Imagine for a second that Donald Trump isn't president. Imagine it's former senator John Doe from Nebraska. Imagine that the Wall Street Journal reported that, on the eve of the 2016 election, Doe's longtime personal lawyer paid a porn star $130,000 to not talk about an alleged affair, using a shadowy LLC he had established in Delaware. Imagine we then found out that same porn star had told multiple tabloid-y news outlets years ago about sexual encounters with now-President Doe.
It would probably be the biggest scandal of the Doe administration. In the Trump administration, though, it's not even the biggest story of the week.
But the saga involving Stormy Daniels and Trump is getting more and more difficult to dismiss as tabloid trash with each passing day, and there's a serious case to be made that it's actually been under-covered. That doesn't mean it's true or even that there has been any genuine wrongdoing — just that it's worth asking some very serious questions.
First came a series of reports from the Journal about the payment made by Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. It most recently reported Thursday that Cohen created an LLC in Delaware — where LLCs don't have to disclose their managers — and used pseudonyms to facilitate the payment to Daniels.
By Friday, the magazine InTouch published what it said was a previously unpublished 2011 interview with Daniels in which she describes having sex with Trump in 2006, when he was newly married to Melania Trump, who is now first lady. What's perhaps most notable about the interview is how many of the details deal with things that weren't and aren't widely known about Trump. For instance, Daniels:
- Makes reference to Trump's bodyguard, “Keith,” being his gatekeeper for all of her contacts with Trump. She says of “Keith” that she “met [him] every time I saw [Trump]. Keith was always with him.” Trump's longtime body man is Keith Schiller.
- Also refers to another Trump aide, his secretary “Rhona.” This is Rhona Graff, who had worked for the Trump Organization for more than three decades.
- Makes a few somewhat bizarre references to Trump's distaste for sharks. “He is obsessed with sharks,” she said. “Terrified of sharks. He was like, 'I donate to all these charities, and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.' " She added at another point that they “moved to the sofa so he could get a better view of 'Shark Week.' " Soon, reporters and those on social media had found other examples of Trump's anti-shark commentary.
This interview was reportedly conducted, mind you, before those 2013 tweets and before Trump was a much-covered presidential candidate whose personal life and longtime aides have been the subject of endless media coverage. For example, the first news-report mention of Schiller in relation to Trump came in October 2011, according to a Nexis search.
So if the story isn't based on actual interactions with Trump, then it's pretty clear Daniels did some real research to make it seem plausible.
Cohen has denied to the Journal that Trump and Daniels had any such encounter, and Cohen has also provided a statement with Daniels's name attached to it saying the same and denying she was ever paid “hush money.” But Cohen hasn't denied making the $130,000 payment, and Daniels's on-the-record interview with InTouch would seem difficult to square with Cohen's denial attached to her name. She also was reportedly in talks with ABC's “Good Morning America” about going public during the campaign.
The most charitable interpretation of all of this would seem to be that someone very close to Trump paid a large sum of money to someone who was prepared to make a very serious allegation about the then-candidate. That doesn't make whatever she was about to say true, of course, but it does suggest that Cohen (and possibly Trump?) felt there was a good reason to give her that money. It's also worth asking why Cohen apparently wanted to keep the payment private, not to mention whose money it was.
Of course, what if it were all true and Trump did engage in an affair with a porn star early in his marriage to Melania Trump? Would it necessarily change much of anything? It is widely known — and Trump has acknowledged — having cheated on his first wife, Ivana, with Marla Maples, who became his second wife. President Bill Clinton was not removed from office for his marital infidelity, and in fact most of his problems emanated from having lied about it rather than the actual deed.
The moral aspect of this would seem to have bigger implications for Trump's personal life and possibly for views of him ahead of his 2020 reelection campaign, and that makes it worth pursuing the truth. But the bigger question may be whether there was anything untoward or legally dicey about the payment, which we still don't know a ton about. And that's really what takes this story from tabloid fodder to real news.