National Enquirer parties at his posh hotel!
No dirt on Donald checks out, sez editor!
An army of crazed monkeys. John Belushi’s drug dealer. Lee Harvey Oswald’s autopsy photo. The contents of Henry Kissinger’s trash cans. A woman who used her son’s face as an ashtray.
The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
Over the years, an array of jaw-dropping oddities has drawn readers to the National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid that pioneered the paying of sources and subjects for salacious scoops. Now it is the real estate developer’s turn on top.
“Our readers have a great affection and fondness for Donald Trump,” editor-in-chief Dylan Howard said in a recent interview. “It’s a readership that is disenfranchised. They do not like the political establishment. They see Donald Trump as someone who will champion their cause, just like the National Enquirer has championed their cause for many decades.”
That affection for Trump from a readership that has long accepted the Enquirer’s blurring of truth and fiction—and never tired of its stories of get-rich-quick schemes—is a mutual one.
In 2011, shortly after Trump announced he would not run for the Republican nomination for president, the Enquirer published an article headlined, “Millions Implore Donald Trump to Reconsider New Presidential Run.” Eventually, Trump obliged. And soon after he declared his candidacy last summer, he gave Enquirer readers a world exclusive, in which he explained why he was running. “I am the only one who can make America great again!” he wrote.
More first-person essays from Trump followed. So did a flurry of articles from the Enquirer’s staff knocking his Republican primary opponents: Ben Carson was a “bungling surgeon,” Jeb Bush had “sleazy cheating scandals,” Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Each of the candidates, or their surrogates, quickly disputed the Enquirer's reporting.) In March, the Enquirer endorsed Trump for president—its first endorsement in its 90-year history.
And when the Enquirer throws itself a 90th birthday party Thursday night, it will do so, naturally, at the Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan.
It wasn’t always thus. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Trump was just another of the countless celebrities whose affairs, scandals, and weight gains make up the paper’s weekly coverage. In 1990, the Enquirer ran a cover story headlined, “Trump’s Mistress Cheats on Donald with Tom Cruise.”
That coverage has since shifted—a change some news reports have suggested may be linked to Trump’s friendship with David Pecker, who has been chief executive officer and chairman of the Enquirer’s publisher American Media Inc. since 1999. “I have known Donald Trump for 25 years and I am proud to call him a friend. I support his candidacy for President and greatly admire what he has achieved in a relatively short period of time as a non-politician,” Pecker said in a statement. The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Howard, named editor-in-chief of the Enquirer in 2014, said that the paper’s readers, not his boss, have steered the Enquirer into Trump-friendly waters.
Howard said that not long ago the Enquirer conducted an extensive poll of its readers’ political preferences. The results came back overwhelmingly in favor of Trump. “My duty is to my readers,” said Howard. “I made the decision to endorse Donald Trump. Nobody influences the editorial decision-making process at the National Enquirer other than myself and our editors. We have not been told, at any point, to go easy on Mr. Trump.”
If the Enquirer digs up a titillating scoop on Trump, the paper will publish it, Howard said—if, that is, the tip can live up to the paper’s standards of truth. “What we do, that the mainstream media doesn’t do, is that we put people through lie-detector tests to prove the validity of their information,” said Howard.
No juicy revelations about Trump have thus far managed to pass the Enquirer’s polygraph test, he said. “The reality is we’ve been approached by a significant amount of people who claim nefarious stories on Donald Trump,” Howard said. “I’ve investigated every single one of them. Many of them are without foundation.”
(Not all the paper’s Trump coverage has been overtly rosy. The Enquirer published one story about people styling their pets’ fur to resemble Trump’s comb-over. “We can only imagine The Donald is unhappy that he didn’t cash in on this billion-dollar idea himself,” noted the article.)
The paper has had no trouble digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton, particularly on her health. According to its recent reporting, Clinton is suffering from frequent fainting spells due to blood clots in her brain—and possibly from brain cancer. She's also, it reported, suffering from depression. And post-concussion syndrome. And alcoholism. And paranoia. And lung cancer. And the early stages of multiple sclerosis. One story said the “desperate and deteriorating 67-year-old won’t make it to the White House—because she’ll be dead in six months.” That was 11 months ago. (Clinton released a letter from her personal physician this month revealing that she was alive and not suffering from any of the ailments the Enquirer had reported.)
In July, the Enquirer hired its first-ever political columnist in Dick Morris, former Clinton adviser turned unremitting critic. He has churned out a steady barrage of columns pillorying Clinton since. “This followed the research into our readership,” said Howard. “To me, Dick Morris was a significant hire, because it underscores our commitment to investigating political candidates.”
Clinton hit back last month during a speech in Reno, Nev., in which she accused Trump of spreading “dark conspiracy theories” taken from the pages of “supermarket tabloids” and the “far, dark reaches of the Internet.”
“This is what happens when you treat the National Enquirer like gospel,” she said.
Howard said he felt flattered by the call-out. “It’s not just Hillary Clinton,” he said. “We have a long and proud history of unmasking presidential candidates.”
For decades, the Enquirer ignored politics entirely, favoring stories with more universal appeal—gory accidents, freak shows, miracle cures, aging actresses, get-rich-quick tricks, celebrity divorces, deadbeat dads. But by the '80s, politicians' scandals bordered on relevant to the tabloid. It made its first major political splash in 1987, when it published a photo of Gary Hart sitting on a dock with a woman named Donna Rice on his lap. When the photo was published, Hart had already suspended his presidential campaign.
The photo was a sensation. The Enquirer, which had paid $50,000 for the shot, sold the secondary rights to papers the world over, according to Jack Vitek’s book about the history of the paper. Henceforth, politics would appear in the Enquirer's pages.
In 1996, the Enquirer uncovered and interviewed a former mistress of then-presidential candidate Bob Dole. A few years later, the paper broke a story revealing that Jesse Jackson had fathered a child outside his marriage. It broke the biggest politics story in its history between 2007 and 2009, revealing that then-presidential candidate John Edwards was having an extramarital affair with filmmaker Rielle Hunter and that they had secretly had a baby together.
During the Enquirer’s subsequent victory lap, there was speculation that the paper could win a Pulitzer Prize. Then-editor Barry Levine told the New York Times it was considering opening a full-fledged Washington bureau.
The Enquirer never got around to that. Nevertheless, Howard said, the paper has dedicated serious resources to its political coverage and is still paying for scoops he promises “will shake the election to its very core.”
Readers, he said, are reacting well to the political stories, which often result in a 20 percent to 30 percent bump in sales. Two of the Enquirer's three bestselling issues so far this year featured politics on their covers: “The Donald Trump Nobody Knows!” and “What They’re Hiding.”
Even so, the popularity of the paper’s print edition is far diminished from what it once was. During the first six months of this year, it had an average weekly circulation of 342,071 readers, according to the Alliance for Audited Media—down from 5 million to 6 million copies a week in the late 1970s. In August, the paper attracted 851,000 unique visitors on the web, according to ComScore.
Now, in the final weeks before the presidential election, Howard suggests his paper’s lie-detector machines could get plenty of action.
“We do good old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground reporting that much of the mainstream media doesn’t do today,” he said. “My checkbook is big, and it is open.”