More than 16 months ago, Stormy Daniels signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited her from discussing her alleged affair with Donald Trump. Or his business. Or his children. Or his “alleged children.”
That was then.
Now, the porn star is trying to rewrite the script. She hired an aggressive new lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who won a $454 million medical fraud verdict last year, the largest in the state of California in 2017. She took the president of the United States to court, declaring that the “hush agreement” under which she was paid $130,000 is void because it lacks Trump’s signature.
Possibly in defiance of a secret gag order, Daniels on Thursday gave a yet-to-be-aired interview to CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” She spoke with a reporter for a story published by Rolling Stone on Friday under a headline calling her “the Hero America Needs.” She’s lately been sassy on Twitter, mocking critics and correcting their misspellings.
With each new headline, her marketability surges.
“Look how Stormy is controlling the narrative now,” said Karen Tynan, a lawyer based in the San Francisco area with clients in the porn industry. “The allegedly most powerful man in the world is dancing to the tune played by Stormy.”
Those who know Daniels, 38, say they aren’t surprised. She is viewed as ambitious and resilient in the porn industry, where she rose from actress to director of dozens of films. In 2016, she won industry awards for “Wanted,” a three-hour western that she wrote, directed and starred in.
“She did a lot of things that most porn stars don’t do,” said Kevin Blatt, a broker of celebrity sex tapes. “They don’t graduate to that point of directing and taking control of their own careers. They’re usually manipulated and exploited, chewed up and spit out.”
Daniels herself described her role in the porn world last week in a podcast hosted by erotic photographer Holly Randall. “I’ve written and directed all of my own movies for the last 10 years because I am a control freak,” Daniels said. “Or is it because, if you want something done right, you do it yourself? Or is it because I wanted to get paid double for the day? The correct answer is ‘D,’ all of the above.”
That assertiveness contrasts with the silence that was required of Daniels in the deal she was negotiating in late 2016 with Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen.
“She was kind of in a predicament,” said Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who spoke with her during that time. “There was a deal being worked out in which she could get money, which she wanted, but it wasn’t working out as she expected, and she didn’t know who to trust or what to do.”
What she decided to do, days before the 2016 election, was take the deal.
Cohen said Friday that the funds for the $130,000 payment came from his own home equity line of credit, a claim first reported by ABC News. Mortgage records show Cohen opened a line of credit for up to $500,000 in February 2016 on his Manhattan condo.
The agreement names four people Daniels said she had told about the alleged affair: representative Gina Rodriguez, friend Keith Munyan, ex-husband Mike Mosney and porn actress Angel Ryan. Ryan, who goes by the stage name Jessica Drake, accused Trump before the election of forcibly kissing her and two friends a decade earlier, during the same Lake Tahoe golf tournament where he met Daniels.
Trump has denied misconduct with women, and his campaign called Drake’s allegations “totally false and ridiculous.”
The deal remained secret for more than a year. It leaked on Jan. 12, in a story published by the Wall Street Journal.
Soon, Daniels was speaking out, though coyly at first.
“You can’t say whether you have a nondisclosure agreement,” observed late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel during a Jan. 30 interview in which Daniels gave up little information. “But if you didn’t have a nondisclosure agreement, you most certainly could say, ‘I don’t have a nondisclosure agreement,’ yes?” he asked.
“You’re so smart, Jimmy!” Daniels responded.
The agreement calls for binding and confidential arbitration in the event of a dispute. (Despite its language, there has been no credible claim of Trump fathering children beyond the five he is known to have.)
On Feb. 27, Cohen enacted that provision. Within hours, the arbitrator issued a temporary restraining order barring Daniels from talking about the deal, catching her by surprise, Avenatti said.
On Tuesday, Daniels forced the matter fully into the public domain with the lawsuit she and Avenatti filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. Though she has never suggested her relationship with Trump was anything other than consensual, the lawsuit links Daniels to the parade of women who accused him of sexual misconduct in the weeks before the 2016 election, motivated to speak out by revelations that he once bragged about groping women.
“Mr. Cohen is proceeding in a private arbitration hidden from public view in an effort to further hide from the public the true circumstances of what happened,” Avenatti said in an interview.
Cohen said in January that Trump denied having had an affair with Daniels. He later acknowledged facilitating the payment. On Friday, citing language in the contract, he said Trump’s signature was not required.
