The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stormy Daniels and the bosom of chaos

There would be something poetic about the story of the porn star and the president bringing about a historic arrest

Stormy Daniels (a.k.a. Stephanie Clifford) in 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
6 min

In 2018, I went to a strip club in downtown Washington to see Stormy Daniels perform. It was part of a tour that was part of a gimmick, a hasty cash grab for X-rated businesses who knew aging porn stars don’t have a long shelf life, even if they allegedly once boinked a future U.S. president.

Her whole routine was perfunctory and almost chaste: The woman had left behind her horse farm to unretire her G-string, and you got the sense she’d rather be home with the animals. But still. What a time to be alive.

Donald Trump had not only allegedly slept with Daniels back in the 2000s but, according to his former attorney, agreed to pay her off in 2016 to keep her quiet. Michael Cohen testified before Congress that to keep the affair private, and with his boss’s approval, he had given Daniels $130,000. Trump admitted the payment but denied the affair, saying the money was intended to stop Daniels’s “false and extortionist” claims. For a while, you couldn’t turn on the television without glimpsing Cohen — a man who took a shockingly long time to realize that decades of butt-kissing had landed him nothing more than a face full of crap — or Daniels’s attorney Michael Avenatti, a slickster who would later end up in prison for defrauding clients, including Daniels.

It was a year of boobs, I’m telling you, and not the ones that Stormy Daniels was stuffing fivers between as she gyrated to Def Leppard.

Then years passed. Trump was impeached. He lost his second election and refused to accept the results. A bloody riot at the Capitol was held in his name. He was impeached again. By then, the Stormy Daniels affair seemed almost quaint. Who cares whether the man paid off a porn star when democracy was about to snap?

The Manhattan district attorney, that’s who. Hush money itself wouldn’t be illegal, but it would be illegal to falsify business records for such a payment, and might also run afoul of campaign finance laws. The district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has apparently been investigating whether Trump did just that, and rumors escalated this week of an approaching indictment. The former president referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt” and predicted on Truth Social that he “will be arrested on Tuesday.” (He was not, though an arrest may yet come.)

If you paid attention to the unfolding story, it was impossible to get through this week without encountering an Al Capone comparison, the gangster who eventually went to prison for the namby-pamby crime of tax evasion. Having weathered the impeachment trials and Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation while he was in office, Trump still faces the possibility of being charged in connection to his cajoling of election officials in Georgia, his supporters’ attack on the U.S. Capitol or the top-secret government documents that federal agents found stashed at his home. But his historic arrest, long-awaited in many quarters, might come about via a woman who played Princess Hubba Hubba in “Space Nuts” (2003).

My job is to write about gender, and here I could take a detour into unpacking the meaning of Stormy Daniels, a.k.a. Stephanie Clifford. How she was treated as the butt of a joke even though she was almost always in on the joke. How the alleged affair won her a book deal and speaking gigs, yes, but how her life also became an omnishambles of harassment and threats. How she addressed every bit of it breezily and with humor — the way beautiful women have to address harassment and threats when their livelihoods depend on cash tips from men and when they also don’t want to be murdered.

She appeared, at the end of the day, to be pragmatic, the kind of woman who wished she could be appreciated for her brain and personality — she directed films, she gave hopeful interviews to equestrian magazines — but who understood that mortgages gotta be paid, retirements gotta be saved for, and if that meant nudity, then that’s what it meant.

I’ve seen discussions treating Trump’s possible indictment as if it were some kind of feminist victory: The “grab ’em by the p---y” president finally learns that cats can scratch back. Hallelujah, the patriarchy is vanquished!

But what I’ve been thinking about this week is the scene in that strip club in 2018. How the audience was maybe one-third amorous men and two-thirds baffled onlookers trying to make sense of what we were seeing. Stormy had this signature move where, for a fistful of bills, she would take a man’s head gently in her hands, nestle it in her bosom and perform what I can only describe as an assisted motorboating. I stopped one guy as he staggered away from this experience and asked him whether he was a fan of Stormy’s or of Trump’s, and he looked at me as if I were a moron.

The point wasn’t to be a fan of either of them. The point was that we were living in a surreal matrix existence where a reality star had become president, so why not get motorboated by the woman who said she’d spanked him with a magazine that had his photo on the cover?

This was the feeling that permeated so much of the Trump presidency. Wondering how much of it was real, how much of it was performance, who was motorboating and who was being motorboated. Skirting the line between buffoonery and malevolence, a thin line exemplified nowhere better than on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of rioters appeared unsure of whether they were there to grab selfies in the rotunda or to hang the vice president. Several participants have described themselves as being under some kind of spell.

Donald Trump might be indicted for the payoff to Stormy Daniels — or, rather, the alleged campaign-finance complications therein. The spell is broken, or breaking. Trump had been living in a land of unreality, and now he’s potentially living in a world of consequences. It’s not a punchline so much as a welcome return of gravity.

But also, there’s this: Several years into this storyline, and all the slick men in suits who tried to buy Stormy’s silence or swindle her book advance or paint her as a degenerate — all of them have fallen. Cohen: prison. Avenatti: prison. Trump: dumped by voters and anticipating his own indictment.

Stormy Daniels might have been loud, and lewd, and opportunistic, and the perfect symbol for the freakish time period we’ve all lived through. But she also remained honest about all of that, and true to herself. It was a mutual motorboating, and she was the only one of the bunch to come out clean.