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Tabloid Company, Aiding Trump Campaign, May Have Crossed Line Into Politics

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Tabloid Company, Aiding Trump Campaign, May Have Crossed Line Into Politics

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David J. Pecker, a close friend of President Trump, is the chairman of the tabloid publisher American Media Inc. Its activities before the election have entangled it in a campaign finance investigation.CreditPatrick McMullan/PatrickMcMullan.com

Federal authorities examining the work President Trump’s former lawyer did to squelch embarrassing stories before the 2016 election have come to believe that an important ally in that effort, the tabloid company American Media Inc., at times acted more as a political supporter than as a news organization, according to people briefed on the investigation.

That determination has kept the publisher in the middle of an inquiry that could create legal and political challenges for the president as prosecutors investigate whether the lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, violated campaign finance law.

It could also spell trouble for the company, which publishes The National Enquirer, raising thorny questions about when coverage that is favorable to a candidate strays into overt political activity, and when First Amendment protections should apply.

A.M.I.’s role in the inquiry received new attention on Friday with news that federal authorities had seized a recording from Mr. Cohen in which he and Mr. Trump discussed a $150,000 deal A.M.I. struck before the election, effectively silencing a woman’s claims of an affair by buying the rights to her story and not publishing it. The men also discussed whether Mr. Trump should buy the rights away from the company, which he did not ultimately do, according to a lawyer for the president, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The recording, from early September 2016, undercuts previous statements from Mr. Trump’s representatives that he did not know about the agreement between A.M.I. and the woman, the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. It also raises questions about the extent of Mr. Cohen’s involvement in the deal.

From the beginning of the campaign, A.M.I. promoted Mr. Trump and savaged his opponents, sometimes with unsubstantiated stories alleging poor health, extramarital affairs and the use of prostitutes. A.M.I.’s chairman, David J. Pecker, is a close friend of the president and his former lawyer, and company leaders were in regular contact with Mr. Cohen, former employees have said in interviews.

By burying Ms. McDougal’s story during the campaign in a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch and kill,” A.M.I. protected Mr. Trump from negative publicity that could have harmed his election chances, spending money to do so.

The authorities believe that the company was not always operating in what campaign finance law calls a “legitimate press function,” according to the people briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That may explain why prosecutors did not follow typical Justice Department protocol to avoid subpoenaing news organizations when possible, and to give journalists advance warning when demanding documents or other information.

Prosecutors did not warn A.M.I. before subpoenaing executives there in the spring, people with knowledge of the process said. A.M.I., which has denied any wrongdoing, did not challenge the move.

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In a recording seized by federal authorities, the lawyer Michael D. Cohen and Mr. Trump discussed a $150,000 deal A.M.I. had struck that silenced a woman’s claims of an affair.CreditSeth Wenig/Associated Press

A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, which is handling the inquiry, declined to comment.

Cameron Stracher, an A.M.I. lawyer, indicated that the company was cooperating with the investigation.

“A.M.I. respects the legitimate law enforcement activities by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York,” he said. But he suggested there was some give-and-take in what A.M.I. was willing to share, adding that it “has asserted and will continue to assert its First Amendment rights in order to protect its news-gathering and editorial operations.”

Mr. Cohen remains the primary focus of the investigation, but A.M.I.’s prominent place in what could become one of the biggest campaign finance scandals in recent years is unusual given the wide latitude news organizations have under the First Amendment.

While moves by prosecutors to subpoena journalists usually draw loud protest from groups that advocate press protections, there has so far been no rallying of support for A.M.I.

Bruce D. Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said his group hadn’t mounted a staunch defense in part because the publisher had not asked for help. The situation is otherwise too murky for his group to wade into without A.M.I.’s guidance, he said.

“It’s really challenging for press advocates to get behind it because, one, we haven’t been asked, and two, we just don’t know enough about the circumstances to be out with them on it,” Mr. Brown said.

Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the group had not been focused on A.M.I., but added, “You don’t want people doing activity that would otherwise be illegal and putting the name of press on it for protections.”

The company, denying wrongdoing in the past, has said that any actions it took were journalistic, and that any contact it had with Mr. Cohen would have been in the context of reporting. It has also said that “Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump have been personal friends of Mr. Pecker’s for decades.”

