Book Details The 'Bottom-Feeders' And 'Fixers' Who Enabled Trump's Election | Connecticut Public Radio
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Book Details The 'Bottom-Feeders' And 'Fixers' Who Enabled Trump's Election

Jan 14, 2020
Originally published on January 15, 2020 12:34 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The stories of the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to silence them about their affairs with Donald Trump were first reported in The Wall Street Journal by my guest, Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld. Last year, their "Hush Money" series won a Pulitzer Prize. Palazzolo and Rothfeld have expanded on that reporting in a new book called "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." The hush money payments were made on behalf of Donald Trump with Trump's knowledge during the 2016 presidential campaign. The National Enquirer bought McDougal's story with the purpose of preventing it from ever being published and preventing her from talking to anyone else in the media - catch and kill. The payout to silence Stormy Daniels was made by Michael Cohen, who was then Trump's personal attorney and is now in prison. In telling the story of the hush money Palazzolo and Rothfeld report on the transactional relationship that Trump developed with David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, the lengths to which Michael Cohen was willing to go to please Trump and how tabloids like the National Enquirer pay for stories by people who have dirt on celebrities.

Joe Palazzolo, Michael Rothfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your book opens in August of 2015, just a couple of months after Trump announces his run for the presidency. And so the book opens at a meeting with Trump and David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer. And Trump wanted to know what Pecker could do to help with the campaign. How had they developed the kind of relationship where Donald Trump could have actually asked for such a favor?

MICHAEL ROTHFELD: They had been - had a relationship going back 20 - more than 20 years since the '90s when David Pecker was running the National Enquirer. Actually, even prior to that, he was the head of Hachette magazines, and he developed this custom magazine called Trump Style, which essentially was like an advertisement for Donald Trump. But he also was trying to get into Donald Trump's world, and so he hosted events at Mar-a-Lago and would hitch rides on Trump's jet from Florida to New York. He'd kind of hang around and wait. He was somebody who really liked to be in the company of important people. And that's how he met Donald Trump. And then he used his tabloids to protect Trump over the years and kind of suppressed a lot of negative stories about him.

GROSS: So let's get back to this meeting in August of 2015. Trump asks Pecker for help with the campaign. What does Trump ask for? What does Pecker offer to do?

ROTHFELD: Trump says, how can you help my campaign, and Pecker offers him a couple of different services that he can perform. One is to use the publications the National Enquirer and other tabloids to write negative stories about Trump's opponents and positive stories about Trump. And the second more important one is that he can intercept potentially negative stories about Trump involving women or any other dirt that might come into the National Enquirer. And then he could buy them up and then suppress them, which is what is known as catch and kill.

GROSS: And he's able to do that for Trump just a few months after this August meeting, and that had to do with a former doorman at Trump Tower. What was the story?

JOE PALAZZOLO: So a doorman - his name's Dino Sajudin - he comes in to the National Enquirer. He has a tip - he's a former doorman, like you said. And he says, I have overheard people talking at Trump - employees at the office place saying that Trump had fathered a love child with a former - with an employee. And so the Enquirer puts him through the motions. They give him a lie detector test, which he passes. They actually assigned reporters, several reporters - at least four - to kind of kick the tires and try and firm up the story. And the agreement that he signs as payment upon publication, which is pretty standard - so he doesn't get money unless the story runs. He says, you know, I'm - threatens to take the story elsewhere. And when he does that, they change the contract, and they decide to pay him up front. As soon as they pay him up front, they give him $30,000 for his tip, then they almost immediately stop reporting, kind of giving the lie to the idea that they ever had intended to publish it in the first place.

GROSS: Just in terms of what the Enquirer could deliver for Trump, you quote some of the headlines the Enquirer published during the campaign. And like, you know, just as a reminder, Hillary was - Hillary Clinton was Trump's opponent. So it was, like, Bill Clinton had brain damage. Hillary was a lesbian. Ted Cruz's father was linked to the JFK assassination. These are amazing headlines.

