Why Trump’s Supermarket Tabloid Alliance Poses A Problem For The Press

Donald Trump’s campaign has a symbiotic relationship with supermarket tabloids, which have been sliming his political foes with stories that are either flatly unbelievable or impossible for any other outlet to confirm. Trump’s allies are feeding many of these stories to the outlets, and Trump himself has used his tremendous media megaphone to amplify the sketchy allegations. That's forcing the press to figure out how to deal with tabloid conspiracies when they go mainstream.

Roger Stone, the longtime friend and ally of Trump who was a paid consultant to his campaign in 2015 and now heads a pro-Trump super PAC, is playing a key role in pushing pro-Trump stories to the tabloids. They’re frequently quoting him and at times he seems to serve as the source for their anonymously sourced hit pieces. Stone has a decades-long history of political dirty tricks, as well as violent, racist, and sexist rhetoric.

Trump has a “very cozy relationship” to the National Enquirer, as The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers has detailed. The presumptive Republican nominee is also reportedly “very close” to the tabloid’s chief executive, David Pecker, with whom he has reportedly been “friends for years.”

That friendship with Pecker has “paid dividends” for Trump, according to New York magazine. Gabriel Sherman reported in October that while Trump’s “scandal-filled personal life would be yuge! for the supermarket tabloid,” he has been “exclusively celebrated in the Enquirer’s pages.” Trump himself has gotten in on the act, writing op-eds for the tabloid extolling his own virtues. The paper endorsed him in March with an editorial that Borchers writes “read[s] like one of the candidate's stump speeches.”

Meanwhile, the tabloid has spent the last nine months savaging Trump’s opponents, and Trump’s ally Stone has been the source for many of the most sordid accusations. The Enquirer cited Stone in multiple pieces: in a report claiming that Jeb Bush used cocaine on the night his father became president; in a piece claiming that Bill Clinton is addicted to cocaine and Hillary Clinton covered it up; in a story alleging that Chelsea Clinton has received cosmetic surgery so that she does not resemble a friend of the Clintons whom Stone claims is her real father; and in an article claiming that Ted Cruz has had affairs with several women.

Trump’s campaign has also been boosted by the Enquirer’s neighbor on the supermarket check-out line, the Globe (both are owned by American Media Inc.). Globe headlines have included “Donald Trump Schools The Pope On Vital American Security” and “Donald Trump Exposes Evil Liar Hillary Clinton.” In addition to calling Clinton a liar, the tabloid’s headlines have termed Clinton “Ruthless & Vicious,” a self-confessed “Alcoholic,” and a “Crook” who is “Gay.” Stone has been cited in the Globe’s pages as well; the tabloid wrote up his allegation that Chelsea Clinton is not Bill Clinton’s daughter.

In addition to the on-the-record citations of Stone, Trump’s campaign and Stone himself have both been accused of planting unfavorable stories in the tabloids about Trump’s Republican rivals. These are plausible allegations given Stone’s long history of dirty tricks.

Under other circumstances, Stone’s use of the tabloids to bolster his smear jobs would simply be more evidence that he is a despicable character. But the media’s fractured environment and Trump’s unique willingness to promote those claims is bringing those tabloid conspiracies to the masses.

Earlier this month, Trump highlighted an Enquirer story linking Cruz’s father to the assassination of President Kennedy, praising the tabloid’s reporting in nationally televised interviews and triggering a maelstrom of coverage. The story had cited anonymous “D.C. insiders” confirming the story; Stone has a long history of promoting conspiracy theories about the assassination, and he claimed on Twitter that the tale was accurate.

This points to a potential media strategy the Trump camp could employ in the months to come. First, Stone uses a combination of noncredible opposition research and outright lies to plant in the tabloids stories that no real, credible, media outlet would take. Then Trump’s allies or even Trump himself can push the stories into the mainstream, bringing them up in media appearances. This forces the rest of the press to decide whether and how to cover thinly sourced stories that they can’t confirm but that are now being pushed by a major party’s presidential candidate.

That matters because Stone has pledged that his anti-Clinton smear book, which portrays “Bill as a serial rapist [and] Hillary as an enabler,” will be the Trump team’s playbook during the general election; Trump has already praised the book and cited its conclusions on the campaign trail. While the press criticized Trump’s elevation of the Enquirer story about Ted Cruz’s father, Trump’s Stone-based accusations about the Clintons have regularly appeared in reports on his strategy without that level of skepticism.

The latest editions of the Enquirer and Globe both feature cover stories that smear Clinton with either anonymous claims that closely resemble ones previously pushed by Stone or with direct statements from the Trump ally.

The Globe’s “explosive exclusive” claims that Trump “is planning swift vengeance on sleazebag Republican rivals Ted Cruz, John Kasich, co-conspirator Carly Fiorina, AND Hillary Clinton.” The story is based solely on the claims of an anonymous “insider.”

That “insider” claims that Clinton is “under scrutiny for money laundering as a result of donations to the Clinton Global Initiative” because of “talk the cash is being secretly funneled into Hillary’s campaign and into the family’s pockets!” The “insider” concludes that after Trump is elected, “Hillary will face prison.” The anonymous allegations echo Stone’s claim in his book that the Clintons have used “the Clinton Foundation to line their own pockets.”

The insider also alleges to the Globe, absent any corroborating evidence, that Kasich “appeared to be living as a couple” with another man for 14 years between his first and second marriages, that the Justice Department under Trump will investigate Cruz’s father for being a “phony preacher intent on ripping off American taxpayers,” and that Fiorina is a “homewrecker.”

The Enquirer cover story purports to detail the results of a “12 Month Investigation” that follows Stone’s thesis precisely and quotes him claiming that Bill Clinton has had affairs with 2,000 women (not a typo) and that Hillary Clinton “bullied and intimidated them in an attempt to cover up her husband’s misdeeds.” The story cites “36 unfortunate women who crossed paths with the predator president”; of them, 18 were mentioned in Stone’s book (seven of those are anonymous); the stories of 19 of the women are cited as coming from anonymous sources or rumor.

Trump has already made clear that sloppy allegations about the Clintons’ personal lives will be at the center of his campaign. His alliance with the tabloids will prove a boon to that effort.