The authorities focused on A.M.I.’s payment to Ms. McDougal early on in their investigation of Mr. Cohen.

The company completed the deal with Ms. McDougal in August 2016, paying $150,000 for rights to publish fitness columns under her name and for exclusive rights to her story about the affair, which Mr. Trump’s representatives have denied. (After the campaign she negotiated permission to answer press questions about the alleged relationship, and later successfully sued to break the agreement.)

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A.M.I.’s publications, including The National Enquirer, promoted Mr. Trump and attacked his opponents.

The New York Times reported in February that Ms. McDougal’s lawyer in the deal, Keith M. Davidson, was in contact with Mr. Cohen around the time of its conclusion. Mr. Davidson said then that he was informing Mr. Cohen it was complete. A.M.I. also acknowledged contacting Mr. Cohen during its talks with Ms. McDougal, though only in an effort to corroborate her claims, it said.

If evidence shows that Mr. Cohen was consulting with A.M.I. about the arrangement, and that the intention of the deal was to protect Mr. Trump’s election prospects, then the publisher and Mr. Cohen could be exposed to election law violations.

Corporations are barred from spending money to influence election outcomes in coordination with federal campaigns and candidates. Campaigns cannot accept individual donations of more than $5,400 per election cycle.

“If this money is spent in coordination with Trump or the campaign, then it’s a contribution to Trump and the campaign, and then it’s illegal,” said Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Democracy 21, a group supporting campaign finance regulation and enforcement.

Earlier, in 2015, A.M.I. paid $30,000 to a Trump Organization doorman who claimed to have damaging information. After the company bought the rights, The Enquirer chose not to run the story. Executives said that was because it did not check out.

In Ms. McDougal’s case, A.M.I. has argued that First Amendment protections cover the right to publish as much as the right not to publish.

If faced with campaign finance charges — which would be extraordinary for a news organization — the company could argue that its executives did not know the ins and outs of the laws they were alleged to have violated. Under criminal provisions, prosecutors would have to prove the violation was “knowing and willful,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center.

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s campaign could argue that Mr. Cohen acted on his behalf without his knowledge, as his lawyer rather than an agent of his campaign. Mr. Giuliani appeared to lay the groundwork for such an argument on Friday when he said that the conversation captured on the tape, which took place weeks after A.M.I. completed the McDougal deal, appeared to be the first time Mr. Trump had heard about the arrangement and was therefore “exculpatory.”

Addressing the tape on Twitter on Saturday, Mr. Trump wrote, “Your favorite President did nothing wrong!”

It is not clear whether prosecutors have reviewed the recording, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized during a raid of Mr. Cohen’s office this year and which became tied up in a courtroom fight over what materials attorney-client privilege should shield from prosecutors.

Mr. Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said on Friday, “When the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen.”

Jaclyn Peiser contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on of the New York edition with the headline: Inquiry Focuses on Publisher’s Support for Trump. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Brazil's Military Strides Into Politics, by the Ballot or by Force

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Brazil’s Military Strides Into Politics, by the Ballot or by Force

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Jair Bolsonaro (L), a Brazilian congressman and presidential candidate for the next election, takes pictures with soldiers during a military event in São Paulo, Brazil, in May.CreditNelson Almeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Ernesto Londoño and Manuela Andreoni

RIO DE JANEIRO — Members of Brazil’s armed forces, who have largely stayed out of political life since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago, are making their biggest incursion into politics in decades, with some even warning of a military intervention.

Retired generals and other former officers with strong ties to the military leadership are mounting a sweeping election campaign, backing about 90 military veterans running for an array of posts — including the presidency — in national elections this October. The effort is necessary, they argue, to rescue the nation from an entrenched leadership that has mismanaged the economy, failed to curb soaring violence and brazenly stolen billions of dollars through corruption.

And if the ballot box does not bring change quickly enough, some prominent former generals warn that military leaders may feel compelled to step in and reboot the political system by force.

