This is an adapted excerpt from The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, and Porn Stars Who Created the 45th President, by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, to be published Tuesday by Random House.
Before it emerged, reporters had already focused on allegations of Trump making unwanted sexual advances and objectifying women. Afterward, more women came forward with stories about the Republican candidate’s bad behavior.
They told of incidents that could have been charted on a map like stops on a cross-country trip spanning the decades; women spoke of unpleasant and unwelcome encounters with Trump at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, at Mar-a-Lago, on the set of The Apprentice, at beauty pageants, during a flight, in a nightclub, and on and on, all consonant with the Access Hollywood revelation.
Trump denied all the accusations but issued a videotaped apology for the explosive report, saying that the words he had spoken on the tape “don’t reflect who I am.”
“I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them,” he said. “I said it. I was wrong. And I apologize.”
The media frenzy breathed oxygen into Daniels’s flagging efforts to sell the story of her own Trump tryst. Extramarital sex with a porn star, even one who’d slept with Trump willingly, would still damage his fading chances. Her agent, Gina Rodriguez, had already begun talks about Daniels with Good Morning America. They weren’t advanced, but they were a card Rodriguez could now play.
On Saturday, October 8, following the worst day of Trump’s campaign, Rodriguez, Dylan Howard, then the editor of American Media’s National Enquirer, and lawyer Keith Davidson began a series of conversations about Stormy Daniels that would last into the night. They realized her story was more marketable now than it had been when Rodriguez first pitched Howard in April, before the Access Hollywood tape placed Trump’s treatment of women in the national spotlight.
“Trump is fucked,” Davidson texted Howard that afternoon. The editor agreed: “Wave the white flag. It’s over people!”
A few hours later, Davidson emailed Rodriguez: “Have you heard from Stormy lately?” Howard followed up with her about a half hour later. He asked Daniels’s manager to send him a pitch so he could elevate it to his boss, David Pecker.
“He likely will pay,” Howard texted.
Rodriguez emailed him a brief description of her client’s claims:
- Donald Trump had sex with Stormy Daniels while his current wife was pregnant.
- He flew Stormy to his Pageant and told her he would get her on Celebrity Apprentice which he never did.
- She met him while at a celebrity golf tournament and The Wicked girls were at the event.
- Stormy will take a lie detector and go on the record.
As the discussions about Daniels took shape, Michael Cohen was visiting his daughter in London, where she had enrolled in a study-abroad program for college. He hadn’t been in regular touch with Trump or Hope Hicks, the candidate’s spokeswoman, in recent weeks. But now they sought him out as the Access Hollywood scandal roiled the campaign.
On that Saturday night in London, Cohen had a conference call with Hicks and Trump, followed by a call with Hicks alone. Hicks had heard from another campaign aide that a rumor was circulating of another tape, this one of Trump cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow during a trip there for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
Hicks had been told that TMZ might have access to the tape, and she knew that Cohen was close to Harvey Levin, the gossip outlet’s founder. Hicks asked Cohen to let her know if he heard anything from Levin. She also impressed on him, in the event he spoke to any reporters, that the campaign’s messaging was that Trump’s remarks on the Access Hollywood recording were merely “locker room talk.”
The Moscow tape was bad, but it was just a rumor. Cohen had a more immediate problem. He learned from Pecker and Howard that Daniels was still shopping her story. Cohen, Pecker, and Howard exchanged a series of calls after Cohen got off the phone with Hicks.
Cohen lobbied Pecker to buy Daniels’s story, and for a brief time that Saturday night it seemed as if American Media might repeat the favor the publisher had done for Trump in a “catch and kill” deal by locking up Karen McDougal’s story.
Less than an hour after receiving the pitch from Rodriguez that Howard had requested, he texted her to set a price.
“How much for Stormy?” Howard wrote.
“250k,” Rodriguez replied.
She told Howard that Good Morning America and the British tabloid the Daily Mail were both hot for the story. The ABC show had expressed some interest but didn’t pay sources. Rodriguez had fabricated the $250,000 offer from the Daily Mail, hoping to goad American Media into buying.
“Well I will buy it but I ain’t got 250K! Lol. GMA can’t pay her—they can license pix etc. I will tie it up ASAP if we can get a realistic price,” Howard texted.