PALAZZOLO: Yeah, yeah, they really are. And you would sort of think that the absurdity of them would kind of nullify them or at least make them meaningless or maybe they're not swaying people having much influence. But what we sort of learned was that even sort of - no matter how far out there it was, you know, it forced campaigns to actually respond. Like, in the instance of Ted Cruz, you know, their campaign staff had to call Ted Cruz's father, who was accused of - you know, Rafael Cruz, who - he wasn't outright accused but insinuated that he had some sort of relationship with JFK's assassin. right? And so the campaign staff has to call and ask, you know, hey, Rafael, you know, did you kill JFK, you know? And - because even if it was completely false, the campaign assumed - and probably correctly - that it was based on something, some nugget of truth, some kernel of truth, that had just been worked and stretched beyond recognition. And so they actually had to respond. They had to take resources - devote resources to figuring out how to respond to these kind of bizarre stories.

GROSS: And there were false positive stories, too. Like, they ran an interview with Donald Trump saying, quote, "The billionaire businessman has quietly donated a huge chunk of his fortune to charity and still finds the time to remain a doting dad to his young son" - exclamation point. You describe that as complete fantasy.

ROTHFELD: Yeah. The Washington Post reported that a lot of Trump's charitable claims were not true and the Enquirer was willing to essentially report whatever he might say if it was favorable to him. And in fact when they suppressed things about the opponents or like about the doorman, they would use the excuse that, well, it wasn't credible, we didn't have enough reporting to justify that. But meanwhile, they didn't require the same level of journalistic standards when they were making these false claims for Trump or when they were writing that Hillary Clinton was on her deathbed.

GROSS: So let's get to the Stormy Daniels story. You describe how she parlayed her relationship with Trump, which included one night of sex, how she tried to parlay that into a business opportunity for herself. And this was at the time that "The Apprentice" was still very popular and Trump was, you know, testing the waters for a 2011 presidential bid. So what were her first steps in trying to parlay her relationship with Trump into money?

PALAZZOLO: Well, she had - at the time, she had sort of recently become acquainted with a woman named Gina Rodriguez, who is herself a former porn actress and she had built a kind of a practice managing reality TV stars and, you know, kind of people of scandal and helping them capitalize on their fame, their, you know, fleeting fame. And, you know, Stormy Daniels had this interaction with Trump, you know, a decade prior. And so when they came together, they were introduced through a friend. They immediately set about trying to sell that story to various kind of scandal sheets.

GROSS: And how did Gina Rodriguez go about trying to sell it? 'Cause she was the one doing the negotiations.

PALAZZOLO: She's reaching out to her contacts. She's emailing people at the Bauer publications, so Life & Style and In Touch and and others. You know, basically, she's sending an email out saying, hey, I have this client. I have a story. She had sex with Donald Trump while his wife was pregnant. That part was inaccurate. Barron was actually born by that point. But this is what she was, you know, sending out to people, and she got responses.

GROSS: Do any of these stories pan out in 2011? Does she publish anyplace?

ROTHFELD: No. So Stormy Daniels does an interview with Life & Style which is a Bauer magazine, and she takes a lie detector test and she passes and so does her ex-husband and her friend. And they are preparing to run her interview, and the magazine calls the Trump Organization to let them know and ask for comment. And after they call, they get an angry phone call back from Michael Cohen, who's Trump's special counsel and his fixer, and he threatens them with legal action. And because Trump then is sort of a fading reality star, he's not a huge driver of tabloid sales, so they just decide this isn't worth the trouble and they end up killing the Stormy Daniels story in 2011.

GROSS: But then this story resurfaces. Stormy Daniels tries to sell it again. So how did they end up at the National Enquirer?

