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‘Not in a punch-back mode’: Why Trump has been largely silent on Stormy Daniels

As Stormy Daniels continues to speak out about her alleged affair with President Trump, he is staying largely silent. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: HANDOUT/The Washington Post)

The counterpuncher, so far, has held his punches.

President Trump exercised uncharacteristic public restraint Monday following an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in which adult film star Stormy Daniels described, in vivid detail, a consensual sexual encounter with Trump — a relationship the president has repeatedly denied.

But privately, the president has lobbed sharp attacks at Daniels and her media tour, calling her allegations a “hoax” and asking confidants if the episode is hurting his poll numbers. The president even has griped to several people that Daniels is not the type of woman he finds attractive.

Trump — who was among the estimated 22 million Americans who watched the Daniels interview that aired Sunday night — asked staff in the White House if they, too, had watched and wondered what they thought of it, someone who has spoken to him said. The president said that he personally did not think Daniels appeared credible, added this person, who has talked to the president about his interactions with the pornographic film star and did not want to be identified discussing them.

White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah on March 26 responded to questions about Stormy Daniels's interview about her alleged affair with President Trump. (Video: Reuters)

But publicly, Trump was uncharacteristically silent after the “60 Minutes” interview, in which Daniels recounted having unprotected sex with Trump in 2006 and described being verbally threatened five years later by a man she didn’t know to stay silent about her allegations. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford and who was 27 years old during the alleged encounter, also said that she did not find Trump, then 60, attractive and that she viewed the encounter simply as a “business deal.” She said that Trump had floated the idea of her appearing on his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”

Experts say any possible legal danger for Trump stemming from the alleged affair could come from the nondisclosure agreement that his longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, executed with Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election. In exchange for her silence, Cohen facilitated a $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016 — which, if deemed an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign, would violate federal law.

The president and his White House staff have hewed to a remarkably disciplined and restrained playbook — a departure for the normally brash Trump, who is usually reluctant to let a slight go unanswered.

Trump has not personally addressed the matter in recent weeks, and while his spokesmen have broadly denied the allegations on his behalf, they have declined to publicly litigate Daniels’s specific claims.

“The president strongly, clearly and has consistently denied these underlying claims,” Raj Shah, the principal deputy White House press secretary, told reporters Monday. “The only person who’s been inconsistent is the one making the claims.”

The closest Trump skirted to weighing in came in a tweet Monday morning that did not reference Daniels or the interview but generally decried what he said were a spate of false media reports. “So much Fake News,” Trump wrote. “Never been more voluminous or more inaccurate. But through it all, our country is doing great!”

Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel who helped President Bill Clinton navigate the Monica Lewinksy scandal, said Trump is sending a message with his lack of direct engagement.

“His absence of comment, to me, was a concession to a not very shocking or newsworthy conclusion, which is that he carried on extramarital affairs,” said Davis, a partner at the law firm Davis Goldberg Galper. “He was silent and wasn’t attacking or criticizing or contradicting her.”

But Daniels has been on Trump’s mind. Over the weekend at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., he talked to friends and club members about the controversy, and on Saturday he dined with Cohen.

Trump’s friends and advisers have been cautioning him that he has little to gain by getting into a back-and-forth with Daniels.

“He’s really not in a punch-back mode,” said one friend who has discussed the matter with the president in recent days and spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Everyone is telling him, look, you can’t win here, so just do nothing.”

Trump has calculated that the salacious details from Daniels and other women now surfacing publicly will not erode his political support in any meaningful way. The president has convinced himself, said one Republican in frequent touch with the White House, that the scandal will blow over — in part because, for decades, Trump deliberately presented himself as a Manhattan millionaire playboy. 

“The president, when he used to be plain old Donald Trump, used to say all publicity is good publicity,” said Louise Sunshine, a former longtime executive at the Trump Organization. “He used to enjoy negative publicity because he said even that is good publicity.”

Trump also believes his base of loyal supporters, including Christian conservatives, will not abandon him, just as they stuck by his side after the “Access Hollywood” tape was reported in The Washington Post in October 2016.

“The president is correct believing that his solid group of supporters, including evangelicals and Protestants, are not going to leave him on this issue,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide. “He’s delivered for them on judges, which is really the most important issue, and on life” — a reference to abortion policy.

Nunberg added, “I don’t think anybody believes that they elected Saint Joseph.”

Still, Trump’s friends say that the allegations — not only from Daniels, but also from Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who has alleged a nearly year-long affair with Trump, and from Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant who is suing Trump for defamation — have caused a strain in his marriage.

First lady Melania Trump did not return to Washington with Trump on Sunday, instead remaining at Mar-a-Lago for what a White House aide called a previously scheduled “spring break.”

Sunshine, who said she thought Daniels was “very believable,” said that based on her years working with Trump, she thought he would probably be most bothered by the scandal’s impact on his family.

“I think it probably would upset him because it would upset Melania, it would upset his daughter,” Sunshine said.

Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the first lady, issued a public appeal for privacy that seemed to reference the president’s 12-year-old son, Barron, who was born around the time of the alleged affair with Daniels. “While I know the media is enjoying speculation & salacious gossip, Id like to remind people there’s a minor child who’s name should be kept out of news stories when at all possible,” Grisham tweeted.

Inside the West Wing, senior officials believe Daniels’s account to be largely credible and consider it a serious news story that could deal real and lasting damage to the president, according to one of Trump’s advisers. 

The White House communications team collectively monitors all Daniels developments but has largely tried to leave the official response to Trump’s outside lawyers involved in the case, a White House aide said. There is little upside, this person added, in trying to respond to each new twist and turn.

“We don’t necessarily know exactly what happened and all the details, and trying to create a response based on a lack of knowledge is like flying blind,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions. “Once the White House gets into the business of actually responding to it, we’ll go down this rabbit hole of just being consumed with all things Stormy.”

At Monday’s briefing, Shah was peppered with questions about Daniels. He tried to avoid answering with much detail and referred some questions to Cohen.

Asked whether Trump had watched the “60 Minutes” interview, Shah said, “I’m not going to get into what the president may or may not have seen.” He later added, “There are clips of it playing all over, in the morning news shows.”

Pressed to explain the offer of compensation to Daniels to ensure her silence, Shah seemed to defend the move. “False charges are settled out of court all the time. And this is nothing outside the ordinary,” he said.

Trump’s denials of Daniels’s allegations have been consistent since his presidential campaign. In 2016, Trump acknowledged to some of his closest political advisers that he had met Daniels but repeatedly denied to them that he ever had a salacious encounter with her, two people familiar with the matter said.

Once, when the topic of Daniels came up on Trump’s private plane near the end of the campaign, the candidate asked what year the encounter was said to have taken place, these people said. When he was told 2006, he simply shrugged and moved the conversation along, they added.

The White House has largely adopted Trump’s nothing-to-see-here posture. Republican allies say they have received little guidance, and no official talking points, on how to handle questions about Daniels or the other women.

One Republican operative who works closely with the White House described the information vacuum strategy: “It’s almost like it doesn’t exist.”