Trump escapes FEC sanction for hush money, National Enquirer publisher pays fine

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Karen McDougal, Playboy Playmate of the Year 1998.

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The Federal Election Commission will let former President Donald Trump avoid punishment for directing hush money payments to his alleged ex-mistress Karen McDougal — but the publisher of The National Enquirer agreed to pay more than $187,500 for its role in the scandal, records showed Tuesday.

The FEC recently likewise failed to approve a recommendation from staff that it sanction Trump for directing a $130,000 hush money payout to former porn star Stormy Daniels, who has said she had sex with him years ago, according to the advocacy group Common Cause.

That group had filed FEC complaints related to payments to both women.

Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted to paying off Daniels at Trump’s behest shortly before the 2016 presidential election.

In McDougal’s case, American Media — the then-publisher of the tabloid Enquirer, and its boss David Pecker — paid the former Playboy model McDougal $150,000 to keep her quiet about her claims of an affair with Trump before the same election.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal campaign finance violations related to facilitating payoffs to both women, as well as to other crimes, and served more than a year in prison.

AMI signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in which it admitted it made the payment to McDougal to avoid her going public about her alleged affair and influencing the 2016 election.

The company’s payment to the FEC came in response to a finding by the commission that AMI and Pecker had knowingly and willfully violated campaign finance law by making “prohibited corporate in-kind contributions” to Trump’s campaign with the payoff to McDougal.

Federal prosecutors have said, without actually naming Trump, that he directed Cohen to facilitate the payments to both women. Trump was never criminally prosecuted in the case.

“Trump masterminded this whole thing, and so far he’s walked,” Common Cause vice president of policy and litigation Paul Ryan said.

“Everyone who carried out his dirty work here, Cohen and AMI, paid penalties and did prison time.”

“It’s good news that the Federal Election Commission is holding the tabloid company AMI accountable for its illegal actions in the 2016 election,” Ryan added. “But it’s head-scratching that the mastermind of this criminal enterprise, Donald Trump, has still not been held accountable.”

Trump has denied having sex with either McDougal or Daniels. But he and his company reimbursed Cohen for his payment to Daniels.

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Common Cause provided CNBC copies of FEC records it received in connection with the case on Tuesday.

In a letter to Ryan, acting FEC general counsel Lisa Stevenson wrote: “The Commission found reason to believe that respondents David J. Pecker and American Media, Inc. knowingly and willfully violated 52 U.S.C. § 30118(a).”

“On May 17, 2021, a conciliation agreement signed by A360 Media, LLC, as successor in interest to American Media, Inc. was accepted by the Commission and the Commission closed the file as to Pecker and American Media, Inc.,” the letter said.

The letter went on to say: “There were an insufficient number of votes to find reason to believe that the remaining respondents violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.”

Ryan said the other respondents were Trump and his election committee.

AMI merged last year with the wholesale distribution and logistics company Accelerate360, with the merged entity known as A360Media. Pecker stepped aside as CEO and became an executive advisor, according to press reports at the time.

Ryan said he suspects that two Republican FEC commissioners who voted against sanctioning Trump for the Daniels hush money payments also voted against punishing him for the McDougal payments. Two Democratic commissioners voted to continue the probe.

The Washington Post reported last month that those two GOP commissioners, Sean Cooksey and Trey Trainor, “said they voted to dismiss the case because it was ‘statute-of-limitations imperiled’ and that pursuing it further would be a poor use of agency resources.”

The Post also noted that, “They argued that because there had been other federal inquiries into the incident — namely the Justice Department probe that led to Cohen’s prosecution — an FEC case would be redundant.”

Ryan said the votes will eventually be publicly disclosed by the FEC.

An FEC spokeswoman declined to comment, saying records in the case were not yet cleared by public release by the agency.

CNBC has sought comment from A360 and a representative for Trump.

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