Federal authorities examining the work President Trump’s former lawyer did to squelch embarrassing stories before the 2016 election have come to believe that an important ally in that effort, the tabloid company American Media Inc., at times acted more as a political supporter than as a news organization, according to people briefed on the investigation.
That determination has kept the publisher in the middle of an inquiry that could create legal and political challenges for the president as prosecutors investigate whether the lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, violated campaign finance law.
It could also spell trouble for the company, which publishes The National Enquirer, raising thorny questions about when coverage that is favorable to a candidate strays into overt political activity, and when First Amendment protections should apply.
A.M.I.’s role in the inquiry received new attention on Friday with news that federal authorities had seized a recording from Mr. Cohen in which he and Mr. Trump discussed a $150,000 deal A.M.I. struck before the election, effectively silencing a woman’s claims of an affair by buying the rights to her story and not publishing it. The men also discussed whether Mr. Trump should buy the rights away from the company, which he did not ultimately do, according to a lawyer for the president, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The recording, from early September 2016, undercuts previous statements from Mr. Trump’s representatives that he did not know about the agreement between A.M.I. and the woman, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. It also raises questions about the extent of Mr. Cohen’s involvement in the deal.
From the beginning of the campaign, A.M.I. promoted Mr. Trump and savaged his opponents, sometimes with unsubstantiated stories alleging poor health, extramarital affairs and the use of prostitutes. A.M.I.’s chairman, David J. Pecker, is a close friend of the president and his former lawyer, and company leaders were in regular contact with Mr. Cohen, former employees have said in interviews.
By burying Ms. McDougal’s story during the campaign in a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch and kill,” A.M.I. protected Mr. Trump from negative publicity that could have harmed his election chances, spending money to do so.
The authorities believe that the company was not always operating in what campaign finance law calls a “legitimate press function,” according to the people briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That may explain why prosecutors did not follow typical Justice Department protocol to avoid subpoenaing news organizations when possible, and to give journalists advance warning when demanding documents or other information.
So the feds are happy to look into this, and when you've got a candidate on tape saying he's glad to pay $150,000 to kill a nasty story on you specifically, well, it becomes very troublesome.
Of course I fully expect this to end up in front of Trump's Supreme Court some day with a 5-4 ruling finding that AMI's free speech rights were violated. That'll be a fight for another year, I suspect.