ROTHFELD: They had tried the National Enquirer as one of the outlets and the Enquirer - Dylan Howard, who knew Gina Rodriguez from Hollywood scandal stories, projected it and said, you know, maybe it's worth $10,000, $15,000 because Stormy had previously denied an affair. There was one - there's one - The Dirty, which was kind of a gossip website, ran an item on it and Stormy denied it. So Dylan Howard said, no, she's denied it. It's not true. But then what happens is the "Access Hollywood" tape comes out in October - early October of 2016 - and Trump is talking about grabbing women. And his campaign is in an uproar. So then Gina and Stormy say, oh, well, now we really have an opportunity because Trump is on the ropes, and if my story comes out now, it could really damage him. So maybe he'll buy it again. So she goes - Gina Rodriguez goes back to Dylan Howard at the National Enquirer, and this time, he is interested because he is working for David Pecker, who is protecting Donald Trump. And so they start negotiating over it, and they reach a deal. But, ultimately, Pecker refuses to buy it. And then they refer Stormy over to Michael Cohen, who ends up paying Stormy Daniels $130,000.

GROSS: So after Michael Cohen paid the $130,000 in hush money, Donald Trump was supposed to pay back Cohen. Did Trump pay him back?

PALAZZOLO: Yeah, he did pay him back. It took a little while, but starting in February of 2017, he started receiving monthly checks. And, you know, it was quite a bit more than $130,000 because they - you know, the Trump Organization considered the tax implications for him. And he got - there was a bonus included in there. And so, you know, he's receiving these monthly payments, but they are concealed to look like they're payments under a legal retainer.

GROSS: Because at this point - correct me if I'm wrong here - at this point, Cohen is made Trump's personal attorney, so the payments are concealed as payments to Trump's personal attorney.

PALAZZOLO: That's right. That's right. Yes. After - he leaves the Trump Organization as soon as Trump enters the White House. And, yeah, he becomes his personal attorney. Right.

ROTHFELD: And federal prosecutors, you know, they said actually Michael Cohen really didn't perform any legal work, so that was essentially just a phony agreement to disguise the repayment for Stormy Daniels.

GROSS: Michael Avenatti becomes her lawyer, and he's all over the media for a good deal of time, and he's getting documents and making them public, but he also writes a false narrative for her. He creates a false narrative for her. Can you tell us the difference between the narrative he helps create for Stormy Daniels and what the real story was?

ROTHFELD: Sure. Michael Avenatti, when he comes in, tries to portray Stormy as speaking truth to power and in a way a victim. We had been doing this reporting that showed Stormy was trying to monetize her dalliance with Trump since 2011, and it failed, and then tried again in 2016 and ultimately got this hush money deal. But Michael Avenatti doesn't want her to be seen as someone who's craven (ph), who's just after money, so he recreates this narrative that she was threatened both in 2011, although there are some people who say that they - she had told them that a man approached her in 2011 when she was trying to sell her story and threatens her. That's unverified, but he also says that she felt threatened in 2016, and she was worried about danger to her and her daughter. And so that's why she entered into this deal with Donald Trump.

GROSS: It's so interesting to see how the characters in this are all making financial deals with each other, all trying to profit and all kind of scheming behind the other's back. I mean, you know, so, like, Stormy Daniels is trying to profit on her relationship with Trump and Avenatti is basically fleecing Stormy Daniels, right? Is that fair to say?

PALAZZOLO: Well, he's definitely been accused at this point of fleecing her. You know, prosecutors have - here in New York, federal prosecutors have said that he basically stole her book advance, which he had helped her sell that book. And, yeah, so those charges are still pending right now.

ROTHFELD: But the larger point of the transactional nature of all of these events and in general of this side of Donald Trump's life which brought all of these people, we kind of call it the vulgar circus, right? This is like - he's a reality star, he's a celebrity, he's in the tabloids, and then when he runs for president and becomes president, all of these people are kind of dragged onto the international stage. And, you know, you have porn stars and scandal brokers. So it's a very unusual thing to have with a presidency.

GROSS: When you started publishing stories about Stormy Daniels and the hush money, what kind of pushback did you get from the National Enquirer, from AMI, from Trump's people?

