Vince McMahon (R) and Donald Trump attend a press conference about the WWE at the Austin Straubel International Airport on June 22, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Mark A. Wallenfang | Getty Images

As he faces a mountain of legal woes, former WWE leader Vince McMahon is traveling, eating out and keeping in touch with friends and associates – including former President Donald Trump.

McMahon resigned as executive chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment’s parent company almost three months ago after a former employee, Janel Grant, accused him in a bombshell lawsuit of sexual abuse and trafficking. He denied the allegations. McMahon, 78, is also facing a federal criminal investigation, although he hasn’t been charged.

NBC News and CNBC talked to 11 people familiar with McMahon and WWE about how he’s been spending his time – and how the global brand he built over more than four decades is moving on without him. These people, including close personal associates and company insiders, declined to be named, citing ongoing legal cases and the confidential nature of internal corporate communications.

Multiple WWE insiders said he hasn’t had any contact with company leaders and figureheads since he resigned. Mark Shapiro, the operating chief of WWE parent company TKO Group Holdings, said in March that McMahon “doesn’t work for the company, doesn’t come into the office, and he’s not coming back to the company.”

That also means McMahon hasn’t talked to his son-in-law, WWE creative chief and former superstar Paul “Triple H” Levesque, or daughter, Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, regarding company matters, sources said. While she introduced WWE’s WrestleMania event earlier this month, McMahon-Levesque, who worked beside her father for more than 20 years and played roles in storylines, currently has no involvement with the company, according to people familiar with the matter. Levesque and McMahon-Levesque declined to comment through a spokesperson, as did a WWE representative.  

McMahon is nonetheless indelibly linked with the wrestling outfit, which he bought from his father 42 years ago. Still, he seems to have moved on, according to multiple sources. McMahon has kept up his other routines, and it’s as if he’s unfazed by his legal fights, two sources said.

For instance, on an afternoon in late March, McMahon returned on a private plane to the United States from the sunny Turks and Caicos Islands — but he wasn’t alone, according to a person close to him. He had with him seven kittens and a puppy, all of which he brought back to be adopted by his friends, this person added.

“If anything, he’s enjoying life,” said the person, who added that McMahon had also taken a trip to Italy. 

Jessica Rosenberg, an attorney for McMahon, declined to comment regarding the aspects of the former WWE chief’s life reported in this article. In an emailed statement Tuesday, however, she criticized Grant’s suit: “The lawsuit’s claims are false, defamatory and entirely without merit. We intend to vigorously defend Mr. McMahon and are confident that he will be vindicated.”

Life amid litigation

The details of McMahon’s life after his WWE reign present a stark contrast to Grant’s accusations, which paint a graphic portrait of a violent and controlling man. In the federal lawsuit, filed Jan. 25, Grant’s attorneys said that she was “the victim of physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault and trafficking at WWE,” naming McMahon and former WWE executive John Laurinaitis. Both men have denied the accusations in the suit. The lawsuit also named WWE as a defendant. WWE and its parent company, TKO, have said that they take Grant’s allegations “very seriously.” 

“Vince McMahon raped, trafficked and physically assaulted Janel Grant as part of his decades-long normalization of treating women within the WWE as objects. He might have thought that Janel would just walk away, but that wishful thinking couldn’t be further from the case,” Ann Callis, an attorney for Grant, said in a statement Wednesday. “Every day we are focused on adding to our mountain of evidence, speaking with other victims, hiring renowned experts on sex trafficking/coercive control and preparing to vociferously litigate this case.”

Federal investigators seized a phone from McMahon and have been trying to determine whether federal law was broken in the conduct surrounding Grant’s allegations, NBC News reported in February. WWE had disclosed last summer that investigators served McMahon with a federal grand jury subpoena and executed a search warrant in July.

McMahon is cooperating with authorities, according to one of the people close to him. McMahon believes officials won’t bring any charges against him and that Grant’s civil case will be settled out of court, said a person close to the former wrestling executive.

Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Grant’s attorneys said that there have been absolutely no settlement talks with McMahon.

While his legal battles persist, McMahon is often ferried by a private driver from his posh Connecticut home to Manhattan, according to one of the sources close to him. There, he eats with friends at restaurants such as the old-school Italian spot Il Tinello East on 46th Street, sees his longtime barber for biweekly haircuts and works with his personal trainer multiple times a week, the source said. 

Two other sources, however, say McMahon has otherwise been “quite guarded” and often on the phone with his lawyers to map out plans since Grant’s lawsuit was made public.

Staying in touch

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

In 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that McMahon paid $5 million in previously unrecorded expenses to the since-dissolved Donald J. Trump Foundation during two of the years Trump appeared on WWE programming.

Trump, who’s running for a second term as president, has also been accused of sexual assault and is facing his own costly pile of civil and criminal legal troubles, including four separate indictments. Trump has denied wrongdoing in his various cases, pleading not guilty in each criminal proceeding, including a New York trial that started Monday. 

