When the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump emerged in the home stretch of the 2016 election, it should have been a gift from the tabloid gods for TMZ.
Instead, the celebrity gossip website went into overdrive to help Trump.
Within a week of the tape’s explosion, TMZ ran “exclusive” after “exclusive” giving Trump cover. There was a story that Bill Clinton made “disparaging remarks” about women when he played golf with Trump—as Trump claimed Clinton did when the tape dropped. Another story claimed NBC executives “had a plan to time the release” of the tape to sink Trump. There was also an item from a former Miss Teen USA saying she never had a bad experience with Trump after he was accused of leering at nude girls backstage.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise: It was the result of a cozy relationship between TMZ founder and boss Harvey Levin and Trump, who called each other throughout the campaign, seven sources told The Daily Beast.
“Leading up to the election there were many phone calls between Harvey and Trump. Harvey was in close contact with the Trump team frequently,” said a former TMZ top executive who, like others, spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from Levin.
“There was a point Harvey would make jokes in the newsroom that he would be press secretary or in the Cabinet but we got the impression he was only half joking,” another former staffer, who had daily dealings with Levin, said.
Unusually, Levin got personally involved in the story of one of the many women who accused Trump of sexual assault, according to two TMZ sources.
After Jessica Leeds accused Trump of groping her on an airplane in the late 1970s, Levin personally called airlines to determine what happened.
“I remember when that woman started making allegations against Trump, Harvey made it a mission for days to discredit her,” a former staffer said. “In that instance he called airlines to ask what kind of armrests they were using at that time as this woman had said she was assaulted by Trump on a plane after he lifted the armrest up. Harvey personally called airlines.
“Harvey was convinced that when this incident occurred armrests didn’t lift up. He wanted to find a way to say she’s a liar.”
TMZ’s head of legal affairs, Jason Beckerman, confirmed the account of Levin’s personal involvement to The Daily Beast, but stressed it was all a part of TMZ’s newsgathering.
“We heard about that story and we put the accusations to the test,” Beckerman said. “She [Leeds] gave a specific descriptor. So it was Harvey’s idea that to we go and see how these armrests work. He said, ‘Let’s go back and see what armrests look like in the 1970s and sure enough the armrests were consistent with her story.’”
But two days after adult film star Jessica Drake accused Trump of sexually assaulting her, TMZ wrote she “might’ve pulled off the ultimate publicity stunt—announcing an online sex shop 1 day before accusing The Donald.”
“There was definitely an air in the newsroom that Harvey wanted to discredit these people,” said the former staffer.
More than a dozen former and current TMZ employees described the site’s pro-Trump transformation during the election under Levin, which they say destroyed newsroom morale and led to the departure of several key staffers. The handling of a tip about another purportedly toxic tape, on top of the Access Hollywood footage, would further demoralize staffers.
Mr. Levin Almost Goes to Washington
Levin, a 67-year-old former television reporter and practicing attorney in Los Angeles, has long held an interest in political scandal. As far back as 2007, he began fantasizing about taking his winning formula of turning gossip into news to Washington, D.C. Warner Bros. registered the domain name TMZDC.com in December 2006 and the company kept the address until it expired in 2015, domain registration records show.
One of those headhunted to be part of Levin’s D.C. operation in 2007 was filmmaker and journalist Patrick Gavin, who directed the 2015 documentary Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week.
“D.C. gossip has always been boring and safe because people live there and don’t want to burn bridges. Politico falls victim to that,” Gavin, a former Politico reporter, told The Daily Beast. “Early on in the Obama administration D.C. was becoming a cooler scene.”
Gavin said Levin took him to lunch at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington and detailed his fantasy political reporting operation.
“Harvey wanted to break that mold,” Gavin said. “He was really keen on doing that. He is really savvy and ambitious and thirsty. There is a reason D.C. gossip sucks. There are very few towns where there are more news outlets than sources.
“I recall him saying there are 20 stories in D.C. that everyone knows that are scandalous and salacious but no one has the balls to publish them. He told me, ‘I wanna be the place that publishes those stories.’”
But as Gavin noted, “There is a reason those stories don’t get published—it requires a certain fuck you attitude.
“From Trump’s perspective you could certainly understand why he’d want to be close to the nation’s top gossip site.”
And he was close.
The two men have known each other since at least Trump’s Apprentice era, and Levin quickly became a “number-one Trump fan,” according to another close Trump associate, due to Levin’s attraction to power, flamboyance, celebrity, and wealth.
Even before Trump’s political ascendancy, TMZ landed “exclusives” with him, including in 2009 when Trump told the news site that rapper Kanye West’s behavior toward Taylor Swift was “disgusting.” Trump even advocated a boycott of West.
“They had this friendship for years,” another former TMZ staffer said. “Trump would come on TMZ Live [a video webcast] in 2014. Harvey and Trump have had a relationship for many years that grew closer as the election approached. I wonder how much of it was Trump exploiting Harvey.”
Fast forward to the 2016 election and Levin had developed an “incredibly close” relationship with Trump, another former senior TMZ staffer said.
