On April 29, 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners. The president famously observed that his guests were “the most extraordinary collection of talent . . . that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Many years later, in 2007 to be exact, Donald Trump hosted an event in Los Angeles to launch his brand of vodka. At his table were his eldest son and his daughter-in-law — as well as Trump’s alleged mistress du jour and Kim Kardashian. Thomas Jefferson, likely, was not mentioned.
Of course, JFK had his own troubled relationship with virtue — he was, we now know, no slouch in the mistress department. But when it comes to a guest list, nothing in the annals of presidential biography quite compares to that L.A. event. It turns out, though, that the Kardashian phenomenon — she became famous that very year because of a leaked sex tape — has lasted longer than Trump Vodka. In retrospect, it’s a wonder she’s not president.
The account of the 2007 vodka event comes from the New Yorker, wherein the indefatigable Ronan Farrow tells the tale of Karen McDougal, Playboy’s 1998 Playmate of the Year. McDougal claims she had an affair with the future president and, like another alleged Trump mistress, porn actress Stormy Daniels (who was also at the vodka party), got a payoff to guarantee her silence. McDougal says hers was arranged through American Media Inc. — the publisher of the National Enquirer — whose chief executive is Trump friend David Pecker.
Farrow is a careful journalist who last year helped expose Harvey Weinstein as an alleged sex thug. Along with the New York Times, Farrow transformed Weinstein from movie titan to rehab patient and set off a cascade of charges that threatens to take down more men than the 1918 flu pandemic. Farrow’s latest article is solidly reported but hardly advances our deep understanding of Trump. The Wall Street Journal had earlier published the bones of this story.
Still, the most attentive and apprehensive of Farrow’s readers have got to be that clutch of evangelical Christian leaders who endorsed Trump’s presidential bid and have stuck with him ever since. Their hypocrisy is being sorely tested. After all, McDougal appears believable. She handwrote a contemporaneous account of her alleged affair, which was examined by the New Yorker and found, as the lawyers say, dispositive. One can easily challenge her sanity — she actually liked Trump — but not her honesty.
It’s impossible to read McDougal’s story and conclude that she was a one-off — or, if Daniels is included, a two-off. According to Farrow, the admirably loyal Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime bodyguard and, for a brief and shining moment, a White House aide, facilitated Trump’s assignations with multiple women. Are there others? I shudder at the thought. And so, I bet, do certain evangelical leaders who, having jumped into bed with Trump, must wonder who else is in it.
In a recent interview with Politico, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and a frequent White House visitor, acknowledged the fuss around Daniels but gave Trump a “mulligan.” The past is past. In the present, Trump prays with Perkins and, most important, has proclaimed himself unequivocally antiabortion — and so, when his presidency is finished, will be the federal judiciary. This is the great trade-off: the lives of the unborn (in pro-life speak) for everything else — Daniels and McDougal and the bevy of women who alleged that Trump assaulted them and the “Access Hollywood” tape and the incessant lying and vulgarities. For all the grotesqueries past and present, a mulligan.
But evangelical support for Trump has softened. Eighty percent of white evangelicals went with Trump in the general election, but by the end of last year their support was down to around 60 percent. Additional scandals may erode it further, but regardless, the once morally certain pro-Trump evangelical leaders stand exposed of a shocking cosmopolitan relativism. The best they can do is double down by, say, likening Trump to JFK. What’s the difference?
Glad you asked. Kennedy’s astonishing antics were neither known at the time nor acknowledged by religious leaders or other politicians. He got no mulligans. Trump, however, audaciously confronts. Just as he allegedly paid off women for their silence, he has effectively paid off the conservative religious movement and, for that matter, much of the Republican Party. A lifetime in real estate has taught him an invaluable lesson: Everyone has a price.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.