first details of Playboy model Karen McDougal’s catch-and-kill deal shortly before the 2016 election, those assets became a liability. Fearful that the documents might be used against , and the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, removed them from the safe in the weeks before ’s inauguration, according to one person directly familiar with the events.

It was unclear whether the documents were destroyed or simply were moved to a location known to fewer people.

Jerry George, a longtime reporter who left the publication in 2013, said the practice of catch and kill took root at the under . Though George had no personal knowledge of -specific catch and kills, he said that generally paid hush money only if it believed it had something to gain.

“It’s ‘I did this for you,’ now what can you do for me,” George said. “They always got something in return.”

Catch and kills were loathed by the National ’s reporters, he said, because they robbed the publication of juicy stories.

did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

’s immunity deal was first reported Thursday by Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources. Vanity Fair reported that Howard also was granted immunity.

Court papers in the Cohen case say “offered to help deal with negative stories about (‘s) relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”

The Journal reported shared with prosecutors details about payments that says directed in the weeks and months before the election to buy the silence of McDougal and another woman alleging an affair, porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels was paid $130,000, and McDougal was paid $150,000.

While denies the affairs, his account of his knowledge of the payments has shifted. In April, denied he knew anything about the Daniels payment. He told Fox News in an interview aired Thursday that he knew about payments “later on.”

In July, released an audio tape in which he and discussed plans to buy McDougal’s story from the . Such a purchase was necessary, they suggested, to prevent from having to permanently rely on a tight relationship with the tabloid.

“You never know where that company – you never know what he’s gonna be -” says.

“ gets hit by a truck,” says.

“Correct,” replies. “So, I’m all over that.”

While is cooperating with federal prosecutors now, previously declined to participate in congressional inquiries.

Last March, in response to a letter from a group of House Democrats about the Daniels and McDougal payments, general counsel Cameron Stracher declined to provide any documents, writing that the company was “exempt” from U.S. campaign finance laws because it is a news publisher and it was “confident” it had complied with all tax laws. He also rebuffed any suggestion that America Media Inc., or , had leverage over the president because of its catch-and-kill practices.

“ states unequivocally that any suggestion that it would seek to ‘extort’ the President of the United States through the exercise of its editorial discretion is outrageous, offensive, and wholly without merit,” Stracher wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Former employees who spoke to the AP said that negative stories about were dead on arrival dating back more than a decade when he starred on NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.”

In 2010, at ’s urging, the National began promoting a potential presidential candidacy, referring readers to a pro- website helped create. With ’s involvement, the publication began questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace and American citizenship in print, an effort that promoted for several years, former staffers said.

The endorsed for president in 2016, the first time it had ever officially backed a candidate. In the news pages, ’s coverage was so favorable that the New Yorker magazine said the embraced him “with sycophantic fervor.”

Positive headlines for , a Republican, were matched by negative stories about his opponents, including Hillary Clinton, a Democrat: An front page from 2015 said “Hillary: 6 Months to Live” and accompanied the headline with a picture of an unsmiling Clinton with bags under her eyes.

• Associated Press writers Chad Day and Jake Pearson contributed to this report.

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