“We are in a critical moment, walking right up to the razor’s edge,” said Antonio Mourão, a four-star general who recently retired after suggesting last year, while in uniform, that a military intervention might be necessary to purge the corrupt ruling class. “We still believe that the electoral process will represent a preliminary solution for us to shift course.”

The military’s push into politics is a major shift — and for many Brazilians, a worrisome one. The country’s military dictatorship lasted 21 years before ending in 1985. Since then, Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, has experienced its longest stretch of democratic rule. Many are fiercely protective of the separation between politics and the military, guarding against any potential slide toward authoritarian rule.

But the former generals, officers and veterans organizing campaigns for October’s national elections say that “military values” like discipline, integrity and patriotism are vital to fixing Brazil, a nation they consider poorly governed, dangerously polarized and embarrassingly irrelevant on the world stage.

Analysts and politicians say the chances of a military intervention are probably remote, but they are wary of the rising political profile of military figures, particularly because the country has not fully come to terms with its authoritarian past.

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Antonio Mourão, a retired army general, recently became president of the influential Military Club in downtown Rio de Janeiro.CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times

Military personnel tortured people suspected of being dissidents with electric shocks or beat them as they hung from walls, according to a 2014 truth commission report. At least 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Yet Brazil has done far less than many of its Latin American neighbors to punish the abuses committed during the 1960s and 1970s, adding to concerns about giving military figures more political power.

“The eventual election of these military officials may lead to the adoption of authoritarian proposals, especially when it comes to public security,” said Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The growing appeal of Brazil’s armed forces in politics comes amid a rightward shift in South America and rising authoritarianism in democratic nations including Poland, Hungary, the Philippines and Turkey.

”In each country, this movement has a different facet, but in the background it has to do with dissatisfaction and fear,” said Mr. Fico.

Mr. Mourão, the former general, and other retired officers are avidly backing the presidential bid of a far-right congressman, Jair Bolsonaro, a tough-talking former army captain who has proposed contentious measures to restore order, including giving the police freer rein to kill criminals.

Mr. Bolsonaro, the first former military officer to mount a viable bid for the presidency since democracy was restored, recently said he would appoint generals to lead ministries, “not because they are generals, but because they are competent.”

The campaigns seize on broad frustrations across Brazil. Faith in the nation’s democracy and government institutions has cratered in recent years, especially after the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the enormous kickback schemes that have tainted all major political parties.

A survey by Latinobarómetro, which tracks public opinion across Latin America, found last year that only 13 percent of Brazilians were satisfied with the state of democracy, the lowest ranking among 18 nations. The poll also found that only six percent of Brazilians supported their government, ranking well below other deeply unpopular governments, including those in Venezuela and Mexico.

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Protestors march during a massive demonstration on Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 20, 2013.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

But the military has largely escaped such criticism. While a majority of Brazilians distrust the current president, Michel Temer, the nation’s Congress and Brazil’s mainstream political parties, eight out of 10 respondents had a favorable view of the armed forces, according to a 2017 poll by Datafolha.

That, analysts and retired generals say, is the reason Mr. Temer has given military officers unusual power in his cabinet. In a break with the past, Mr. Temer appointed a general in February to lead the Defense Ministry.

Public calls for a military intervention surfaced back in 2013, as fringe right-wing groups made that a rallying cry during a chaotic wave of street demonstrations taking aim at the leftist government then led by Ms. Rousseff.

Since then, calls for a military intervention have grown louder, perhaps most strikingly during a nationwide truckers strike in May that paralyzed the country for more than a week.

“This is a cry of desperation against all of this corruption,” said Luciano Zucco, a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel who took a leave of absence from the army this month to run for a state legislature seat. Still Mr. Zucco said he was opposed to a coup. “The intervention has to happen through votes,” he said.

Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, the current commander of the army, said in a recent speech that those who talked about military intervention did not understand the “democratic spirit that reigns in all the barracks.”

Even Ms. Rousseff, a former political prisoner who was tortured during the 1970s by the military government and considers her impeachment a political coup, said she would be stunned if today’s generals attempted to take power.

“The generals I have met would not be seduced by these types of adventures of a military intervention,” she said in an interview. “There are many people trying to create the conditions for that, but for my part, I don’t believe it.”

