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How the National Enquirer boosted Trump and smeared his opponents: ‘The only choice for president’

A New York court has heard evidence of how Donald Trump’s long and tumultuous journey to secure the Republican nomination – and later the presidency – was aided by a US tabloid known for printing gory pictures of murder scenes and questionable journalistic ethics.

Testimony from David Pecker revealed how the former publisher of the National Enquirer had pledged to be Trump’s “eyes and ears” during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Prosecutors say an alleged “catch-and-kill” scheme saw the National Enquirer catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else. Trump has maintained his innocence.

In court on Tuesday, Pecker recounted how he promised Trump that he would help suppress harmful stories while smearing his political opponents at the same time.

The process was solidified during an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump and Michael Cohen, his lawyer and personal fixer, in which Pecker said he would publish positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his opponents.

Soon after, the fruits of that pledge became apparent in the pages of the National Enquirer.

 a cover of a tabloid newspaper with an image of a man in a suit and red tie and the text the donald trump nobody knows
The National Enquirer on 25 January 2016. Photograph: National Enquirer/Enquirer1

Throughout 2015 and 2016, a months-long fight to secure the Republican nomination saw more than 12 candidates, made up of political veterans and business titans, cast aside by the momentum of Trump’s campaign.

However, in the days and weeks after Trump announced his candidacy, he was still seen as a long shot. Jeb Bush led across most polls in June 2015 and was attracting millions of dollars in donations.

That month, the Enquirer printed unfounded claims about Bush, claiming he had a cocaine habit in the 1980s.

In late August Trump penned an article for the National Enquirer outlining why he was “the ONLY choice for President” and by autumn, Bush was lagging far behind in the polls.

By then, Trump’s closest challenger was another political outsider, Ben Carson, a soft-spoken retired paediatric neurosurgeon who also had no background in politics. In October, Carson was polling near neck and neck with Trump, and pulling in large amounts in fundraising.

That month, the Enquirer published a front-page story: “Ben Carson butchered my brain!” The article claimed that Carson had left a sponge in a person’s brain during a procedure. Carson responded at the time by saying his opponents had found “five or six disgruntled people … and many of those cases never went anywhere”.

the cover of a tabloid newspaper with a man in a blue shirt and the text ted cruz father linked to jfk assassination
The National Enquirer on 2 May 2016. Photograph: National Enquirer

By March 2015, Carson was out and Trump’s closest rival became Ted Cruz, the Texas senator.

The Enquirer began to print unsubstantiated stories about Cruz having multiple affairs, labelling the devout Christian a hypocrite on its front pages.

In one example – redolent of how the publications would twist headlines until they had only a passing connection to the facts – an Enquirer headline read “Ted Cruz Shamed by Porn Star”, above a picture of a woman wearing a bikini.

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The actual story was about Cruz’s campaign having to pull an advertisement after learning one of the actors had worked in adult films.

In May, with Cruz trailing Trump in the primaries and battling to keep his candidacy alive, the Enquirer printed a “World Exclusive Investigation”.

Next to a grainy photo of the JFK assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, the magazine printed the headline “Ted Cruz father linked to JFK assassination!”. Trump picked up on the story, mentioning the claim in campaign speeches.

Cruz labelled the unfounded claims “kooky” and tore into Trump, calling him an “amoral pathological liar”, and a “braggadocious, arrogant buffoon”. Within hours though, Cruz was out of the race and Trump’s path to the Republican nomination was clear.

 cover of a tabloid newspaper with a photo of a blonde woman and the text hillary corrupt racist criminal
The National Enquirer on 14 November 2016. Photograph: National Enquirer

As the Republican party broadly swung behind Trump’s candidacy, the Enquirer turned its attention to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Headlines ranged from the simple (“Corrupt!”), to the ridiculous (Hillary’s hitman tells all!”). The magazine attacked Clinton’s health, said she was “going to jail” and continually labelled her corrupt. It alleged, without any reliable evidence, that she used racist language and that she “blackmailed and intimated” prosecutors, claims that are entirely unsubstantiated.

By election day, Clinton had appeared on the Enquirer’s front page at least 15 times in a five-month period.

In its first edition published after Trump’s shock victory, the Enquirer plastered the incoming president on its front page and outlined a supposed checklist of his most important policy priorities.

Above the headline “My first 100 days!”, the magazine apparently couldn’t resist a final insult to anyone who doubted the incoming president: “We told you so!”

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