There is perhaps no part of the sordid tale of Donald Trump, the National Enquirer and the hush-money payments to an adult-film actress and a Playboy bunny who claimed to have had sex with him, that has lodged itself more firmly in the public consciousness than the phrase catch-and-kill.
The term arguably first became part of the national lexicon on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, when the Wall Street Journal broke news about the dubious journalistic practice involving the man who would be elected president just four days later.
Fast forward 6½ years and that revelation has snowballed into the first-ever criminal indictment of a former president with a Manhattan grand jury voting to bring charges against Trump for his role in the payoffs.
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Back in 2016, I was a media reporter at the Journal and on that late Friday afternoon found myself at the heart of what would become a major political scandal, when then-colleague Michael Rothfeld came up to me asking for some help.
Mike, an investigative reporter, explained that he and legal-affairs reporter Joe Palazzolo had uncovered a wild story about how the National Enquirer paid a Playboy bunny $150,000 for her kiss-and-tell story of having an affair with Donald Trump in 2006. But, once she signed the contract and was given her check, the supermarket tabloid had never run the story.
The deal had given exclusive rights to the story to the Enquirer, so the move to bury it effectively locked the story up for good.
At the time, I focused primarily on newspaper and digital media companies. In a previous life, I had worked in tabloids, so I was familiar with that world.
I made some calls and struck gold, discovering that this kind of payoff was a time-honored method by which supermarket tabloids like the Enquirer protected friends and made bad news about powerful people go away. Usually the favor was returned later — quid pro quo — as a juicier story down the road or via some other form of payback.
It emerged that this kind of thing was called a catch-and-kill.
It was an explosive phrase that ran in the third paragraph of that first Journal story and subsequently appeared prominently in stories written about the subject by many media organizations for years to come.
That first catch-and-kill story would lead to numerous other revelations by the Journal’s crack team led by Joe and Mike about additional payoffs, most importantly one to adult-film star Stormy Daniels.
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The payment for her story had been made not by the Enquirer but directly, by Trump’s then–personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who was later reimbursed by the Trump organization, purportedly booked by the Trump Organization as legal fees.
That chain of payments resulted in Cohen’s pleading guilty to campaign-finance violations and going to prison, as well as, ultimately, to the charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Thursday.
In 2019, the Wall Street Journal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its work uncovering the catch-and-kill payments.
Given the tawdriness of the tale — replete with an army of characters with names that sounded made up, like Trump friend and AMI chief executive David Pecker — the phrase catch-and-kill has taken on a larger-than-life dimension that has come to define the Trump era as much as “Make America Great Again.”