“He was excited at the prospect of Trump becoming president. He wanted Trump to win because he wanted to know someone in the White House,” the former staffer said.
Entertainment industry sources familiar with Levin’s thinking said he expressed some reservations about Trump’s actions privately among liberal friends. But to their horror, friends noticed that throughout the campaign, the TMZ head continued to foster his relationship with Trump.
“Harvey has lost a lot of friends because of this,” an entertainment executive told The Daily Beast.
TMZ Goes #MAGA
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Levin and TMZ also maintained relationships with senior people in Trumpworld, with Levin often going out of his way to shoot the breeze with senior officials. Additional points of contact for Levin included veteran aide Hope Hicks and Trump’s longtime executive assistant Rhona Graff, three 2016 campaign sources said.
Levin also was tight with Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, multiple former TMZ staffers said.
“Cohen helped Harvey with his TV show and they bonded over both being a lawyer. They spoke routinely,” a source said.
As for Levin and Trump, they got tighter after Trump became the Republican nominee, according to another former TMZ employee.
“What happened a lot of the time in the second half of 2016 was everything went political and very pro-Trump… They would do stories about voter fraud which wasn’t a typical TMZ story,” the former staffer said.
“The slant of the whole website and its by-product, the TMZ TV show, became very political very quickly and it wasn’t something anybody seemed happy with besides Harvey,” said a former TMZ journalist. “It felt like it was a propaganda machine especially a month or two before the election.”
Multiple former TMZ staffers said they became alarmed when the website and TMZ’s Fox TV show went from covering celebrities and scandal to covering Trump in a favorable manner.
“TMZ was the Kardashians, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber—and almost overnight it became about the election and supporting Trump,” a former staffer said. “There were so many stories the site did that were so crazy that it was so out of the scope of things TMZ would normally do.
“Every lead story we did was about politics and pro-Trump. It took on a completely different energy. It is not a conservative workplace. Some people left after the election. The place just became very dark.”
Tale of the Tape
As the Access Hollywood fallout spread, the TMZ tip line received an email from a lawyer in Los Angeles claiming to have another bombshell tape of Trump in an elevator in Trump Tower, seven sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast. (The Daily Beast has uncovered no proof that the tape exists after interviews with more than a dozen former and current TMZ staffers and others with knowledge of the situation. But the actions that Levin took next, these sources felt, spoke volumes about his relationship with Trump.)
Former staffers recall that Levin took an unusual personal interest in pursuing the tape tip because, they believe, it had to do with his friend.
On Oct. 13, Melissa K. Dagodag contacted TMZ claiming she represented a client with the purported Trump tape, sources said.
Dagodag is a 49-year-old attorney who specializes in trademark and copyright matters mostly for musicians.
“This attorney wasn’t a major player, which made us think it was weird. She wasn’t Keith Davidson,” a former TMZ staffer said, referring to the attorney who at the same time represented Stormy Daniels and worked with Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen to get $130,000 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump.
It remains unclear who Dagodag was representing when she contacted TMZ and Dagodag did not respond to multiple messages left by The Daily Beast or to visits at her Beverly Hills office and Santa Monica home from a reporter.
“It’s weird to me that a lawyer who specializes in music copyright law got involved in something like this,” said another former TMZ employee who also stressed Levin’s direct involvement in the matter was highly unusual.
Mike Walters, then Levin’s top lieutenant who ran the operations newsdesk, immediately spoke with Dagodag that same day, according to a former top-level TMZ staffer who provided The Daily Beast with a hour-by-hour account of how the matter played out. Walters then passed the tip to Levin who took a private call in his office before looping in Beckerman, the source said.
“It got compartmentalized,” a former staffer said, who like others The Daily Beast spoke with, emphasized Trump’s relationship with Levin as the key factor in his direct involvement. “Only Harvey dealt with it. It was a little weird. It was out of character.”
“For Harvey to meet with someone it’s really big. Harvey took us out of it very quickly. To be removed from it like that was very weird,” the former TMZ top staffer said.
Levin moved quickly and alerted TMZ’s parent company, Warner Bros. and its parent company, Time Warner, seeking legal guidance as well as financial approval to buy the tape. Sources say even Time Warner Chairman Jeff Bewkes, was told about the purported tape and approved a significant financial amount to purchase it.
“It was on,” said a source close to the sensitive discussions. “It is not every day Jeff is saying here is a fuck load of money to buy a tape of Donald Trump in an elevator. There was a reason for that.”
“Since when does Harvey Levin call up the food chain about a tape that he hasn’t seen from a source that he has never met? It was truly bizarre,” said an investigative reporter from a major media outlet who chased the tape story for months.
Levin arranged to meet Dagodag that same night to view the tape along with Beckerman.
For the first time Beckerman has gone on the record to confirm the account provided by multiple sources to The Daily Beast.
“Harvey and I went to meet this person late at night and we got part of the way there and the source called and said the person who has the tape wasn’t going to show. We were told that evening we could set up a meeting for the next day,” he said.
“The next morning the source said the tape was no longer for sale and it was insinuated that it had been bought by someone else. Then the source went completely dark,” Beckerman told The Daily Beast.