PALAZZOLO: Well, American Media - when we first published the stories about Stormy Daniels, we actually didn't know the extent of American Media's involvement in kind of brokering that deal, even though Michael Cohen was the one who paid it. But the White House sort of refused to address the question. They brushed us off by saying, these allegations have been - speaking of the affair, these allegations have been refuted. We've already answered this. And we said, you know, no, you haven't answered the question of whether or not Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, paid a porn star on his behalf. And they just - they refused to answer that question.

And in press conferences, back when those used to happen in the White House, you know, the - Trump's press secretaries were very effective in kind of batting away questions. They for, you know, more than a month - I mean, weeks - they were able to kind of sidestep this question of whether or not hush money was paid on the president's behalf.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us my guests are Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, two reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for their 2018 reporting on the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal stories and the hush money that was paid by Trump and Michael Cohen. The book is called "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for their 2018 reporting on the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who had a relationship with Donald Trump. Their new book based on that reporting and extra reporting is called "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President."

Let's talk about your reporting on Karen McDougal. How did you first get onto this story?

PALAZZOLO: It was in October of 2016, very close to the election. And my editor - he was the head of the law bureau at the Wall Street Journal - Ashby Jones had gotten a tip. The tipster said, there's a guy going around paying off all of Trump's women. That was kind of it. His name, you know, begins with a K, or his initials are K.D. Eventually, Ashby went back to the source and got confirmation that the first name was Keith, and that brought us pretty soon to Keith Davidson, who - you know, a quick Google search will show he represents plaintiffs and women who have had affairs with powerful men and helps them enter into nondisclosure agreements to keep those affairs hidden in return for money for his clients.

GROSS: So did Davidson encourage Karen McDougal, who had been a Playmate centerfold - did he encourage her to try to sell her story about her relationship with Trump?

PALAZZOLO: Well, they get connected - Keith and Karen get connected through a mutual acquaintance because, you know, Karen - actually, one of Karen's other friends was encouraging her to sell the story. There had been some tweets, some kind of vague tweets about her affair with Trump. And by the way, this affair was a 10-month affair, roughly, that unfolded over 2006 and 2007.

Anyway, so as these allegations are kind of resurfacing or, you know, news of the affair's resurfacing, her friend encourages her to kind of get ahead of it, tell it on her terms. And then she's connected to Keith Davidson. But she's kind of reluctant. She's conflicted. She doesn't necessarily want to go forward with it. But she also wants to - you know, she also wants to be able to advance her career. At the same time, she at one point says, I don't want to be another Monica Lewinsky, when they're actually - when they're in talks with American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer.

So she goes back and forth about whether she wants to go public with it, balancing that against what it may or may not do for her career.

GROSS: My guests are Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, authors of the new book "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel that she says is getting the literary new year off to a good start. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED PALERMO BIG BAND'S "LET'S MOVE TO CLEVELAND")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld about their new book "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." They shared a 2019 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in The Wall Street Journal on the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to prevent them from going public about their affairs with Donald Trump. The National Enquirer paid Karen McDougal; Michael Cohen, who was then at the time Trump's personal attorney, paid Daniels. The new book expands on that reporting.

The National Enquirer bought McDougal's story with the purpose of preventing it from ever being published and preventing her from talking to anyone else in the media - catch and kill. When we left off, we were talking about Karen McDougal's mixed feelings about selling her story.

So Keith Davidson, after starting to represent Karen McDougal - and again, he is the lawyer who has experience helping clients profit from dirt on celebrities - he goes to the National Enquirer and tries to sell the story to them. Tell us about how that negotiation goes.

ROTHFELD: He calls Dylan Howard, who - the editor of the National Enquirer, who he's also been dealing with for many years through these various scandals that he works with clients on. And Howard flies out to LA in June of 2016, and they have a meeting with Davidson, Dylan Howard and Karen McDougal. And they spend hours going through every detail of Karen's story about Trump. And what Howard really wants to know is, what evidence does she have? Does she have text messages? Does she have anything that would prove that she had an affair with Trump?