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Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, the current head of the armed forces, attends a parade at the Army’s headquarters in Brasilia, in April.CreditEvaristo Sa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, said that while no one in Brazil was calling for a lasting dictatorship, many Brazilians, particularly those who did not live through military rule, found the idea of a short intervention appealing.

“Four years ago, I would have said never, but now I would say, It’s not probable, but in some circumstances it could happen,” he said. “You have many people in Brazil who like the idea of the military throwing out the current political class and in six months calling for a new election.”

The debate over such an intervention has grown as active duty and retired high-ranking generals have weighed in on political issues in ways not seen since the dictatorship years.

General Bôas, the commander of the army, took the highly unusual step in April of issuing a statement on Twitter that was widely interpreted as a warning to the Supreme Court.

At the time, the justices were considering whether former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should begin serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. It was a particularly big decision, because Mr. da Silva was running for president again and appeared to be the front-runner in the race.

Then General Bôas raised tensions further by declaring that the military “repudiates impunity,” referring to the possibility that the Supreme Court could allow Mr. da Silva to remain free pending further appeals. The statement alarmed critics who saw it as an inappropriate venture into politics, at best. (In a split decision, the court ruled that he could be imprisoned.)

Eliéser Girão Monteiro, a former army general who is running to be governor in Rio Grande do Norte, has called for the impeachment of members of the Supreme Court over decisions that have led to the release of politicians convicted of corruption.

The political system created by the 1988 Constitution had become a “cave that apparently has no emergency exit,” Mr. Monteiro said in an interview. While he personally does not support a military takeover, he added, “The only emergency exit people are talking about is a military intervention.”

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Truckers block a major highway on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, in May, with a sign that reads “Military help the Nation” to protest rising fuel costs.CreditAndre Penner/Associated Press

Mr. Mourão, the former general, said that none of his contemporaries relished the idea of rupturing the democratic order. But he said that unrest could force their hands if the judiciary’s crackdown was stymied or if violence continued to surge.

“We want to adhere to the rule of law as much as possible,” Mr. Mourão said. “But we can’t let the country stumble into chaos.”

When the military took power in 1964, leaders of the junta argued that Brazil was drifting toward Communism. Military leaders still do not refer to that era as a dictatorship, contending that the armed forces in fact preserved democracy by sparing Brazil from the rule of authoritarian socialists.

Brazil’s economy grew briskly during the early years of military rule, leading some historians to refer to the era as an “economic miracle.” But foreign debt ballooned during that period and inequality widened, setting the stage for a hyperinflation crisis that crippled the economy during the 1980s.

The press was censored and the absence of an independent judiciary meant that abuses and corruption were seldom investigated. Before the military gave up power, the government passed an amnesty law that has shielded officials of that era.

The amnesty law has prevented Brazil from undergoing the kind of post-dictatorship reckoning that has kept the militaries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay at arms length from politics, analysts say.

The lack of accountability could also enable a younger generation of Brazilians to romanticize what a new military intervention could bring, said Pedro Dallari, a jurist who oversaw the truth commission.

“The fact that the memory of the dictatorship dimmed with time, because the problems weren’t confronted, generates this risk,” he said.

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The monolithic face of Toronto politics may finally change

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When I arrive at Amber Morley’s constituency office in west-end Toronto – a small room tucked into the front of the housing co-op where she grew up and still lives – she’s in the middle of watching a city council debate on YouTube. This may seem like penance for the rest of us, but for a political junkie such as Ms. Morley, it’s engrossing. And enraging.

“I find it very frustrating,” she says, shaking her head. “Why aren’t we moving ahead with the important files in the city?” The files she’d like to advance, if she is elected councillor in Toronto’s Ward 6 in the October municipal election, include affordable housing, transportation and giving young people voices and jobs.

Another thing Ms. Morley notices when she watches city council debates: There are not many faces that look like hers. She is biracial – her dad is black, her mom is white – and she’s 29 years old. She is not the product of wealth, or a political dynasty. She is, however, a product of a program called Women Win TO, which aims to change the monolithic face of city council this fall, by giving women from non-traditional backgrounds the skills and support to run for office.

