NEW YORK — Rick Wilson got a call earlier this month from a reporter asking about a potentially explosive, campaign-ending piece of opposition research: a Ted Cruz sex tape.
Wilson is the type of plugged-in Republican consultant who reporters would expect to know if such a bombshell exists — and perhaps even when a campaign was ready to drop it. This time, he had no idea. But at the reporter’s request, Wilson contacted a journalist friend at a TV network to see if they’d had it. The TV journalist didn’t have the goods, but had heard another network did.
“This became a massive game of telephone,” said Wilson, who recalled fielding calls from upwards of 20 journalists in one day, hailing from major newspapers and networks. They all essentially wanted to know if the Texas senator, who frequently touts his Christian faith on the campaign trail, wasn’t so faithful to his wife.
In the days leading up to the March 15 Florida primary, Wilson — a supporter of former candidate Marco Rubio and boisterous critic of front-runner Donald Trump — cryptically tweeted about a would-be blockbuster nicknamed “The Thing.”
Though Wilson never named names, his tweets were taken, by some, as bolstering an unsubstantiated rumor circulating on social media, and promoted by a little-known political website, that Cruz had an affair with Katrina Pierson, a former adviser to the senator and current Trump national spokeswoman. Pierson even blamed Wilson and another Republican operative for spreading the rumor in a tweet on the morning of Florida’s primary — long before any mainstream outlets covered it. But Wilson insists he wasn’t the source of the Cruz infidelity rumors.
“I never pushed the rumors because I’m an old hand at this business,” the veteran Florida-based operative told The Huffington Post. “When the opposition research is pitched to you as, ‘This is a silver bullet, this will end the campaign,’ it’s always bullshit.”
There’s no evidence to support the National Enquirer’s report Friday that Cruz had an affair with not just one but five women. Major news outlets that looked into the rumor before or after its publication in the Enquirer haven’t substantiated the claims. Two of the women identified in the story, Pierson and CNN contributor Amanda Carpenter, denied the allegations Friday morning. The candidate himself called an impromptu news conference that afternoon to dismiss them. “It is complete and utter lies” said Cruz, who also accused Trump and his “henchmen” of planting the story, a charge the candidate denied.
The tabloid frenzy on Friday capped off a particularly ignoble week in the 2016 Republican primary, in which the leading candidates’ Twitter-fueled spat over their wives diverted the campaign media’s attention from Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels and the looming question about how the next commander in chief will tackle the self-described Islamic State.
The Cruz rumors also put the national media in a familiar bind. It’s one thing to call sources to find out if a potentially campaign-ending scandal is on the way. But it’s another to put those unsupported claims in print or on air. And even as Twitter and Facebook have helped flatten the media landscape, major news organizations still cling to their traditional gatekeeper role when it comes to alleged sex scandals. Even skeptically covering such rumors, it’s believed, can give them too much credence.
Complicating matters is that the Cruz story was published Friday in the National Enquirer, which — though not considered reliably credible by most journalists — was famously right about John Edwards’ infidelity and other sex scandals. The national media couldn’t confirm the Edwards rumors during the 2008 race and given his denial, tried to ignore them even as the scandal was percolating in the blogosphere. Similarly, while people were buzzing on Twitter about the Cruz rumors Friday morning, national media outlets and the typically chatty journalists they employ were noticeably silent.
CNN hadn’t yet covered the Enquirer’s claims around 11:15 a.m. when they were thrust into the mainstream by a scheduled guest, Boston Herald columnist and Trump supporter Adriana Cohen. She was booked to spar with Carpenter, a former Cruz spokeswoman and Trump critic, about the kerfuffle involving the Republican candidates and their wives. But Cohen shifted the conversation to Carpenter and asked the CNN contributor on air whether the allegations involving her and Cruz were true. (Though the Enquirer somewhat blurred the five women’s faces, both Pierson and Carpenter were quickly identified).
CNN anchor Kate Bolduan interjected to clarify that the network, which was now inadvertently amplifying the rumors, had no follow-up reporting on them. Carpenter took the opportunity to dismiss the report as “tabloid trash” and told Cohen she “should be ashamed for spreading this smut.”
Bolduan said she would be more comfortable shifting the conversation back to the presidential race.
Cruz let the national media off the hook a couple hours later by shooting down the claims before reporters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This gave them permission to report on the developing scandal, since a candidate’s on-camera denial of an infidelity rumor clearly meets the bar that news executives and editors require for publication even if the unsubstantiated rumor, on its own, wouldn’t.
The rumors about Cruz would presumably be in Trump’s interest to circulate. And they came just days after Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi, as part of an escalating feud between the two that began after an anti-Trump super PAC, unaffiliated with Cruz’s campaign, ran an ugly, negative ad involving Trump’s wife, Melania.
During Friday’s news conference, Cruz reminded reporters that the National Enquirer had recently endorsed Trump and that the candidate is longtime friends with David Pecker, CEO of Enquirer parent company American Media Inc.
The pair do have a history. Trump invited Pecker to his 2005 wedding and the media executive attended an Elton John concert the following year at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, according to reports at the time. In early 2013, Pecker appointed David Hughes, a top executive at Trump Entertainment Resorts, to American Media’s board of directors. Later that year, Trump pitched Pecker to lead Time magazine.
The National Enquirer’s laudatory coverage of Trump this cycle also stands in sharp contrast to that of his rivals, who’ve faced blaring headlines tying them to drugs and scandal. The Daily News reported in August that the tabloid was going easy on Trump, and New York Magazine traced an October Enquirer story about Dr. Ben Carson having once left a sponge in a patient’s brain back to Trump’s campaign.
The National Enquirer denied suggestions it’s doing Trump’s bidding.
“No one influences the reporting that The National Enquirer does other than our own reporters and editors,” an American Media spokesman told HuffPost Friday. “We stand by the integrity of our coverage and remain committed to our aggressive reporting on such an important topic. The National Enquirer, more than any other publication, has been unflinching in its reporting on the 2016 presidential candidates.”
Cruz also pointed out Friday that Roger Stone, a notorious political “dirty trickster” since the Nixon years, was the only on-the-record source in the Enquirer’s breathless report. Stone, who had previously advised Trump and remains a booster of his candidacy, told The Enquirer that “these stories have been swirling around Cruz for some time” and he believed “where there is smoke there is fire.”
“Donald Trump may be a rat, but I have no desire to copulate with him,” Cruz told reporters, a muddled reference to the expletive “ratfucking” — political slang for dirty tricks made famous in the Watergate chronicle All the President’s Men.
When The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel asked Stone about Cruz’s suggestion he was the source, the famed operative responded, “Most of what I know about this matter I learned from reporters at your newspaper.”
Stone later tweeted that The Post was far from the only outlet looking into the rumors.
The threads have become only more tangled. The Daily Beast reported Friday that the Post — along with outlets such as The New York Times, Politico and ABC News — had been pitched the affair rumors for months by anti-Cruz operatives, apparently to help Rubio.
One journalist, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, said she’d heard the rumors for months. She tweeted Friday that a reporter from a different tabloid outlet asked her in January about the rumor involving Cruz and the Texas-based Pierson. She found the rumor — that the pair had sex in a closet at a Republican event — to be dubious. “If the controversial Cruz had snuck off with the controversial [Pierson] at a public event in 2012, I’d have heard about it, years ago,” she tweeted.
Grieder heard the rumor again from a journalist while reporting in Iowa and put the claim before Cruz sources, none of whom found it credible. She added that given several outlets were chasing the rumor, one would presumably “have the evidence by now.”