Now, I mean, there's - that's kind of a two-sided question, right? One is, do you have evidence so we could publish a story? Or alternatively, do you have evidence so that, you know, we know whether or not you're a threat to Trump because he's working for David Pecker, who has already made this promise to protect Trump. She does actually not have - or at least at the time she can't find any evidence. And so after the meeting, Howard says - well, first of all, he calls Michael Cohen and David Pecker and reports back the fact that she doesn't have any evidence. And then they decide, well, she's not an immediate threat because she doesn't have this evidence. And so they say no, and they decide not to buy the story at that time.

GROSS: And then what?

ROTHFELD: Well, then what happens is Karen McDougal starts looking for other alternatives because her modeling career is kind of on the downswing, she wants - she's now a fitness buff, and she kind of wants to get more publicity for herself. So she's looking for exposure. So Keith Davidson then approaches ABC and starts talking to them about Karen. And she starts conversations with some investigative reporting team there, Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz, and they have extensive meetings with Karen, and they're very interested in doing a piece on Karen. And they're going to do that. They're - it's late July, early August of 2016.

And Karen is still reluctant because she isn't so sure - A, ABC can't pay, and, B, she doesn't necessarily want to be in the media. So Keith Davidson goes back to the National Enquirer and says, hey, she's very close to doing this with ABC News. Now are you interested? And then - and by the way, in the intervening weeks, Donald Trump has called David Pecker and asked him personally to help out with this. So when they - when Keith Davidson comes back, the National Enquirer is now interested, and they make a deal to pay Karen $150,000 for her story of an affair with a then-married man. Plus, they offer her magazine covers and health columns as well.

GROSS: So AMI's buying her story in order to suppress it - a catch and kill thing. But ABC is already onto the story. They've already started investigating it. So wasn't AMI concerned that ABC would go with what they had, that they'd have something to cast - you know, something that would be damaging to Trump?

PALAZZOLO: Well, so Davidson, very soon after arranging for Karen to meet with ABC reporters, you know, he has them sign what is effectively an NDA - anything that's provided in those conversations can't be used on the air by ABC. And he - really, the whole time that he's dealing with ABC, he's still talking to Dylan Howard and the National Enquirer because, again, ABC can't pay; the National Enquirer obviously can pay. So he's really bouncing them off of each other to get the best deal for Karen.

GROSS: So the $150,000 in hush money that the Enquirer pays Karen McDougal - did the Enquirer expect to be reimbursed by Trump?

ROTHFELD: Yes. Michael Cohen told David Pecker that he would get repaid for that, and they start negotiating to have that repayment made. Michael Cohen sets up a shell company called Resolution Consultants on September 30 of 2016. And they even create a contract under which they're only going to get $125,000 back because they also had this additional content that Karen was contracted to do so - essentially, as a cover-up for the hush money deal they put in this, these magazine covers and health columns. But that had some value. So they're only going to get repaid $125,000 from Donald Trump.

But it doesn't end up happening because David Pecker asks a lawyer, hey, if I sell this to Donald Trump, like, what - do I have any legal exposure for possibly a campaign finance violation? And the lawyer says, absolutely do not do that. So Pecker tells Michael Cohen to tear up that contract, and Cohen did not end up tearing it up because it was later recovered by the FBI.

GROSS: So explain to us more what this document was that AMI asked Cohen to rip up but Cohen saved.

PALAZZOLO: So this was agreement - this was an agreement between Michael Cohen and Donald Trump and American Media. And basically, what it did was transfer the rights to Karen McDougal's story, which American Media had purchased, you know, under the $150,000 contract - it would transfer those rights over to Donald Trump and Michael Cohen.