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”City hall needs a breath of fresh air,” Ms. Morley says, sitting in front of a white board that divides up her ward’s challenges by neighbourhood: road safety, development, lot-splitting, bike-sharing, a light rapid transit system to connect the fast-growing suburb to the downtown. There is a lack of affordable housing across the ward, as there is across the city; at the community centre where Ms. Morley volunteered for years, homeless people are sleeping on the lawn.

Ms. Morley already had political experience – she’d worked as an assistant in two Toronto councillors’ offices – but, like most people who grew up outside the networks of power, needed guidance and coaching on how precisely to run a campaign. What’s the best way to raise funds? How do you assemble a campaign team? Where do you meet the key stakeholders in your district?

All those lessons were part of the curriculum at Women Win TO, which began in May, 2017, like a boot camp for political newbies. Every month, the prospective candidates met with experts to talk about the particular challenges they faced while running from outside traditional networks of business and politics.

Women Win TO was co-founded by Hema Vyas, who’d unsuccessfully run for council in 2010, as a way to counter the monochrome leadership of a city that is profoundly multicultural (visible minorities make up 51 per cent of the city’s population.)

“When you look at city council, it’s less than a third women, and there’s one woman of colour, Councillor [Kristyn] Wong-Tam,” Ms. Vyas says when I sit down with her. “Every time, I say that it’s stunning and frankly shameful.” So she set out to recruit women from non-traditional political backgrounds who wanted to run on a progressive agenda, and gave them practical advice about how to organize a campaign. The first graduating class of Women Win TO has already been a success: Of 15 women in the program, two were just elected to the Ontario Legislature (Jill Andrew and Suze Morrison) and six are running for city council.

The day before I met with Ms. Morley, there was a political earthquake south of the border. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old New York Democrat with little political experience and an unashamedly progressive platform, had defeated a 10-term male incumbent to win the party’s nomination for the November midterm Congressional race.

Ms. Morley watched Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and it was a bit like looking in the mirror: They were both in their 20s, former bartenders, outsiders running on progressive platforms with shoestring budgets against long-entrenched incumbents (the councillor in Ms. Morley’s ward was first elected in 2003).

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As Ms. Morley says, “Her passion for community and community-centred policies are 100 per cent in line with what I’m trying to bring to the table. It’s so encouraging that people are ready for that message and that kind of leadership.’’

Across the city, someone else sees herself reflected in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s win. Saron Gebresellassi is 31, a lawyer who speaks seven languages, and she’s taken on a challenge that rivals the New York Democrat’s: She is campaigning to unseat the well-heeled, well-connected incumbent, John Tory as mayor of Toronto.

‘’Her win was so inspiring,” Ms. Gebresellassi says. “She pulled off a major political upset. And she’s my age, from an immigrant background, a working-class background, with no electoral experience. I thought, ‘Well, we can do it, too. We can give it a fighting chance.’’’

I met with Ms. Gebresellassi on the campus of Ryerson University, where she got her first degree in Radio and Television Arts (she also has a masters in education as well as a law degree.) She, too, comes from outside the sphere of political influence: Her parents were refugees from Eritrea, and Ms. Gebresellassi grew up in Toronto Community Housing in one of the poorer corners of the city. When she went back there to knock on doors, one of the kids in the neighbourhood said, “I didn’t think we were allowed to run for mayor.”

Ms. Gebresellassi put her law career on hold, joined the Women Win TO program and decided that the best place for her progressive vision was on the mayoral ticket. She thinks the budget for policing is too large, and wants to see youth crime tackled through earlier interventions such as job creation and mental-health services. She wants to see transit fares frozen, and would ideally like to see a free public-transit system.

It is a Herculean task, no doubt. These women, and others like them, are running campaigns against long odds and the weight of history (there have been 65 mayors of Toronto, for example, and all of them have been white; two were women). But this year, with the ward boundaries redrawn and change in the air, anything is possible.

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As Ms. Gebresellassi says, she wouldn’t be running if she didn’t think she could mobilize voters who also feel shut out of power structures. ‘’Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely. Is it trying to achieve the impossible? Possibly. But it’s not going to take another hundred years to elect a racialized mayor, or a progressive mayor. It just takes courage.”

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