“I believe Mr. Avenatti’s actions and behavior has been both reckless and imprudent as it opens Ms. Clifford to substantial monetary liability, which I intend to pursue,” Cohen said Friday, using Daniels’s given name. “I question whether Mr. Avenatti has weighed his desire for 15 minutes of fame versus his client’s welfare. Time will ultimately prove that I am right.”
Avenatti has become a brash spokesman for Daniels, slinging rapid-fire broadsides in a media blitz that entered its third day on Friday. His website touts his media savvy, saying “most lawyers falter and under-utilize” connections with the press.
The arguments he advances play into the new awareness, heightened by the #MeToo movement, of the ways powerful men have exploited women for decades. Increasingly, nondisclosure agreements and confidential arbitration have kept these matters private long after they are settled.
In the tense back-and-forth with Cohen before the election, Daniels was represented by Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer who built a business around celebrity news — often by brokering deals to keep it out of the public eye. He represented the ex-girlfriend of actor Verne Troyer, best known for playing Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movie series, in a lawsuit over a leaked sex tape. Another client was a woman who had been fired from the Betty Ford Clinic for disclosing confidential information about actress Lindsay Lohan.
In recent weeks, as scrutiny of her alleged relationship with Trump increased, Daniels hired Avenatti, a lawyer whose practice has included cases including wrongful death, negligence and complex class-action lawsuits.
“I retained Michael because I needed a top notch attorney with a proven track record who would listen and put my interests first; who is fearless, really smart, articulate and knows how to deal with the media,” Daniels said in a statement provided by Avenatti. “He has proven to be all of these things.”
It’s not the first time Avenatti has sued Trump: He was on the legal team that in 2005 represented Mark Bethea, who accused Trump and television producer Mark Burnett of stealing his idea for the reality show that became “The Apprentice.” The case was settled the following year on terms that were not disclosed.
Last year, Avenatti won the $454 million judgment against multinational paper company Kimberly-Clark and medical manufacturer Halyard Health over the companies’ claims that their surgical gowns were impermeable to serious diseases, such as Ebola and HIV.
“Michael is a very tenacious lawyer,” said Bruce Broillet, a Santa Monica-based lawyer who has worked closely with Avenatti, noting that he graduated first in his law school class at George Washington University.
The highly visible approach taken by Avenatti and Daniels has caused her popularity to surge.
Each time Daniels has been in the news for her alleged affair with Trump — when she appeared on Kimmel’s show, when Cohen admitted arranging the $130,000 payment, and most recently when she sued the president — searches for her name on Pornhub.com have spiked, according to an analysis by the site.
After the story about the payment broke, searches for her name skyrocketed from a daily average of 2,500 to more than 2 million searches in five days.
Her fee for appearing at a Las Vegas strip club called Little Darlings in late January was unusually high, said manager Ron Nady, though he would not disclose it. “She was the hottest thing on the planet,” he said.
Daniels is from Louisiana, where she once explored a run for U.S. Senate. She lives near Dallas with her husband and their 7-year-old daughter, who is aware her mother makes movies that are not for children.
Daniels is also a serious equestrian, said Packy McGaughan, a Maryland-based horse trainer who first met her at a 2016 equestrian event, one that included Olympic riders. The porn star’s presence can be a distraction when he is teaching children and their parents spot her, McGaughan acknowledged.
“The mothers ask, ‘Is that Stormy Daniels? Errr, um.’ ” he said. “And the fathers go, ‘Oooh.’ ”
McGaughan said he doesn’t think Daniels will shy away from controversy. “This is an extreme sport,” he said. “You have to be a risk taker in all aspect of your life. That’s her personality.”
Daniels’s determination has become a point of pride among sex workers and others in the industry who are tackling issues such as human trafficking and who have long felt marginalized.
“We’ve never had a run-in with the president,” said Brian Gross, a publicist who has clients in the porn industry. “Nothing like this.”
As recently as this past week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the notion that Trump had approved a payment to Daniels. “None of these allegations are true,” she said.
In the recent podcast interview, Daniels said she was looking forward to sharing her story on her terms.
“Eventually, hopefully I’ll be able to tell my side,” she said. “Not for any sort of gain other than I want to be able to defend myself. That’s the worst part, is that at this moment I can’t defend myself.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she added, “especially for somebody like me, who has no problem usually defending herself.”
The host, Randall, interjected: “Yes, you aren’t somebody to keep your mouth shut.”
Daniels: “My name is Stormy for a reason!”
Alice Crites and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.