So basically, they would own the story rights to that to do with as they please. And, you know, that meant that they could sort of conceal them, and they wouldn't have to worry about kind of the - American Media having those rights, and you know, if David Pecker left the scene for some reason and they were just lying around, someone else could have picked them up. So this was a way of securing those rights and making sure that no one else could use them.

GROSS: And so the Enquirer - so American Media eventually asked Cohen to rip up that agreement because it could be incriminating for AMI because it could look like a campaign contribution?

PALAZZOLO: Yeah. So David Pecker, before he entered into the American Media - the deal with Karen McDougal, they had actually sought advice from a lawyer, a campaign finance expert. And he came away from that interaction at least understanding that because they had kind of padded the contract with these - this content deal to put Karen McDougal on two magazine covers and the option of publishing health columns under her name. They created another reason for this thing to exist other than the hush money payment. But when it came time to transfer those rights over to Trump, Pecker asks his - you know, lets his lawyer know that this is going to happen. His lawyer's basically like, you're crazy. You're transferring this asset, the rights to her story, this thing that you purchased and that you sort of concealed using the content. And you're just giving it over to Michael Cohen. So you're essentially nullifying whatever protection you thought you had by transferring these rights over.

GROSS: So American Media and Trump want to cover up the Karen McDougal story. How does the story get out anyway?

PALAZZOLO: So the Wall Street Journal gets the tip in October of 2016. And we immediately start kind of, you know, reporting around the one person in the story we know, who's Keith Davidson. Eventually, through inquiries and kind of sourcing up in this world, we figure out that Karen McDougal had been in talks with ABC and that she had sort of suddenly stopped. And, you know, after eventually more reporting, reporting, reporting - and we kind of strike gold because we find someone who's willing to give us this contract between Karen McDougal and National Enquirer - and The National Enquirer.

And, you know, so through an intermediary - kind of this funny scene where I'm in Grand Central Terminal, you know, taking a manila folder from this person has the contract in it, also has Karen McDougal's retainer agreement with Keith Davidson? So importantly, The National Enquirer contract, the American Media contract - it doesn't mention Donald Trump at all. It just says that, you know, they're buying the rights for any affair she had with a, quote, "then-married man." But the retainer agreement that we have shows that Karen had retained Keith specifically for the reason of potentially selling the rights to her story of an interaction with Donald Trump. So we have the contract on the one hand, and then we have the retainer agreement on the other. And it doesn't take us long to stand those up and verify their authenticity. And so then we publish the story just four days before the election in November of 2016.

GROSS: And your story revealed which aspect of this?

PALAZZOLO: That's - it revealed that American Media had paid Karen McDougal $150,000 for her story with no intention of publishing it. At that time, we didn't know the extent to which Donald Trump or Michael Cohen were involved. All we knew was that David Pecker was an ally of the president, that they'd had a relationship - well, then-candidate Trump - that they'd had a relationship going back decades. But, you know, at least it was enough to say - or what we knew at the time was that an ally of the president, someone who had been boosting his campaign, bought this story to kill it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for their 2018 reporting on hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Joe Palazzolo is still with The Wall Street Journal. Michael Rothfeld is now with the New York Times. Their new book is called "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY SONG, "TWELVE'S IT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld. They're the authors of the new book The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." The book is an expansion of the reporting that they did in 2018 that won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize. The reporting was on hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. So when you started publishing your Karen McDougal story, what response did you get from all the parties involved - McDougal, her lawyer, the National Enquirer and American Media, Donald Trump, Michael Cohen?

ROTHFELD: Well, the National Enquirer told us that they did not buy a story about Karen McDougal to kill it and that they had paid her for magazine covers and health columns, none of which they had actually done. So this had happened in early August. They had this contract. And she's supposed to do these health columns - we're now in early November, so there were no health columns. But, essentially, they claimed - and this was their preprepared defense, right? When they made this contract, they purposely included these content provisions as kind of a smoke screen. So that was the story they gave us.