He told Rodriguez he could get her $100,000 for the story, an offer she rejected with an “Lol,” before starting a rapid-fire negotiation by text.
“Ok what about 150k,” Rodriguez countered.
“110,” Howard replied.
“125k,” Rodriguez responded.
“120,” Howard hit back.
“Sold,” Rodriguez wrote.
But it wasn’t sold. Howard still needed approval from Pecker to buy the story. He told Rodriguez he’d be back in touch by the following morning.
Minutes after signing off with Rodriguez, Howard texted his boss.
“Woman wants 120k. Has offers from Mail and GMA want her to talk and do lie detector live. I know the denials were made in the past—but this story is true. I can lock it on publication now to shut down the media chatter and we can assess next steps thereafter. Ok?”
“We can’t pay 120k,” Pecker texted back.
Howard realized that Daniels would be Cohen and Trump’s problem now.
“Ok. They’d need to handle. Perhaps I call Michael and advise him and he can take it from there, and handle,” Howard said.
“Yes a good idea,” Pecker texted.
After speaking with Howard once more, Cohen was ready to do a deal, but he didn’t have anyone to deal with.
Gina Rodriguez wasn’t a lawyer, and anyway Cohen had already threatened to end her career and sue her and Daniels into oblivion. She wasn’t going to negotiate with him directly.
Howard, now the middleman, turned to Davidson, a friend with whom he shared celebrity gossip, but Davidson was still wary of Cohen. When Davidson had tested the idea of a deal for Daniels’s story in September, Cohen responded with fury and threats.
Davidson needed convincing that Cohen was willing to negotiate in good faith. Howard agreed to contact Cohen (again) to vouch for Davidson and to get Cohen’s assurances that he wouldn’t try to ambush Davidson. When they spoke, Howard told Cohen that Davidson was a friend. Be nice, he said.
Davidson soon relented and agreed to negotiate with Cohen. Howard, having brokered the peace, first texted Pecker to let him know that Cohen had agreed to handle the story and leave American out of it. “Spoke to MC. All sorted. Now removed. No fingerprints. I’ll recap with you face to face,” Howard said. “Great work Thx,” Pecker replied.
Howard then texted Cohen to let him know Davidson had come around. “Keith will do it. Let’s reconvene tomorrow,” Howard said in a text to Cohen. Cohen, for whom it was past 2 a.m., texted back after waking up. “Thank you,” he replied. He texted again a few minutes later to give Howard the name of his shell company, Resolution Consultants, which Cohen planned to use to funnel the money to Davidson.
Rodriguez kept up the pressure on October 9, telling Howard that she had another offer for Daniels’s story, this one for $200,000, a lie meant to prod the deal along. After waking up the next morning, a Monday, Howard checked in with Rodriguez and linked Cohen and Davidson via text, using coded language.
“Keith/Michael: connecting you both in regards to that business opportunity. Spoke to the client this AM and they’re confirmed to proceed with the opportunity. Thanks. Dylan. Over to you two.”
Davidson texted Cohen about an hour and a half later. “Michael—if we are ever going to close this deal—In my opinion, it needs to be today. Keith.”
The two lawyers soon got on a call. Cohen wanted to buy the story, but he balked at Daniels’s six-figure demand.
“You forget what I do. I know everybody in this business. This story isn’t worth shit,” Cohen said.
Davidson said $130,000 was as low as Rodriguez and Daniels were willing to go. Daniels wanted to get at least $100,000. After Rodriguez’s commission and Davidson’s $10,000 fee, she would get around $96,000—close enough.
“That’s the drop-dead number,” Davidson told Cohen.
He told Cohen that Daniels had a competing offer from a media company. Cohen pressed Davidson for details, but he pleaded ignorance. It was Rodriguez’s deal, he said. Davidson told Cohen he knew only that the company had offered $130,000.
In fact, Rodriguez had no offer. She had invented it to use as leverage with Cohen, just as she had concocted the other offers she used to try to entice Howard. It worked.
Three days after a video of Trump talking about grabbing women by their genitals entered the public domain, Cohen and Davidson had a deal. Cohen reluctantly agreed to match the offer he believed Daniels had from another company, and, in return, Daniels would sign a contract barring her from discussing her alleged one-night stand with Trump.
