Federal prosecutors reached an immunity deal with the tabloid executive David J. Pecker, a key witness in their monthslong investigation into payments during the 2016 campaign to two women who said they had affairs with Donald J. Trump, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
Mr. Pecker is the chairman of American Media Inc., the nation’s biggest tabloid news publisher, which was involved in the payments, which prosecutors have identified as illegal contributions made in violation of campaign finance law.
As prosecutors in New York built a case against Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, that resulted in a guilty plea on Tuesday, Mr. Pecker emerged as an important figure. The investigation appears to be continuing, and as a longtime friend and ally of Mr. Trump, Mr. Pecker could have additional information valuable to the prosecutors.
In pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Trump directed him to arrange the hush money payments to protect Mr. Trump from embarrassing stories during the campaign. The cooperation of Mr. Pecker is another potential blow to the president from a former loyalist.
It was unclear on Thursday whether prosecutors had granted Mr. Pecker immunity for his involvement in the illegal campaign contributions, or simply agreed not to prosecute him based on the information he provided. One of the people briefed on the matter cautioned that Mr. Pecker could still face scrutiny. The agreement was disclosed on Thursday by The Hive, a Vanity Fair site.
Court documents included detailed descriptions of Mr. Cohen’s interactions with A.M.I. as the hush money payments to the women — a pornographic film star and a former Playboy model — were arranged.
It was unclear where prosecutors might be taking their investigation. Court papers said that several other people — in Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and executives at the Trump Organization — were involved or knew of the illegal payments. Mr. Cohen, under oath in court, said Mr. Trump directed him to make the payments.
Mr. Pecker has been close to Mr. Trump since the 1990s, and has served as a protector dating back to before the days when Mr. Trump was the host of his reality show, “The Apprentice.” After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions, The New York Times reported in March.
The prosecutors’ agreement with Mr. Pecker adds another twist to a highly unusual case implicating the president. It means that a company that operates as a news organization is cooperating with federal authorities in an investigation that involves its work with a campaign.
Federal prosecutors determined that in American Media’s work with Mr. Cohen — and for Mr. Trump’s candidacy, according to Mr. Cohen — the company operated in more of a supportive political function for Mr. Trump, The Times reported in July.
And when the authorities subpoenaed the company in April, its executives decided against fighting it, agreeing to cooperate where warranted, and where they deemed officials were not violating First Amendment rights.
The company’s cooperation has provided prosecutors with a second line of access to communications about the effort to protect Mr. Trump’s secrets involving women during the campaign, on top of the information provided by Mr. Cohen.
Though several people familiar with American Media’s operations have said that the company keeps a strict records policy that ensures that emails are deleted regularly, it is not clear that the same held for encrypted communications or recordings. Dylan Howard, the company’s chief content officer, who is also said to be cooperating, was known to have a recording device in his office, according to people familiar with his operations. American Media would not comment.
In court documents filed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors cited “encrypted” communications among Mr. Pecker, Mr. Howard and Mr. Cohen regarding the payoff to Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had a brief affair with Mr. Trump.
Among the records prosecutors subpoenaed last spring were communications between Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. According to the court documents made public this week, Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard had been in touch with Mr. Cohen about both Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Mr. Trump that began in 2006, and Ms. Clifford.
In June 2016, when Ms. McDougal approached American Media, whose tabloids include The National Enquirer, about selling her story, both Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard provided Mr. Cohen a heads-up, prosecutors said.
A.M.I. negotiated American Media’s eventual purchase of the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story for $150,000 in August 2016 as part of a deal designed specifically to suppress information of the affair, according to Mr. Cohen. As the presidential election neared, Mr. Cohen sought to buy those rights from the American Media executives, prosecutors revealed, though the transaction was never completed.
While Mr. Cohen went on to negotiate directly for Ms. Clifford’s silence about Mr. Trump, she, too, had initially considered selling her story to the media. Upon learning that, American Media alerted Mr. Cohen and then helped him arrange his own deal to pay Ms. Clifford $130,000 for her silence in the final days of the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard did not respond to requests for comment.
Depending on how far the immunity agreement goes, it gives American Media some breathing room in an investigation that has posed a serious legal threat to the company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010. This year, the company notably expanded its portfolio, buying up more than a dozen titles that included In Touch and Life & Style magazines.
In bringing their charges against Mr. Cohen this week, prosecutors defined American Media’s payment to Ms. McDougal as an illegal, coordinated campaign expenditure. Election law prohibits corporations from spending money to influence elections in conjunction with candidates or their representatives.
“He reminded us,” Robert S. Khuzami, the deputy United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said of Mr. Cohen when he announced the charges in Manhattan this week, “that it is illegal for corporations to make contributions to candidates.”
Karen Zraick contributed reporting.
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