The White House told us - Hope Hicks, Trump's spokeswoman, told us that, we know nothing about any of this. Now, she may not have, but Trump clearly did, so that was not true. And Michael Cohen we did not contact 'cause at the time, we didn't know he was directly involved in it. But we know now that, behind the scenes, he was crafting messaging, and he was gloating that, you know, this story, which was, like, right at the end of the campaign - there was a lot going on with Hillary Clinton's emails in Trump's victory. So this story didn't really get that much attention. And we know Cohen was gloating about that.

GROSS: So if you look at how Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels tried to monetize the stories of their relationship with Trump and then you look at how the National Enquirer tried to buy Karen McDougal's silence and Michael Cohen tried to buy Stormy Daniels' silence - and then, like, McDougal and Daniels also had their lawyers, who were also trying to monetize the relationship. So who are the biggest losers here, and what did they lose, and are there any winners, outside of the truth emerging?

ROTHFELD: Well, I mean, not...

GROSS: I mean, you're winners.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You uncovered a lot of this story, and we're all winners as a result of that. But...

ROTHFELD: Well, I mean, not to be sanctimonious about it, but, like, the whole reason for doing the story was to tell people what happened during the election that they didn't know about at the time when it was happening, which is, you know, you can be the judge of how important it is to you to know who Donald Trump may have had an affair with. But the fact that he and his lawyer and his friends in the tabloid media were working to keep information from the voting public during the presidential election, like, that I'd say sheds light on how Trump operates, which is - you know, what we tried to do in the book was to show this was a pattern of covering things up and using people to do it for him that goes back many years.

GROSS: And financially, in terms of the characters in the story, who are the biggest winners and losers?

PALAZZOLO: So, you know, Michael Cohen, obviously, is serving a three-year sentence for, you know, crimes connected to the payment, among others. And Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, you know, maybe they got what they wanted in terms of raising their profile, but - and Stormy Daniels is still touring. Right now, she has her book out. But, you know, she also had to hire a lot of security, and there were definitely downsides to being thrust in the spotlight like that, and I think the same is true for Karen McDougal.

And actually, now Stormy Daniels, you know, she had sued Donald Trump to get out of the agreement, originally, and then her and Michael Avenatti had filed other lawsuits. And one of those lawsuits, a libel lawsuit against President Trump, you know, they lost on a preliminary motion, and now they owe him attorneys fees. And she owes him, you know, twice as much, more than twice as much, as she was paid to keep quiet in attorney's fees, so not a winner in that sense.

GROSS: So the National Enquirer because of, like, your reporting and Ronan Farrow's reporting - Jeffrey Toobin reported on the Enquirer - other people as well have reported on the whole catch and kill aspect of the National Enquirer, both in this story and of course also in the Harvey Weinstein story, what is the state of the National Enquirer now and of its owner, American Media?

PALAZZOLO: So right now the Enquirer is on the block. It's after - all of the reporting that you mentioned and even more recent reporting, the National Enquirer had reported on the affair of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. And Bezos and Trump - Trump has made his dislike of Jeff Bezos very obvious. And so immediately after that story came out, there - the sort of narrative of David Pecker helping Donald Trump by slamming one of his enemies kind of congealed, whether it was true or not. And American Media's financial backers basically had enough at that point. They were done with all the scandals involving the Enquirer. And so they put the tabloids up for sale. But that sale hasn't gone through yet.

GROSS: And are Dylan Howard and David Pecker still in the positions they had during the election?

PALAZZOLO: David Pecker is still the chief executive of American Media right now. Dylan Howard has been moved over to a less sort of editorial role at American Media. He's kind of handling special projects for them right now.

GROSS: I want to thank you both for your reporting and for being a guest on our show. Thank you.

ROTHFELD: Thanks, Terry.

PALAZZOLO: Thank you.

GROSS: Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld are the authors of the new book "The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President." Palazzolo is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Rothfeld is now with The New York Times.

After we take a short break, our book critic Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "American Dirt." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUADRO NUEVO'S "TU VUO' FA' L'AMERICANO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.