Daniels has said that Trump once told her, “You know what? You’re really smart. You’re not dumb.” Trump, if the quote is accurate, appears to have been right.
So how did Daniels get here?
A blog called the Dirty published what appears to have been the first report of an affair involving Daniels and Trump in October 2011. Life & Style, a supermarket tabloid, also reported around the same time that Trump had cheated on his wife, Melania, with Daniels.
Mainstream news outlets ignored the thinly sourced articles, but E! News followed up. Trump attorney Michael Cohen issued a denial.
“The totally untrue and ridiculous story written by Life & Style magazine about Donald J. Trump emanated from a sleazy and disgusting website,” Cohen said in a statement at the time. Cohen also threatened a lawsuit against Life & Style.
Daniels told E! that the rumor was “bulls--t,” but she gave a very different answer to In Touch magazine. In a 2011 interview, Daniels shared a detailed account of sex with Trump at a golf tournament five years earlier and a relationship that continued long after. Yet In Touch, owned by the same company as Life & Style, did not publish the interview.
Four days before Election Day in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Daniels had been in talks with ABC about an appearance on “Good Morning America.” But the interview never happened. At least three other news outlets also pursued leads about Trump and Daniels before the election, but none deemed the reporting solid enough to publish.
The game changer was a second Journal report, in January, that Cohen had arranged a $130,000 payment to keep Daniels from talking to the press before the election. News outlets that had been unwilling to report on the rumored affair suddenly reported on the apparent coverup. In Touch finally published its interview with Daniels from 2011.
It is unclear whether Daniels orchestrated the leak that informed the Journal of her payoff, though an alternative scenario is hard to fathom. In any case, it was her media savvy that pushed the alleged affair into major newspapers and onto network television.
Daniels’s story languished for years in the corners of the Internet; even In Touch wouldn’t print her first-person account. Then she convinced Trump’s camp that ABC or another big-time outlet might actually publicize her claim — striking such fear that she could command $130,000 for her silence.
Without the payment, it is possible that many news outlets would have continued to view the alleged affair as lacking enough credibility to cover. Even if Daniels had appeared on “Good Morning America,” her tale of consensual sex might have quickly faded amid other women’s accusations that Trump harassed or assaulted them.
But by extracting a “hush agreement,” as a lawsuit that Daniels filed this week calls the pre-election payoff, she ensured that if the existence of the agreement ever got out, it would be big news. Once money changed hands, the truth of Daniels’s story became almost secondary. The payment might have violated federal election law. And even if Trump did not have an affair with Daniels, as he says, his team’s effort to suppress negative news is news in itself.
Daniels, it seems, played the media game well.