Davidson drafted the contract and used pseudonyms to conceal the names of the parties, a typical practice in deals of this kind. Trump was identified as David Dennison and Daniels was described as Peggy Peterson. Davidson had borrowed the name David Dennison from a guy he knew in high school; Peggy Peterson was also his creation. In the contract, the names were shortened to the initials “DD” and “PP,” indicating that Trump was the defendant and Daniels was the plaintiff.
American Media’s payment to Karen McDougal and involvement in the Stormy Daniels deal would bring the publisher to the brink of criminal prosecution by federal authorities in Manhattan. But Pecker, Howard and American Media avoided charges by cooperating with the federal prosecutors, who used their information against Michael Cohen.
Howard acknowledged the personal risk he had taken in helping Trump, in a series of previously unreported text messages sent on election night.
“Jesus. He’s in with a massive chance,” Howard wrote in a 10:20 p.m. text to his relative in Australia, where it was already the afternoon of the next day. The Enquirer’s editor’s family members didn’t like Trump.
“Oh no. When will we know,” came the reply from the family member.
“Probably an hour or so. But he’s flipped states no one expected him to do. Or they’re neck and neck,” Howard messaged, before offering a bit of gallows humor.
“At least if he wins, I’ll be pardoned for electoral fraud,” Howard wrote.
The Daily Beast also asked the authors of The Fixers for their thoughts on Trump’s key fixers:
The First Fixer, Roy Cohn shepherded young Donald Trump through the Manhattan scene of the 1970s, introducing him to Cohn’s famous friends and to New York politicians who could help Trump’s business. Cohn’s work for Trump including acting as a bridge between Trump and organized criminals who dominated the construction industry; lying about Trump’s net worth to improve his client’s standing on the Forbes 400; and helping Trump obtain a 40-year tax abatement, the longest in city history, for his Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.
Michael Cohen, a personal injury lawyer and taxi medallion owner, went to work for the Trump Organization in 2007, the year after he helped Trump defeat a condo board uprising at one of his buildings. Cohen, who wore a pistol in an ankle holster, used threats to kill negative media stories, including about alleged affairs involving Stormy Daniels and Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. and Aubrey O’Day. Before the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen tried to rig online polls in Trump’s favor. In 2016, he paid Daniels $130,000 for her silence and helped orchestrate a $150,000 payment by the National Enquirer’s publisher to former Playmate Karen McDougal to buy her story of an affair with Trump. After Cohen was investigated for those payments and other crimes, he pleaded guilty, pointed his finger at Trump, and was given a three-year prison term.
Pecker used his National Enquirer and other tabloids to boost political Trump ambitions in 1999, 2011, and 2015-16, while attacking his opponents. He suppressed negative stories about Trump over the years, while puffing up Trump in his pages with labels like “ga-jillionaire.” In 2015, his company paid $30,000 to a former Trump doorman who was peddling a rumor about a Trump love child, suppressing the story. The next year, Pecker authorized the “catch and kill” contract with McDougal and helped broker the Stormy Daniels deal with Cohen. He used his publications to help other powerful associates, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ron Perelman.
While Giuliani was U.S. attorney in Manhattan in the late 1980s, Giuliani’s office interviewed Trump in an inquiry into his possible money-laundering involving a Trump Tower real-estate deal. The matter was dropped without becoming a formal investigation. Around that time, Trump became co-chairman of Giuliani’s losing 1989 New York City mayoral campaign. In 2016, Giuliani backed Trump for president. He joined Trump’s legal team in 2018, to fight the Mueller investigation into Russian interference and potential obstruction by Trump. Giuliani attacked Cohen in the media after he turned against Trump. In 2019, Giuliani pressed authorities in Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. He also helped engineer the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine, whom he saw as unfavorable to Trump’s interests.
Before he was confirmed attorney general of the United States, William Barr sent an unsolicited 19-page page memo to the Justice Department describing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction investigation of Trump as “fatally misconceived.” Once in office, Barr determined, with his deputy, that Mueller had gathered insufficient evidence to establish obstruction. More recently, Barr has been supervising an investigation of the origins of the FBI’s probe into links between the Trump campaign and Russia. He and the federal prosecutor leading the investigation have disputed a finding by the Justice Department’s watchdog that the FBI was justified in opening the counterintelligence investigation in 2016. In congressional testimony, Barr characterized the covert investigation as "spying."