Donald Trump has been accused of worse things than Stormy Daniels is accusing him of. Other women—including Summer Zervos, who is suing him for defamation—have said he harassed and assaulted them, whereas Daniels says she had consensual sex with Trump once. The Trump Organization has engaged in business deals with shady foreign partners and been decried for turning a profit off his presidency, whereas the potential illegal activity in the Daniels case is a violation of campaign finance law—if the $130,000 she got by way of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen just before the 2016 election counts as a contribution. And, of course, the notion that Trump's campaign colluded with Russia still hangs over his presidency—Daniels isn't alleging anything as dark as what some conspiracists are.
Yet Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) is the Trump antagonist everyone is paying attention to right now. On Sunday evening, 60 Minutes finally aired its much-hyped interview in which Daniels alleged that not only did she have an affair with Trump in 2006, but she was threatened by a man in a parking lot after talking to a tabloid media company about the encounter in 2011. That threat, she added, pushed her to take the seemingly modest payment for her silence in the final days of the 2016 campaign.
Obviously the base appeal of the Daniels story is old-school tabloid sleaze—last week, rumors that Daniels has Trump dick pics lit up the internet. And the idea that the president once had sex with a porn star would be news no matter who the president and porn star were. Except Daniels is no ordinary porn star but, like Trump, a huckster of the highest order. So far, none of the many, many scandals to hit Trumpland have even come close to sinking his presidency. If the Daniels affair ends up being the straw that breaks the Donald's back, it'll be because Daniels is probably a better manipulator of the mass media than anyone he faced in presidential politics.
Daniels, as documented by a recent New York Times profile, rose up from long shifts at an obscure Baton Rouge strip club to the very top of the porn industry—not just as an actor but as a director, too. She's apparently held in very high regard by people in the industry, too—“Stormy will eat you alive,” one actor who worked with her told the Daily Beast.
On 60 Minutes, Daniels said her motivation for speaking out about the alleged affair and the subsequent coverup was to set the record straight. "I was perfectly fine saying nothing at all, but I'm not OK with being made out to be a liar," she said. She added that while she didn't exactly want to hook up with Trump that one time in 2006 (he was 60 and she was 27 at the time, after all), the encounter was consensual—"I had it coming for making a bad decision," she said of going up to his hotel room after a charity golf event. "This is not a #MeToo," she told Anderson Cooper. "I never said I was a victim."
Though Daniels denied that she was speaking out in an attempt to seek fame or fortune, she admitted to cashing in, to an extent, on her new prominence. "People are like, 'Oh, you're an opportunist. You're taking advantage of this.' Yes, I'm getting more job offers now," she told Cooper, "but tell me one person who would turn down a job offer making more than they've been making, doing the same thing that they've always done?"
It was the sort of roguish, down-to-earth admission you could imagine Trump himself making—albeit less sympathetically. And Daniels wasn't above some Trumpish bragging about money, either, calling the $130,000 paid for her silence an "extremely low number."
For the most part, she came across as self-assured and entirely in control in the interview, fitting for a woman who has, since news of the affair broke, been on Jimmy Kimmel (where she playfully dodged questions about having sex with Trump), embarked on a headline-grabbing stripping tour, and spent time on Twitter mocking her many detractors. Her lawyer, former Democratic operative Michael Avenatti, has been just as brash, throwing around the #basta hashtag (Italian slang for "enough!" or "stop it") and insinuating that the pair have some kind of proof of the affair, which Trump has steadfastly denied.
"This is about the coverup," Avenatti declared on 60 Minutes. He decried both the alleged threat of physical violence that was communicated back to her in 2011 by a mysterious man in Las Vegas and the claims that Daniels's statements about sex with Trump violate her confidentiality agreement, meaning she could owe as much as $20 million in damages. "It is thuggish behavior from people in power. And it has no place in American democracy," Avenatti told Cooper.
(Avenatti and Daniels claim the nondisclosure agreement Daniels signed was never valid since Trump didn't sign it. They also suggest her previous statements about not having had sex with Trump were essentially lies made under duress.)
There are a lot of questions still swirling around the Daniels case. Will it come to a battle in court? Will Trump be deposed or made to testify in some fashion? Does that $130,000 count as a campaign contribution? Will the FEC even care? Was Daniels threatened by a Trump associate? (That last one may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.)
What's not up for debate is Daniels's savviness—she and Avenatti succeeded in making real news with accusations of the threat (oh, and the thing about her spanking Trump with a magazine). They also tied this scandal to the larger idea that Trump is a corrupt bully. And Daniels all but dared Trump to attack her account as "fake news," knowing, no doubt, that any early-morning Twitter rant about her would just elevate her profile and amplify her story even more.
At every turn, Daniels has succeeded in generating more interest in her account and creating more speculation about what kind of evidence she has, often through the coy stayed-tuned-for-more tactics Trump employed to keep the media chasing after him when he ran for president.
During the 2016 campaign, the politicians who went up against Trump always seemed at a loss when things got crude or absurd—remember, this is a guy who talked about his dick during a primary debate. Other Trump accusers have mostly shied away from the spotlight, likely because they don't want to court that kind of publicity (though former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a consensual affair with Trump and signed an NDA, recently gave an interview to CNN).
Daniels, unlike so many others, isn't intimidated by Trump's fire and fury. More than that, though, she's strikingly unafraid of a public spat with the most powerful man in the world. Indeed, her 60 Minutes interview was reportedly the program's highest-rated since Barack Obama's first post-election sit-down in 2008. Her accusations likely won't bring down the presidency. But she's one of the few people on the planet who can make Trump squirm.
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