“People who make a living off other people’s fortunes or misfortunes are parasites,” Frank Sinatra once observed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid putting stripper/porn star Stormy Daniels in that category. Last month Ms. Daniels filed a civil suit in Manhattan federal court against President Donald Trump and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, claiming that weeks before the 2016 election, each had pressured her to keep silent about a sexual one-nighter between her and Trump a decade earlier, paying her $130,000 as an inducement. The complaint appears highly specious. Yet many in the media prefer to see her as speaking truth to power.
Stephanie Clifford aka “Stormy Daniels,” now 39, a native of Baton Rouge, is a giant of the porn industry, assuming the industry can be considered the land of giants. She’s appeared in more than 250 adult film reels, directing any number of them. But lately her significance resides in her power to break a sitting president. To recap: Back in July 2006, Donald Trump, riding high with his NBC-TV show, The Apprentice, met Ms. Daniels at a celebrity golf tournament at the Edgewood Resort near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The future president, who recently had married current wife Melania and had become a father again, allegedly took Stormy for a spin around the course in his golf cart. They then had dinner, retired to his hotel suite, and made consensual whoopee. It would be a one-shot deal. Nobody would be the wiser.
Or so it seemed. Around May 2011, In Touch Weekly conducted an interview with Daniels, during which she revealed details surrounding the encounter. Only weeks later, she said, a man accosted her and her baby daughter on a Las Vegas parking lot, issuing a threat: “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.” He added ominously: “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.” She did not report the incident to police out of fear. Assuming the story is true, this was a criminal terror threat. At the same time, there is no evidence that anyone affiliated with Donald Trump made the threat or even was aware of it. The magazine didn’t run the story.
A half-decade later, however, opportunity knocked. In October 2016, during the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Ms. Clifford/Daniels threatened to go public. At the time, Donald Trump was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, but closing the gap. An accusation like this could undo everything. This had all the appearance of an attempt to cash in on Trump’s fear of bad publicity; i.e., blackmail. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, allegedly approached her with an offer: He would pay her $130,000 if she signed a confidentiality agreement. Ms. Daniels apparently signed the document and got the hush money. In the months following Trump’s election victory, the chain of events appeared destined for the memory hole.
The situation suddenly changed this January 12, when the Wall Street Journal published a story about the Trump-Daniels relationship. Five days later, In Touch published the dormant interview transcript. And on March 6, Ms. Clifford/Daniels filed suit. The confidentiality agreement wasn’t valid, she insisted, because Trump never signed it – an odd claim given that she seemingly had no problem with the lack of Trump’s signature a year and a half earlier. She emphasized that she wasn’t seeking money, only an exit from the agreement.
The FBI, apparently at the behest of special counsel Robert Mueller, entered the scene. On April 9, agents from the bureau executed search warrants of Michael Cohen’s Manhattan office, residence and hotel room, seizing emails, tax documents and business records, including those related to money paid to Daniels. The action, based on the premise that Cohen had made an illegal “in kind” contribution, was a wild leap of faith. First, there is no evidence that Cohen or any other Trump person sought to influence the election by buying someone off. If anything, they sought to avoid being blackmailed by Ms. Daniels. And blackmail is a crime. Second, it was the Hillary Clinton campaign that seemed to have a blind spot for campaign laws. Indeed, Clinton operatives laundered payments for the notorious Steele Dossier through a law firm in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which requires expenditures to be itemized by their purpose. Given the tenacity of Mueller’s investigators, Cohen can be seen as doing the right thing yesterday by announcing that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Likewise, President Trump is right to deny having knowledge of the payment.
Stormy Daniels is now a first-tier celebrity. She was a guest on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! on February 4, immediately following President Trump’s State of the Union address (talk about timing!). She gave a full-length interview to Anderson Cooper on CBS’ 60 Minutes (see photo) that aired March 25, laying out the saga. And she was a guest on ABC’s The View on April 17. None of the hosts are friendly to Donald Trump, and Kimmel in particular has a visceral dislike of the president.
Various print journalists see a way to cut Trump down to size. Rhonda Garelick, writing in the blog site The Cut, argued that Daniels’ artifice, unlike that of Trump, is “utterly forthright, all tools of a trade she neither excuses nor disavows…If Trump and company are guilty of profiteering, they are doing everything to keep their greed under wraps, as so many secrets that we can only hope Robert Mueller will soon (please, God) unveil.” Later, Garelick summed things up: “Un-hushable, un-secret, and unashamed, Stormy Daniels – gloriously authentic for all her inauthenticity – may yet be the ray of sunlight we need, the one who exposes enough of Trump’s iniquity for the tide to turn. An antidote. The anti-Trump.” Boston Globe reporter Matt Viser, happily anticipated a Trump debacle: “If it were just a reality show plot line, you could call it the ultimate comeuppance for Trump, the former Apprentice star who was said to call up New York tabloids, posing as someone else, to offer details of his own playboy lifestyle.”
To some extent, the media are exploiting this melodrama for fun and profit. In a blog for Fortune, University of Michigan communications professor Susan J. Douglas observed: “It is sensationalism, pure and simple.” This point is sound as far as it goes, but it also misses something: The implicit motive isn’t just to titillate readers, it is to discredit President Trump. In this morality play, Stormy Daniels is the classic ‘whore with a heart of gold.’
Rest assured, Ms. Daniels, egged on by her pit bull attorney, Michael Avenatti, stands to gain. There is no way she would have gone public otherwise. She’s obviously not angling for additional hush money, since there is nothing left to hush. She can snag far bigger bucks through stripping, acting, photography poses and web hits (she’s already generated over 24 million views on Pornhub). Her current husband, like her two previous ones, is also a porn star. Right now the woman has got the Midas touch. Part self-marketing and part revenge, Stormy Daniels’ charm offensive may have a long shelf life so long as news media see the possibility of Donald Trump’s political destruction.