Sex, lies and Stormy Daniels
Could Trump’s tawdriness prove to be his undoing?
Where would Donald Trump be without the press he so openly disdains? Back in Trump Tower, no doubt, overseeing his licensing business, seeking financing, and idly dreaming of the White House. As Michelle Wolf accused the media in her controversial routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: ‘You helped create this monster… You pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him… Trump has helped all of you… he has helped you sell your papers, your books, your TV.’
Indeed. Keeping up with his ‘another day, another scandal’ administration may not be an act of love, but it does demand obsessive devotion. In their shared commitment to leaving no scandal uncovered, print, TV and digital media have breathlessly reported the unremarkable story of Trump’s alleged 2006 affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, the hush money she later received and the non-disclosure agreement she’s challenging. It’s doubtful, however, that many voters, including Trump supporters, believe his denials of the encounter or care if he lied about it.
The story became slightly more interesting when Trump’s new personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, casually asserted that, contrary to the president’s previous, unequivocal statements, Trump knew about the payment of hush money by his fixer, the lawyer Michael Cohen. Giuliani also says Trump reimbursed Cohen, who is now under federal investigation and seems likely to be indicted. (His home and office were raided last month.) But it’s also doubtful that many voters believe Trump’s professed ignorance of the pay-off or care if he lied about that, too.
‘Does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying?’, Dan Balz of the Washington Post asks. A better question would be, ‘Does it surprise anyone that Trump has been caught lying?’. The obvious answer is probably not. Like infidelity, lying is part of his brand.
Still, this story has dominated the news, to the exclusion of other more consequential matters, like mass deportations or the Trumpian takeover of the federal judiciary. As Michelle Wolf memorably concluded, while the press chases Trump’s scandals, Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water. Even allegations that the pay-off to Daniels constitutes a campaign-finance violation, reportedly under federal investigation, seem relatively trivial. Campaign-finance rules are complicated, their enforcement is difficult and time-consuming, and Trump supporters probably wouldn’t care if the president admitted to violating them. In any case, they would be the least of the financial sins of this pervasively corrupt, kleptocratic administration.
At first, coverage of the Stormy Daniels saga seemed to vindicate Michelle Wolf’s critique. But tug on the thread of a small scandal and sometimes a larger one unravels. Daniels is no longer at the center of this story, thanks partly to her media-savvy lawyer, Michael Avenatti. Attention is now focused on Cohen, who appears to have engaged in a lucrative, if short-lived, campaign to sell his presumed influence with Donald Trump. Cohen’s role in paying Daniels off has helped expose an apparent cash-for-influence scandal involving major American corporations and, naturally, a Russian oligarch – the latest addition to Cohen’s reported Russian connections.
Trading in influence is not necessarily illegal. It is just another element of the swamp that Trump promised to drain, but has deepened instead. Collusion with Russians is not necessarily illegal either, depending on what it comprised. In fact, there is no question that family members and advisers close to Trump engaged with official and unofficial representatives of Vladimir Putin’s regime prior to the election. The legal questions are whether any of these engagements were criminal, and whether anyone indicted as a consequence will implicate Trump.
Will Michael Cohen, for example, turn on Trump if he faces serious felony charges? Perhaps. But Trump could pardon Cohen and any others who are poised to flip. Or he could fire any federal prosecutors who pursue charges that threaten his businesses, his family, or his presidency – perhaps even without losing significant support from his base. There are also serious questions about whether a sitting president can be indicted and profound political questions about the costs and benefits of trying to criminally prosecute a president.
Trump is an ignorant, dishonest, self-serving autocrat with no concept of public service, no interest in public welfare, and no regard for laws that might limit his profits or prerogatives. But, as a practical matter, his presidency is primarily a political problem, not a legal one. We’ll have to vote, not prosecute, our way out of it.
This year his fate and ours depend partly on the mid-term elections. Democrats will probably not retake the Senate, and they would need to in order to take control of the judicial confirmation process. But they could retake the House and assume investigatory power now held by the Republican majority. Trump will not be impeached unless significant numbers of Republicans find it in their interests to turn against him. But if Congress assumes its rightful oversight role, he could be exposed, stripped naked of his lies and diminished in stature. It would be fitting if he were so exposed not by a special investigation into his alleged Russian ties, but partly as the result of a relentlessly covered one-night stand with a porn star. Trump is a tawdry, shallow man, marinating in delusions of grandeur, hiding behind a collapsible image of strength, shrewdness and superior intelligence. To defeat Trump we may only need to embarrass him.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and writer, and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She is the author of several books, including: I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional (1992); and Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU (2009).
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