The alleged affair between Donald Trump and adult film star Stormy Daniels signals more than just a sex scandal, says freelance writer Sarah Ditum.
Donald Trump’s main – in fact, his only – strength as a politician is his utter inability to feel shame. With an implacable lack of embarrassment known only to toddlers and those in late-stage dementia, he’s proved himself immune to the kind of humiliations that would lay low a more normal (read: competent) leader. Which is why porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford), and her allegations that Trump had an affair with her in 2006, could be a problem for him. Because if Trump can’t feel shame, Clifford made it extremely clear in her 60 Minutes interview this week that she will not be shamed. If he’s the immovable object, she might just be the unstoppable force.
There’s more to this than a mere sex scandal. After all, Bill Clinton was wounded but not destroyed by the Lewinsky affair in the Nineties. Trump wasn’t prevented from becoming president by his own boasts of sexually assaulting women, so there’s no reason to think some adultery should drag him down, no matter however captivatingly sleazy the details are. And they really are sleazy. It’s going to take a long time for me to recover from the image of Clifford allegedly responding to Trump’s babble of self-aggrandisement about being on a magazine cover by telling him to drop his trousers so she could spank him with it. After that, I’ll still have to fight back my nausea from the vision of Trump flirting by apparently telling Clifford “you remind me of my daughter”.
But does this change anything? We already know that Trump is a cheater. We’ve heard the creepy conversations he had with Howard Stern about his daughter Ivanka. Clifford doesn’t want her story included in the #MeToo movement, either. Sex that started with her thinking “Ugh, here we go”, and continued because “I just felt like maybe I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone”, isn’t exactly a model of enthusiastic consent. But by her own account, it was consensual, so this is unlikely to convert his supporters into seeing him as the predator-in-chief.
Nevertheless, Trump – or someone on his team – seems to have been very keen that no one find out about it. When Clifford originally sold her story, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen squashed publication with legal threats. She says there were personal threats, too. She claims that once, while she was with her baby daughter in public, she was approached by a man who said: “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.” And then, before the election, Cohen presented her with a non-disclosure agreement (which she signed) and a payoff of $130,000 for keeping quiet about her allegations. She’s now suing to vacate that agreement.
The problem for Trump here is where that hush money came from. If it was Cohen’s own cash (and he told the New York Times that it was), then arguably it counts as a campaign donation – and an illegally high one. Cohen himself is an issue, too. He’s one of the figures under scrutiny in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which means the Stormy Daniels story could be a loose thread from which a whole new mess unravels.
Trump has denied the affair, but if he didn’t have sex with Clifford, what exactly was that NDA intended to prevent her from disclosing, and what was the $130,000 for? The fact that he’s maintained an uncharacteristic Twitter silence on this so far suggests he knows he’s on the ropes. Now that Clifford’s lawyer has filed a motion to force Trump and Cohen to give evidence, he could be humiliatingly compelled to break that silence in court.
Conventional wisdom used to hold that the Republican base wouldn’t tolerate infidelity in a president. Now we know that’s only true when the president is a Democrat. Being caught at it with a porn star probably wouldn’t have done Trump any harm. But being caught trying to cover up the fact that he’s been at it with a porn star? That, strangely, might be enough to set the rot going in his public image. His supporters love him for all the reasons he’s revolting. They want him to grab at whatever he wants and wave his butt at liberal niceties like “treating women as people”. What they don’t want is a man who cares about covering his ass.
Monica Lewinsky has written movingly in the light of #MeToo about how, as a young woman involved with her much older and much more powerful boss, shame and self-blame crushed her during the scandal that took her name. Clifford, though, is coming to this fight older and tougher. She’s a businesswoman who’s made it to the top of one of the most brutal industries going – the kind of real-life entrepreneur that Trump merely pretended to be for TV, while he frittered away his family cash on failed enterprises. Clifford told 60 Minutes she’ll never forget the look on Trump’s face when she swatted him with that rolled-up magazine. “I don’t think anyone’s ever spoken to him like that,” she said, “especially, you know, a young woman who looked like me.”
In Stormy Daniels, Trump has met his match. Call her a whore? She doesn’t care. “Slut and whore are words used by people who feel threatened. I find power in them,” she tweeted. Accuse her of going after fame and money? Well, duh. Or as she said on 60 Minutes: “Yes, I’m getting more job offers now, 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?” Her only motive, Clifford insists, is to “set the record straight”. Her weapons are a steely inability to be embarrassed, and an even steelier eye on the main chance. And if she can beat Trump on those counts, he’s got absolutely nothing left to use against her.