When the corporate owner
s of the National Enquirer relented and tentatively allowed Karen McDougal to tell her story about her alleged 10-month affair with Donald Trump, they made an interesting choice for the person to initially handle any media inquiries about the alleged affair: Trump family associate and crisis communications powerhouse Matthew Hiltzik.
McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate, alleged in a lawsuit filed last Tuesday that she was duped into signing a legal agreement with American Media, Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, giving it exclusive rights to the story of her alleged 2006 and 2007 affair with the now-president. The company then forced her to keep quiet during and after the presidential campaign to protect Trump while colluding with Trump’s team to bury the story, she claims.
Hiltzik was ostensibly brought in for the one-month period after the election to help McDougal handle press requests about her alleged affair. A veteran New York public relations executive, Hiltzik has worked in the past with Jared Kushner, and continued to work with Ivanka Trump, who he has called a “friend.” Those connections could strengthen McDougal’s argument that the AMI agreement existed solely to keep her quiet.
It’s not clear exactly how Hiltzik came to be chosen for the role. Both Hiltzik and AMI denied that he ultimately had any active involvement with McDougal’s PR, but neither answered questions about whether AMI was aware of Hiltzik’s ongoing work on Ivanka Trump’s brand and earlier ties to the Trump circle before referring him to McDougal.
“AMI’s use of Matthew Hiltzik and his firm further demonstrates the close relationship between AMI and President Trump,” said Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause, a good-government group that has filed complaints with the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission arguing AMI’s $150,000 payment to McDougal was an illegal in-kind campaign contribution to Trump. “AMI was protecting Trump’s interests, not McDougal’s.”
AMI’s chairman and CEO is David Pecker, a close friend of Trump’s who has admitted he agreed to buy McDougal’s life story and hire her as a fitness columnist on the condition that she not embarrass Trump. The company made sure that happened for a key stretch, first blocking her from telling the story at all during the campaign, and then pairing her with Hiltzik to handle any media requests for December 2016 after the Wall Street Journal published the story right before the election.
According to an amendment to the contract between McDougal and AMI that she filed as part of her lawsuit last week, the company hired Hiltzik for a one-month period at the end of 2016 to be in charge of any contacts she had with reporters relating to the alleged affair with Trump.
“McDougal may respond to legitimate press inquiries regarding the facts of her alleged relationship with Donald Trump. In connection therewith, AMI shall retain the services of Matthew Hiltzik at Hiltzik Strategies for a period of one month commencing on December 1, 2016, and Jon Hammond at Galvanized for a period of five months commencing on January 1, 2016 [sic.], to provide PR and reputation management services and to coordinate any such response(s) in consultation with AMI,” the amendment to the contract reads.
A spokesperson for AMI said that Hiltzik was referred to McDougal “for a brief engagement to potentially provide strategic counsel, but there were no issues that arose during that period.”
Hiltzik declined comment beyond reiterating that his firm was never called upon to provide any counsel to McDougal or AMI during that month or any time thereafter.
AMI maintains that after that amendment was added, McDougal was free to talk to the press. She and her attorneys disagree, claiming in the complaint filed last week that the company repeatedly ordered her to keep quiet about the affair or face “financial ruin” even after the contract was amended.
A source familiar with McDougal’s legal effort says Hiltzik and McDougal didn’t interact during the period where AMI officials were pressuring her to deflect press requests about the affair.
Still, Hiltzik’s close business and personal ties to the Trump family going back years make him an interesting personnel choice for AMI.
Hiltzik has long represented Ivanka Trump’s product line, and he previously represented Jared Kushner’s real estate company for a number of years. He also gave outgoing White House Communications Director Hope Hicks her first big break, hiring her at a young age and putting her on Ivanka’s brand (Ivanka Trump later poached her to be a full-time staffer for her company, before Donald Trump hired her for his campaign). Hiltzik is an early mentor to Hicks and has been a go-to quote praising her for a number of profiles of the woman who has spent more time with Trump than maybe anyone else over the past three years.
A White House official denied that Hicks, Ivanka Trump, or Kushner had any knowledge of Hiltzik’s work for McDougal.
Hiltzik, a longtime crisis communications expert, began his career working in Democratic politics – previous stints include the New York Democratic Party, helping both Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) win statewide campaigns (Hiltzik headed Clinton’s Jewish outreach efforts). But he hit it big once he pivoted to crisis communications, and has developed a roster of big names, many of them badly in need of his help: Harvey Weinstein (he was head of corporate communications for Miramax), Justin Bieber, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Lochte, Don Imus and Glenn Beck, as well as less controversial stars like Katie Couric.
Some of those celebs have wound up in the pages of the Enquirer — but Hiltzik has been complimentary of the way the publication conducts business, telling the Philadelphia Daily News in 2011 that longtime Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine, who stepped down in 2016, has “always been straightforward and let me know when the truck is about to hit me.” (In that same story, Levine talked up a possible Trump White House run, saying the now-president told him that if he won, “the National Enquirer will have the run of the White House”). Hiltzik has also worked from time to time for AMI — occasional projects on their corporate work date back more than a decade.
And while the PR pro hasn’t embraced President Trump himself, he was active through the 2016 campaign in defending Ivanka and Jared — calling a reporter unprompted who was working on a rough story for them to “help out” his old friends and clients.
“Anybody who is a real friend is not going to abandon someone because of their father’s politics,” he told New York Magazine in July 2016, “even if they are among a group who may happen to disagree with those politics.”
— Hiltzik Strategies (@HiltzikStrat) July 27, 2015
Hicks isn’t the only Hiltzik protege who wound up with a plum job in the White House. Josh Raffel, a close friend of Hicks’, worked at Hiltzik’s firm managing Kushner’s account. He left in 2015 before being brought back by Kushner and Trump in 2017 to work in the White House, where he quickly rose to become deputy communications director. Raffel, like Hicks, is on his way out of the White House.
It remains an open question how exactly Hiltzik’s hiring played out, and whether AMI made McDougal aware of his Trump ties.
But this much is clear: If AMI really wanted to help McDougal get her story out, Hiltzik seems like a curious choice given his other clients.
- Contributions allow us to hire more journalists
- Contributions allow us to provide free memberships to those who cannot afford them
- Contributions support independent, non-corporate journalism