President Trump made shamelessness into a political tool. In Stormy Daniels, he's met his match.
The porn star has turned to the courts to invalidate a hush agreement, signed 10 days before the 2016 presidential election, that prevents her from disclosing details and documents pertaining to an alleged affair between herself and the president over a decade ago. The president's attorney, Michael Cohen, has admitted to "facilitating" a payment of $130,000 to Daniels just a few days before the election. Daniels (who had already given an interview to In Touch) wants to be released from an agreement that she says was never valid since the person named in the agreement (one "David Dennison") never actually signed it. She has offered to return the alleged hush money in full — and not to Cohen, or the shell company he used to pay her — but to Trump himself. Now it's being reported that a second Trump Organization attorney has been involved in the legal battle against her, further undercutting Cohen's claims that neither the president nor his company have been connected to the payment.
One remarkable feature of Stormy Daniels' chess match with Trump is that shame — this White House's usual instrument against its adversaries — isn't working. Porn stars don't find shame especially useful, and Daniels is no exception. This poses a problem for the president: Daniels (aka Stephanie Gregory Clifford) is utterly unembarrassed about profiting off her connection to him. She's unembarrassed in general. As the president's most virulent defenders have come after her, she's parried their attacks with jokes that defang them. Cracks about her age earn GILF humor, cracks about her being a prostitute have her crowing with glee. She's so good at this that her attackers often end up deleting their tweets; it's just not worth it.
The entire Trump playbook — imply that an enemy's motives are shameful, dishonest, and not what they claim — falls apart when they have no interest in seeming better than they are. Daniels is open about the fact that her motive is money. Just as Trump has always been. He's every bit as flummoxed by her shamelessness as others are by his. Rumors that Trump's attorney Michael Cohen might try to quash Daniels' upcoming interview with 60 Minutes smack of desperation (one is reminded, in fact, of Trump's opponents flailing in the primaries).
If shamelessness is Trump's weapon of choice, it's also his Achilles heel. Stormy Daniels won't let this story drop, she's smart enough to hire great lawyers, and she's set up a legal conundrum that lands the president in a world of trouble no matter how he responds.
How? In their Opening Arguments podcast, Andrew Torrez and Thomas Smith parse how Daniels' suit to invalidate the nondisclosure agreement (which she signed, but Trump didn't) boxes the president in. According to Torrez, the issue isn't whether Trump signed the NDA at all; the point is rather to force Trump to respond, because any response at all damages him.
Option A: He can claim that he is in fact the other party in the NDA (pseudonymously referred to as "David Dennison"). That would entitle him to the benefits of the NDA — it might keep Stormy Daniels from sharing the information she has — but it would effectively confirm that the contents of the NDA, many details of which are now public thanks to Daniels' suit, apply to the president of the United States.
That would be a disaster. Trump's story up to this point is that he had no relationship with Daniels and that his attorney (using a Trump Organization email and through a shell company he set up two weeks before the election) merely "facilitated" a transfer of funds to her on his own initiative, and for unspecified reasons. If Trump claims the benefit of the NDA, that story blows up. And this becomes the story of a massive coverup.
Besides pinning many of the more startling contents of the NDA to him, the admission that Trump is David Dennison would confirm that the candidate was fully aware of this illegal use of campaign funds. Whatever plausible deniability Michael Cohen tries to establish for Trump by claiming he acted on his own won't last: As Daniels' attorney Michael Avenatti explains in this interview with Ari Melber, Michael Cohen is bound by a professional code that requires him to keep his client informed of important, complex legal documents being prepared on his behalf. If Cohen seriously tries to claim he kept Trump in the dark, his career is over.
If Trump admits he is "David Dennison," Torrez adds, "then asking your lawyer to draft this document is a crime in several ways." For one thing, it's failure to disclose a campaign contribution.
We know 52 USC 30101 Subsection 8 defines contribution as including "anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office." Keeping a porn star silent about your affair with them a week and a half before the election is very obviously a thing of value. [Opening Arguments]
Option B would be for Trump to deny that he's David Dennison. That would liberate Stormy Daniels to share whatever she has, and since the settlement mentions "artistic media, impressions, paintings, video images, still images, email messages, text messages, Instagram message [sic], facebook [sic] posting or any other type of creation by DD," the mind boggles at what that might include. It follows that whatever Daniels has in her possession would probably depict (and possibly incriminate) whomever appears in them.
It's a remarkable bit of jiu-jitsu, and it's powered entirely by Daniels' imperviousness to the public relations concerns that have hamstrung other women who've tried to come forward about their experiences with the president.
Many of the women alleging that Trump victimized them (which Daniels, by the way, does not) have proceeded by insisting on their own respectability: They want nothing from him; they simply spoke up because they'd been harassed or assaulted by a presidential candidate, and they wanted to do the right thing. The Trump campaign's response was to characterize his accusers as attention-hungry profit-seekers. In one case, he implied that she was too ugly to harass.
Stormy Daniels is immune to these attacks. Just as Trump bragged about not paying a dime in taxes — "that makes me smart," he said during one presidential debate — Daniels is open about her desire to profit. Why wouldn't she? She says she has a story to sell, and she's 100 percent open about her desire to sell it. She's the only person in this story as shameless as the president himself. And the White House is reeling as a result.
It's a truism at this point that Trump benefited from a tiresome double standard. The reality TV star entered an electoral landscape filled with intelligent and image-conscious suits who understood respectability as the sine qua non of political viability. Trump refused to be respectable. He embraced his image as a corny, narcissistic, overtanned procurer of women's bodies, and twirled and winked at the mountain of crimes and improprieties he stood accused of. It worked: No single charge could stick for very long. Particularly — and this is the nub — because he didn't seem to mind. For a scandal to stick to someone, they have to worry about it. Trump may talk endlessly about people "laughing" at the United States, but when it comes to his own image, he has the lifelong rich man's imperviousness to the opinions of the poor. That has protected him from scandal. His narcissism only extends to those he sees as equals or superiors; everyone else is expendable.
He has enjoyed an enormous advantage, therefore, over people, particularly politicians, who see the public as equals whose good opinion they crave. And he's effortlessly "dunked" on those who try to seem better than they are by frequently going out of his way to seem worse. (Just recently, he did a parody of what a "typical" president might say at a rally. Then he brought what — by this strange metric — counts as "the goods": He insulted the IQ of a black congresswoman, implied he had dirt on Oprah, tried to saddle Chuck Todd with a nickname, and said the word "Obama" a bunch of times because it got the crowd riled up.)
The trouble with Trump's antics is that they only work if his is the only game in town. It's easy to imagine Stormy Daniels rolling her eyes at the amateurishness of his act. When it comes to America's rogues' gallery, the porn star will always trump the reality star.
That might deliver poetic justice, or even, if this suit works, the real thing.