Another person close to McMahon said that the two men don’t discuss their legal problems and that Trump doesn’t provide legal advice.

A representative for Trump declined to comment.

Since he resigned, McMahon has been in touch with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena, sources said. Johnson and Cena, both Hollywood superstars, are two of WWE’s biggest success stories.

Publicly, Johnson has thanked TKO and WWE executives regarding his addition to the TKO board earlier this year. In February, Cena told the radio host Howard Stern that “the whole thing is super unfortunate and it sucks,” while noting that he loves McMahon and has a “great relationship” with him. “But in the same breath,” he added at the time, “I’m also a big advocate of accountability.”

Cena and Johnson are both represented by the William Morris Endeavor agency, which is part of Endeavor Group – the majority owner of TKO.

A spokesperson for Johnson declined to comment. A representative for Cena didn’t respond to requests for comment.

WWE in transition

This isn’t the first time WWE has had to contend with controversy stemming from its former longtime leader. McMahon was acquitted of federal criminal charges in the early 1990s related to the steroid scandal that engulfed the wrestling world at the time. 

In 2022, he briefly stepped down as WWE’s leader after the  Journal reported that he paid millions of dollars to multiple women to cover up his alleged extramarital affairs. The Journal also reported that other women had come forward with sexual misconduct allegations. WWE amended its financial reports to reflect the payments. McMahon denied all wrongdoing.

His daughter helped take over leadership of the company in the interim, but McMahon-Levesque resigned when her father, who owned a controlling stake in WWE, returned in early 2023. McMahon then engineered a deal to merge the company with Endeavor Group’s UFC to form TKO. Longtime Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel is the CEO of both Endeavor and TKO. 

TKO CEO Ari Emanuel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson speak to CNBC at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., January 23, 2024.

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

That deal, announced in April 2023, made McMahon the executive chairman of the new company, and he gave up majority control of WWE. At the time, he told CNBC he wouldn’t be “in the weeds” with creative decisions but he would weigh in on big decisions. 

That marked a big shift for McMahon. His family has been in the business dating back to the early 20th century. After buying the company from his father, who was known as “Vince Sr.,”, the younger McMahon then employed flamboyant superstars such as Hulk Hogan and the Rock, staging glitzy pay-per-view events like WrestleMania. to build it into an international sensation. And while WWE is still defined in part by the family, McMahon’s daughter and son-in-law are publicly attempting to push the brand into the future. 

At WrestleMania 40, held earlier this month in Philadelphia, McMahon-Levesque surprised the crowd with an appearance and hailed her husband’s leadership. 

“Every Wrestlemania is special for its own reason, but I think WrestleMania 40 might be the one I’m most proud of, because this is the first WrestleMania of the Paul Levesque era,” she  said. (Linda McMahon joined her daughter backstage, according to an Instagram photo posted by wrestling star Charlotte Flair.) Levesque himself proclaimed a “new era” for WWE. 

It was a significant moment for the brand, coming during the first WrestleMania since the Grant lawsuit — and it’s the first one under TKO’s management. Still, some rank-and-file WWE employees have griped that the company hasn’t done more to address the situation, according to an insider. After McMahon quit, Shapiro told a global town hall for both TKO and Endeavor employees “in no uncertain terms” that the former wrestling boss wouldn’t return, according to another insider. Shapiro also assured employees that Levesque and WWE President Nick Khan have his support, this person said. 

Otherwise, WWE is more relaxed since McMahon resigned in January, sources said. When McMahon was still running things, he would come in late in the afternoon and often stay until around midnight or beyond, two current employees said. (His office at WWE headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, is unoccupied but otherwise intact, according to an executive, who called it “spooky.”) He had a reputation for being capricious and quick to fire employees, which generated fear and created a chilling effect, according to sources. 

Now there’s more levity and freedom to make a mistake or suggest an idea, some employees said.

The current leadership operates more conventionally, giving underperforming employees a standard progress report and opportunities to improve before taking action, they added. 

Some McMahon loyalists remain, but one employee said: “WWE is actually a really great place to work, and Vince distracted from that. It’s been much better since he left.” Another said: “People feel like they’re on steadier ground.”

The company, meanwhile, is charting its post-McMahon course with the help of lucrative media rights deals. In September, WWE signed a $1.4 billion deal with NBC News’ parent company, NBCUniversal, for domestic rights to “Friday Night SmackDown.” In January, it inked a 10-year, $5 billion pact with Netflix to move its flagship “Raw” show and other programs to the streaming giant next year. WWE announced both agreements after it became part of TKO and McMahon ceded much of his official control over the brand.

There’s yet another sign suggesting that McMahon’s distance from WWE is more than temporary: He has sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of shares in TKO since November, a sizable chunk of those sales coming after he resigned in January. That’s different from when he briefly stepped down in 2022. 

“This time, it’s like, OK, now, it’s over-over,” one of the insiders said.

— NBC News’ Tom Winter contributed to this report.

A version of this story was published on NBCNews.com.





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