The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid that once published a photo of Elvis Presley in his coffin and later backed Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, is for sale, the publisher said in a statement.
The Enquirer, owned by American Media Inc. and led by David J. Pecker, a longtime friend of Mr. Trump’s, is likely to have a buyer in a matter of days, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private negotiations.
Mr. Pecker is said to have helped Mr. Trump’s candidacy through American Media’s deal to buy a story from Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who said she had an affair with the president. The company acquired her story for $150,000 and never published it, following a practice known in the tabloid business as catch-and-kill. Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York gave Mr. Pecker an immunity deal in its investigation of the arrangement.
Prosecutors identified the $150,000 payment to Ms. McDougal as a political contribution made in violation of campaign finance law. Under a non-prosecution deal, American Media affirmed that it had made the payment to “influence the election.”
That agreement, signed in September, stipulated that American Media “shall commit no crimes whatsoever” for three years, and that if it did, the company “shall thereafter be subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge.”
The deal has put the company in a difficult position, now that federal prosecutors have started investigating claims by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, that he had been threatened by American Media, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
The inquiry into a possible attempt by American Media to pressure Mr. Bezos is still in an early phase, and Mr. Bezos is scheduled to meet with federal prosecutors in New York as early as this week to discuss their review of his claim, a person with knowledge of the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.
The principal owner of American Media, the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management, led by Anthony Melchiorre, pushed Mr. Pecker to sell the tabloid after it found itself in the cross hairs of the federal investigation and at the receiving end of Mr. Bezos’ wrath. Mr. Melchiorre no longer saw an upside in being associated with The Enquirer, the people familiar with the matter said, and the tabloid’s financial losses provided further motivation for a sale.
The Jan. 28 edition of The Enquirer, which hit supermarket racks on Jan. 10, ran an 11-page story on Mr. Bezos headlined “Bezos’ Divorce! The Cheating Photos That Ended His Marriage.” The accompanying article included furtively snapped photographs of Mr. Bezos in the company of his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, a former host of the Fox television show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Mr. Bezos, who is also the owner of The Washington Post, has been a target of Mr. Trump. In a tweet that was posted in the aftermath of The Enquirer’s report, the president simultaneously praised the tabloid while tossing an insulting nickname in the direction of Mr. Bezos, the world’s richest man.
“So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post,” he wrote in the Jan. 13 tweet. “Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
Weeks after the tabloid report was published, Mr. Bezos fired back, accusing American Media of “extortion and blackmail” in a wide-ranging blog post that questioned whether The Enquirer’s story about him was politically motivated. He also accused American Media of threatening to publish lewd photos of him, unless he publicly stated that the tabloid’s reporting on him was not motivated by political concerns.
Federal prosecutors looking into Mr. Bezos’ accusation have yet to determine whether there are chargeable offenses. If they move forward, it could jeopardize American Media’s agreement in the case centered on the company’s involvement in the Trump campaign.
The federal investigation into American Media’s work on behalf of the Trump campaign resulted in a guilty plea from Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, who said he had asked the company to pay Ms. McDougal at the president’s direction. In a separate hush-money deal, Mr. Cohen said, he helped arrange a payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who had also alleged that she had an affair with Mr. Trump.
After the likely sale of The Enquirer, American Media will be paid a service fee as part of a shared-services agreement under which the new owner can save on printing costs, the people familiar with the possible deal said.
In a statement, Mr. Pecker said that American Media had shifted its emphasis away from its tabloid publications, a group that includes Star, to its glossy magazines, such as Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, and various multimedia ventures. “Because of this focus, we feel the future opportunities with the tabloids can be best exploited by a different ownership,” the statement said.
Chatham could not immediately be reached for comment. American Media did not respond to a request for comment. News of the likely sale was first reported by The Washington Post.
For many years leading up to the 2016 election, The Enquirer seemed all but irrelevant, a relic of a bygone time that had little to do with a media environment dominated by social media platforms and websites geared to ever-quickening news cycles.
Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy put it back in the limelight. Here was a tabloid creature at the center of the national conversation, and The Enquirer rose to the occasion by puffing up his candidacy and pillorying his rivals.
As the campaign heated up, all-caps headlines shouted at shoppers from eye-level racks in supermarket checkout lanes.
When Senator Ted Cruz of Texas looked like Mr. Trump’s most formidable opponent in his quest for the Republican nomination, The Enquirer published a false story headlined “Ted Cruz Father Linked to J.F.K. Assassination!” In another story aimed at the senator, the tabloid published unsubstantiated allegations of his supposed extramarital affairs.
The Enquirer also went after Hillary Clinton. While Mr. Trump repeatedly questioned her stamina, the tabloid echoed the theme in false story after false story: “Hillary Clinton Brain Cancer Drama!”; “Hillary: Six Months to Live!”
In another assist to the mogul turned politician, Mr. Pecker kept his staff from making use of the tips and story files it had amassed on Mr. Trump going back to the 1980s.
The bond between the candidate and the tabloid also led American Media, in the campaign’s final months, to buy and bury the story of the alleged affair between Mr. Trump and Ms. McDougal. To pull it off, American Media acquired the rights in exchange for $150,000 and a commitment to promote Ms. McDougal’s career as a fitness specialist.
Mr. Trump has been a longtime public supporter of Mr. Pecker and the tabloid he has overseen since 1999. In a 2013 tweet, Mr. Trump promoted the media executive as a possible leader of Time Inc.: “David Pecker would be a brilliant choice as CEO of TIME Magazine — nobody could bring it back like David!”
During the campaign, after The Enquirer focused on Mr. Cruz, Mr. Trump denied having anything to do with the story, but said of the tabloid, “They actually have a very good record of being right.”
Jim Rutenberg and William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.
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