However, contradicting Beckerman’s account, two sources said Levin told staffers the next day that Dagodag had failed to show at the meeting and that they “needed to drop it,” meaning the tape.
“He told us he had made a call to Trump’s camp alerting them to the tip and they had said there are no cameras in the elevators at Trump Tower,” the source said. It is unclear if Levin’s supposed call to Trump’s campaign was before or after Dagodag didn’t show.
“When I look back now this is possibly something really big that went down here. If something was hidden or killed there was a reason,” said the former high-ranking TMZ staffer.
“There was an uncomfortable feel in the newsroom. His unapologetic views of Trump were gross,” said one of Levin’s most trusted former staffers.
They weren’t the only ones suspicious.
Clinton campaign officials came to believe that Levin favored Trump and was dragging his feet on finding stories that may hurt the then Republican presidential candidate. Their fears were modest compared to their views of Trump’s relationship with American Media, Inc., owner of the National Enquirer. But they still saw TMZ as playing a favorable role to the opposition.
As for the elevator video, two high-level Clinton campaign officials told The Daily Beast that they did not have any memory of looking for such a tape. Both of the officials had heard about its supposed existence. But they didn’t take it seriously—in part because they were chasing rumored Apprentice outtakes already—and didn’t inquire about it aggressively.
“I had heard rumors of that. But I did not know of any serious ‘this is who has it’ conversation,” said one official. “And I wouldn’t say we had a serious way of trying to find it. It was something I heard a lot from reporters.”
Beckerman said TMZ never had any contact with the Clinton camp that involved opposition research. “We never had an open dialogue to our knowledge with anyone connected to Hillary’s campaign,” he said.
In the end, Levin’s pursuit of the tape and his pro-Trump coverage, “contributed to the downfall of the relationship between Mike [Walters] and Harvey,” a high-level former TMZ staffer said.
Walters would depart TMZ in mid-December 2016 and go on to launch a rival celebrity gossip website TheBlast.com taking with him some of TMZ’s top talent and giving his former employer a run for its money.
A Friend in the Highest Place
Levin’s relationship with Trump paid off after the election when he scored one of Trump’s first TV interviews for a special that aired Nov. 18, 2016, on Fox News Channel called, OBJECTified: Donald Trump.
“The morning after Trump won the election we were shooting TMZ Live and Trump called Harvey on his cell,” the former top-level TMZ staffer said. Beckerman said Levin could not recall if he had received a phone call from the president-elect.
In March 2017, Levin met with Trump in the Oval Office for an hour in a meeting that was left off the president’s public schedule. The White House would later say the pair discussed “future opportunities,” while The New York Times reported that Levin had asked Trump for his help in snagging Tom Brady as a guest on OBJECTified.
A source told The Daily Beast that was not the only favor Levin called in to Trump.
“That is when he placed a call to Netanyahu to get him to come on Harvey’s show,” the top-level TMZ staffer said, referring to the Israeli prime minister who went on to appear on the season premiere of OBJECTified in October 2017.
Beckerman denied Trump played any role in helping to get the Israeli PM on Levin’s show. “Harvey never told Trump about trying to get Netanyahu as he thought he would shut it down. Trump had zero knowledge of that.”
After Trump was in office, Levin benefited with a series of “exclusives” that he published on TMZ.
When Kathy Griffin controversially tweeted a picture of her holding a bloody mask meant to look like a beheaded Trump a story soon after appeared on TMZ sourced to a “Trump family source” and reported that his 11-year-old son “Barron was in front of the TV watching a show when the news came on and he saw the bloody, beheaded image. We’re told he panicked and screamed, ‘Mommy, Mommy!’”
As Think Progress noted last year, more Trump “scoops” followed, including one story about Ivanka Trump being accosted by a passenger on a JetBlue flight. Last month, the site dubbed Kellyanne Conway a “D.C. Rockstar” during a “TMZ Live” segment. In another segment, a TMZ reporter asked her how she stays so beautiful and what she thinks of being parodied on Saturday Night Live.
In one of their casual chats not long before Trump was elected, he had joked with Levin that he was a “killer” and street-smart, and would do well in the nastiness and the pace of the American political arena—though “not as good as Trump,” according to two people with knowledge of their conversations.
“Trump got out of it what he wanted. TMZ is a powerful place. It has an incredibly large following when you combine the website with the TV audience and I think Trump and his team wanted to take advantage of it and they did,” said one of Levin’s former top generals.
Multiple sources close to Trump said that the pair have spoken a handful of times since Trump entered the White House. While the sources recall a warm relationship with Levin, they said that Levin does not rise to the level of unofficial Trump adviser like Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, or Rupert Murdoch.
“Harvey likes powerful people and having powerful friends. I think he likes feeling important. I think it made him feel good that a presidential candidate was talking to him on the phone. At the end of the day a lot of it came down to the fact he wanted a powerful ally.”
As Patrick Gavin observed, Harvey’s need for TMZDC and a dedicated Washington bureau never diminished.
“I don’t think he’s ever given up on it. He kept the domain name for the longest time. He just had to be patient and wait 10 years to score the best D.C. source.”