The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why is Trump fighting his new female accusers so hard?

Here's how President Trump became embroiled in allegations that he had a sexual encounter with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“Donald Trump has a problem with women” is hardly news, but at the moment, the president is being bedeviled by three different women taking various forms of legal action against him.

These cases might be momentary irritants or they might be serious threats to his presidency. But Trump seems determined to turn them into the latter.

The question is why? Why is Trump fighting against them so hard? Wouldn’t it be better to just say, “It’s all fake news, folks,” and pretend they don’t exist?

After all, Trump weathered this storm during the 2016 campaign when more than a dozen women accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct — and he still got elected. These new accusers could tell their stories, Trump could deny them, and it might pretty much end there. The people who don’t like him would believe the women, the people who do like him would believe him (or even if they couldn’t bring themselves to do that, would at least decide it doesn’t really matter), and we’d all put it in that corner of our minds occupied by things like Trump University: Appalling behavior on his part that doesn’t really affect how we’ll think about tomorrow’s news.

Here are the women currently aiming their lawyers at the president, and where their cases stand:

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

Stormy Daniels: The adult-film actor and director says — as she has for many years — that beginning in 2006, just after the birth of Trump’s son Barron, she had a sporadic affair with Trump that lasted about a year. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged a payment of $130,000 to her (it remains unclear whose money was actually used). In exchange, she signed a nondisclosure agreement requiring her silence.

While Daniels has been somewhat coy in her recent public statements, she has been talking about the affair, and her lawyer just released the results of a 2011 polygraph test she took at the request of In Touch magazine, to which she had given an interview detailing the affair. Daniels has now filed suit against Trump to be released from the NDA, and is offering to return the $130,000 so she can speak candidly.

The New Yorker reports that Karen McDougal was paid $150,000 by American Media Inc. for her story about an alleged affair with President Trump in 2006. (Video: Reuters)

Karen McDougal: The former Playboy model says she had an affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels. In 2016, she entered into a $150,000 agreement with the parent company of the National Enquirer, which has been supportive of Trump, in a tactic known as “catch and kill,” in which it buys a story about a celebrity, but keeps it under wraps instead of publishing it. McDougal is now suing the company, American Media, Inc., saying it was secretly working with Cohen, and deceived her about the nature of the agreement she had signed. She, too, seeks to be free to discuss her relationship with Trump.

Summer Zervos: A former contestant on “The Apprentice,” Zervos later was in contact with Trump while looking for a job. She alleges that, on multiple occasions, he kissed her and groped her against her will. She has filed suit against Trump — not for the sexual harassment, but for defamation, because he called her a liar. On Tuesday, a New York Supreme Court judge denied a request from Trump’s lawyers that Zervos’s case be dismissed.

These cases pose different kinds of legal and political issues. With Daniels and McDougal, the alleged behavior in question was consensual; not so with Zervos. The payment to Daniels may have violated campaign finance laws. Since Trump has, in various ways, denied all the claims, he may not want to do anything that would be seen as admitting that he lied.

Even so, there would seem to be ways Trump could make these cases go away with the least fuss possible. He could release Daniels and McDougal from their nondisclosure agreements and tell them, “Say whatever you want, I don’t care.” There might be a brief bit of prurient interest in their stories, but it would quickly fade. He could reach a settlement with Zervos that gave her a payout without admitting any guilt on his part; the money wouldn’t matter to him.

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” said Jan. 17, 2017, that she had filed a defamation lawsuit against President Trump. (Video: Reuters)

But instead, he’s fighting them all. He even has his lawyers saying Daniels now owes him $20 million for violating her NDA. Why is he fighting so hard? Here are some theories:

  • This is just how Trump does business. As he wrote in one of his books, “When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get Even!’ That is not typical advice, but it is real life advice. If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck! . . . If you’re afraid to fight back people will think of you as a loser, a ‘schmuck!’ They will know they can get away with insulting you, disrespecting you, and taking advantage of you.” When somebody goes after Trump, he will try to destroy them. That may be about his personal pride, but it’s also a means of deterrence to others who might think of crossing him.
  • He’s worried there are secrets that could come out. This is particularly true in Zervos’s case, since she was on “The Apprentice.” Since the case is going forward, she can demand documents and information as part of the discovery process, and who knows what might be revealed. Particularly tantalizing is the possibility that behind-the-scenes tapes of the show’s production — which some involved with the show have said would show Trump making appalling racist and sexist remarks — might become public. But that would be more reason to settle quickly with Zervos. In the other cases, however, Trump could be concerned about embarrassing personal revelations — not just that he had affairs with a porn star and a Playboy model (which pretty much everyone accepts is true), but something more humiliating that might strike at Trump’s carefully constructed image as a macho ladies’ man, which he maintains with a kind of desperate insecurity.
  • There are other women he wants to keep from coming forward. When a dozen women accuse you of sexual misconduct, it’s a good bet that there are more than a dozen out there somewhere. In fact, former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon told author Michael Wolff as he was writing “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” that Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz had silenced many more women. “Look, Kasowitz has known [Trump] for twenty-five years. Kasowitz has gotten him out of all kinds of jams,” Bannon said. “Kasowitz on the campaign — what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.” Bannon (who has not disputed this quote) may have been exaggerating when he said “a hundred,” but it suggests that there are more women out there whom Trump would like to keep quiet.
  • It’s all about the NDAs. Not just the nondisclosure agreements that Trump has made women sign, but all of them. The Post’s Ruth Marcus reported this week that Trump took the unprecedented step of making White House senior staff sign NDAs. But this is nothing new for him. Throughout his career, Trump has been a prolific user of NDAs with people who worked for him. “I have reviewed confidentiality agreements in international, family-run hospitality organizations and . . . I have never seen a loyalty code to a family like this,” said one expert who reviewed them. An untold number of people have signed NDAs with Trump over the years, and if women like Daniels and McDougal walk away from theirs, it could give those people ideas. We could learn all sorts of interesting things about Trump’s personal and business history.

These are just theories; it is difficult to know for sure what’s going on here. None of them could be what’s really motivating Trump, or they might all be playing a role. If there are particular secrets Trump is trying to keep under wraps, he might succeed. But the controversy over his treatment of women is certainly not going away.