NEW YORK — Federal authorities examining the work President Trump’s former lawyer did to squelch embarrassing stories before the 2016 election have come to believe that tabloid company American Media Inc. was an important ally in the effort, according to people briefed on the investigation.
That finding 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 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.
At times, the company acted more as a political supporter than as a news organization, investigators have found.
AMI’s role in the inquiry received new attention Friday with news that federal authorities had seized a recording from Cohen in which he and Trump discussed a $150,000 deal AMI 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 Trump should buy the rights away from the company, which he did not ultimately do, according to a lawyer for the president, Rudy Giuliani.
The recording, from early September 2016, undercuts previous statements from Trump’s representatives that he did not know about the agreement between AMI and the woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal. It also raises questions about the extent of Cohen’s involvement in the deal.
From the beginning of the campaign, AMI promoted Trump and savaged his opponents, sometimes with unsubstantiated stories alleging poor health, extramarital affairs, and the use of prostitutes.
AMI’s chairman, David J. Pecker, is a close friend of the president and his former lawyer, and company leaders were in regular contact with Cohen, former employees have said in interviews.
By burying McDougal’s story during the campaign in a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch and kill,” AMI protected Trump from negative publicity that could have harmed his election chances, spending money to do so.
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.
Prosecutors did not warn AMI before subpoenaing executives there in the spring, people with knowledge of the process said. AMI, which has denied any wrongdoing, did not challenge the move.
A spokesman for the US attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, which is handling the inquiry, declined to comment.
Cameron Stracher, AMI’s general counsel, indicated that the company was cooperating with the investigation.
“AMI respects the legitimate law enforcement activities by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York,” he said. But he suggested there was some give-and-take in what AMI was willing to share, adding that it “has asserted and will continue to assert its First Amendment rights in order to protect its newsgathering and editorial operations.”
From his New Jersey resort Saturday, Trump lashed out at Cohen, suggesting that there could be legal consequences for Cohen’s decision to record a discussion they had two months before the election about paying McDougal.
“Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) — almost unheard of,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client — totally unheard of and perhaps illegal. The good news is that your favorite president did nothing wrong!”
With his tweet, Trump signaled open warfare on Cohen, a longtime fixer he had until now tried to keep by his side as the Justice Department investigates Cohen.
While the president suggested that Cohen’s recording may have been illegal, New York law allows one party to a conversation to tape it without the other knowing. Over the years, Cohen, in his dealings on Trump’s behalf with journalists, opposing lawyers, and business adversaries, frequently taped his conversations, unbeknown to the people with whom he was speaking.
In late April, Trump said on Twitter that “I have always liked and respected” Cohen, and that while “most people will flip if the Government” spares them punishment, “I don’t see Michael doing that.”
But early this month, Cohen suggested that he was looking seriously at cooperating with prosecutors, telling ABC News, “I put family and country first.”
In a separate development, the special counsel’s office has expressed interest in issuing a subpoena to Kristin Davis, a woman who gained notoriety a decade ago for running a prostitution service in Manhattan, Davis said Saturday.
Davis, 43, said she was unaware what information she might possess that would be of interest to Mueller. “I don’t know at this time,” Davis said. But she confirmed that the special counsel’s office had “contacted us asking where they can serve” a subpoena.