The Stormy Daniels scandal is not gossip
In sitting down with 60 Minutes, Daniels helped to unmask a horrifying pattern of behavior by the president and his people
A proposal: Before we dive into the story Stormy Daniels told on 60 Minutes last night, let's try, just as a rhetorical exercise, to review the story the president's attorney Michael Cohen has been telling since this story first broke.
The facts are simple: Stephanie Clifford, stage name Stormy Daniels, claims she had sex with the president back when he was a reality star in 2006. Michael Cohen wrote up a hush agreement for her to sign 11 days before the presidential election, using fake names for her and for his client. Ever the worker bee, Cohen created a shell company called Essential Consultants, and used it to pay Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket. Not a trivial amount for him, mind you; he's said he had to borrow against his home equity to pay it and was definitely not reimbursed. Subsequent reports uncovered that he used a Trump Organization email to make these curious arrangements. But — despite this and the proven involvement of a second Trump Organization lawyer, Jill Martin — Cohen maintains that he undertook this flurry of legal activity entirely on his own, without the input or knowledge of the Trump Organization, the campaign, or the presidential candidate.
And he did all this despite the fact that — and he really can't emphasize this enough — Daniels' allegations are baseless. Oh, and by the way, the person named in the agreement with Daniels, one "David Dennison," really needn't be Trump at all! But if it is Trump, then the $130,000 payment (for the affair that never happened) was made not for campaign-related reasons but out of friendly concern for the health of the Trumps' marriage. That the agreement was executed days before the presidential election was pure happenstance.
It's remarkable, given the above, that Daniels' 60 Minutes interview last night with Anderson Cooper focused on her credibility. The first question really ought to have been "tell us: What is it like to deal with such sloppy liars?"
Look, Daniels' story matters for several reasons. Yes, we learned that the president apparently responds well to being spanked with images of his own face — and that afterward, he stopped talking about himself and became (in Clifford's words) "appropriate." There may be a lesson there for how the American polity needs to treat him, with one caveat: Even in this "appropriate" mode, he persists in comparing women in whom he's sexually interested to his daughter Ivanka. This is unambiguously gross and worth condemning.
But that's the least important aspect of this case. From a purely legalistic point of view, the reason this story matters (and it does, immensely), is because this will very likely get Trump and Cohen in serious trouble for campaign finance violations.
The main reason this matters though — and the reason the prudish nose-pinching around this story really needs to stop — is that Daniels is helping to unmask a horrifying pattern of behavior, a habitual practice of silencing and apparently threatening women through a variety of means. This is not "gossip." It is not a "sex scandal." It is relevant and concerning. To quote Shannon Coulter:
To understand what Daniels is making visible requires putting a few moving pieces together.
Let's start with Cohen: This wasn't his first time trying to silence the actress. The Washington Post has reported that Michael Cohen was trying to keep Daniels quiet as far back as 2011, when she was about to sell her story to Bauer (which owns In Touch) for $15,000. He reportedly called Daniels' then-agent, Gina Rodriguez, to intimidate her into dissuading her client. Rodriguez' husband Randy Spears answered the phone when Cohen called. "You tell Gina that if she ever wants to work in this town again, she'll call me immediately," Spears said Cohen told him.
Not content to stop there, Cohen called Bauer to kill the story too: "Four former Bauer employees told The Associated Press that Cohen also reached out directly to Bauer, sending an email to the general counsel saying Trump would sue if the story was printed." (One might ask why Cohen's concern for the Trump marriage didn't cause him to spend $130,000 of his own money on a hush agreement back then.)
He's not the only one helping the president keep women quiet. Trump's attorney Marc Kasowitz has too. "Kasowitz has gotten him out of all kinds of jams," former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon reportedly said. "Kasowitz on the campaign — what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them."
That's appalling. And we need now, more than ever, to know what "taking care of" these women actually means.
We know that unscrupulous media organizations helped Trump too. It's old news that the National Enquirer posted stories at Trump's behest (like one saying he found Salma Hayek "too short" after she rejected his advances). It's less widely known that they buried stories for him for years. Now, that secret is out: The Wall Street Journal reported that the National Enquirer bought and buried a story about Trump's affair with Playboy model Karen McDougal for $150,000.
But they're not the only ones! We also know now that Fox News buried a story about Daniels' affair with Trump in October 2016 — the month before the election. Reporter Diana Falzone filed a story about the affair that included a statement from Daniels' ex-manager, Gina Rodriguez, which confirmed that Daniels had a sexual encounter with Trump. Three people confirmed it, and Falzone "had even seen emails about a settlement." Fox News killed the story. (Falzone is now suing them for gender discrimination.)
That is not "gossip." That is a chilling pattern of behavior from a rich man, his legal team, and awful media organizations who are concealing the truth from the public. Legal bullying is bad enough. Media complicity is a true scandal. But the cherry on top is that Daniels — who notably avoids making any inflammatory statements (she downplayed the spanking story, insisted that her sex with Trump, disappointing though it was, was 100 percent consensual, and noted that he respected her boundaries when she didn't want to have sex again) — says she was threatened in a parking lot in Las Vegas by a man who mentioned Trump by name. He allegedly said it'd be a shame if her infant was left motherless.
This is not gossip.
Anderson Cooper wondered aloud several times why Stormy Daniels would lie in the statement she issued denying an affair with the president. Maybe she's a liar. Maybe she was still trying to adhere to the terms of the NDA. And maybe she'd been threatened by a thug in a parking lot who'd made his connection to the president and his willingness to hurt her clear.
If Bannon is to be believed, there are likely dozens of stories like hers. Those women are likely watching to see what happens to someone who stands up to this appalling network of media companies, lawyers, and thugs, not to mention the executive branch of the U.S. government.
Anderson Cooper suggested that Daniels might be trying to profit off her story via — for example — a book, though none has been mentioned. He neglected to mention that Michael Cohen is shopping a book proposal about (among other things) the "unfortunate saga" of Stormy Daniels.
Here's the thing: One byproduct of Trump's habitual lying (coupled with his insistence that those around him lie too, and his firing those who refuse to lie for him) is that, in our eagerness to be unsurprised and cynical about the administration's legendary dishonesty, we forget to really notice that he's lying. The result is that we consistently hold his accusers to standards of honesty that we know the president and his people would instantly fail. It happened to James Comey. It's happening to Andrew McCabe. It needs to stop. Credibility works both ways.
The same is true for the president's comportment, which is consistently so appalling that we keep using words like "gossip" and "sex scandal" in an effort to signal our distaste. Those words trivialize what's happening.
This is not gossip.