Stormy Daniels: the President and the Porn Star is so much more than just a sex scandal

Unanswered questions leave some still asking, could she topple the president?

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The President and the Porn Star was always going to be TV gold, although it might have been easier viewing were it a House of Cards subplot. On Sunday night, CBS broadcast an interview with Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who says she had sex with Donald Trump months after his son Baron was born in 2006 and who, 11 days before the election, was allegedly paid $130,000 by Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to remain silent about their affair.

In what was the first time that Daniels had spoken publicly about her relationship with Trump since his election, she told the CBS 60 Minutes anchor, Anderson Cooper, that she had been threatened, and had kept her silence out of fear for her own safety and that of her daughter. But now that news of their affair is public anyway, Daniels is suing the president for the right to tell her story. Trump’s legal team has threatened her with damages of $20m for breaking her non-disclosure agreement.

Of course, there were plenty of titillating details, although most could already be found in her In Touch interview. Daniels said she met Trump at a golf tournament in 2006. The reality TV star invited her for dinner, and it was not a pleasant surprise to realise that they would be dining in his hotel suite. He was 60, she was 27. They had unprotected sex, which she says was consensual but she was not attracted to him.

“I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this,’” she told Cooper. In the months that followed, Trump phoned her regularly. He called her “honeybunch” and dangled the offer of a place on Celebrity Apprentice in the hope she might sleep with him again. She didn’t.

Daniels, blonde curls tumbling over her shoulders, pneumatic figure contained in a shiny pink blouse and black pencil skirt, did theatrical impressions of Trump-the-creep perched on his hotel bed, waiting for sex. She says that after he talked non-stop about himself, she told him to drop his trousers and then spanked him with a magazine with his face on the cover. After that he relaxed and took more interest in her, praising her as smart and saying he reminded her of his daughter.

But this is much more than a sex scandal. More important and disturbing was Daniels’ account of being threatened with serious harm in 2011 unless she stopped talking publicly about her affair with Trump.

Daniels said that soon after she gave an interview about their relationship (published by In Touch earlier this year, with former employees at the magazine telling CBS that the article had initally been spiked in 2011 because Cohen threatened to sue), an unknown man approached her in a Las Vegas carpark when she was with her baby daughter, and told her to “Leave Trump alone. Forget the Story.” Daniels was struggling with a car seat and a nappy bag, and the man looked at her daughter and said “that’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mum.”

Daniels said this threat explained why she signed the non-disclosure agreement (she would have earned more than $130,000 had she sold her story, she said) and why, in January 2018, she issued a statement denying that she’d had an affair with Trump and that she was paid any hush money. According to Daniels, she was told “they can make your life hell in many different ways" – understanding “they” to mean Cohen. Daniels’ brash, media-savvy, petrol head lawyer Michael Avenatti accused Trump’s legal team of “thuggish” behaviour.

Both Daniels and Avenatti are skilled in the art of the tease. Last week Avenatti tweeted a photo of a CD, hinting that Daniels had retained evidence of her affair with Trump. When asked if she had kept text messages, emails, videos or photographs documenting her relationship with the president, Daniels said she couldn’t “answer that right now”, a coy smile playing on her lips.

Daniels said she decided to go public, despite the risks, to “defend herself” against accusations that she’s a liar and an opportunist. But there’s a sense here too, that she’s withholding something. After all, the stakes are so high and she has already demonstrated a certain imperviousness to public opinion. Avenatti said his motivations in representing Daniels were not “political” but “righteous”.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is 39 and was born in the blue-collar town of Baton Rouge in Louisiana. She is an immensely successful porn actress and director, ambitious, smart and business-savvy. In 2009 she publicly toyed with running for the Louisiana senate as a Republican, telling reporters that her political slogan would be “Screwing People Honestly”. Her Twitter profile attests to a sharp wit. She seems invulnerable to the slurs often used to discredit women’s stories. “Yes! I love your enthusiasm!” she replied to a twitter user who called her a whore. That’s part of her strength.

It’s a reflection of the scandal-ridden White House that Daniels’ interview was not the top political story on Monday morning. One important looming question is why Trump – the candidate who survived sexual harassment allegations and pussy-grabbing locker-room chat – should have gone through such lengths to silence her. The former playboy model Karen McDougal has also said that Trump tried to pay her to keep her silence over their 2006 affair. How many other women have been silenced by similar agreements and threats?

Trump’s woman problem suggests he’s vulnerable to blackmail – a theme echoed in the Steele dossier. One of the more lurid (and unverified) allegations in the dossier is that Russian intelligence services gathered compromising material on Trump after he invited prostitutes to give him golden showers in his Moscow hotel room.

Complaints have already been filed with the Federal Election Commission and the Ministry of Justice saying that Cohen’s payment to Daniels broke campaign finance laws. Trump is said to consider Daniels’ story a “political hoax”, and many of his supporters will dismiss the saga as irrelevant fake news, but as the legal momentum builds, in Washington some are wondering aloud: could the porn star topple the president?

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

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