Once upon a time there was a golden-haired baron who had engaged in illicit congress with a young woman of the village near his vast estate. He asked his friend, a powerful magician of ill repute, to make the poor wench disappear. The cunning sorcerer was happy to oblige his liege lord, but this was not the end of the baron’s troubles. If it were discovered that he had struck a bargain with this vile necromancer, he would surely be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil. But if he denied that the wizard had spirited away the girl at his request and allowed her return from the magical plane of silence in which she was imprisoned, she would surely tell tales of his concupiscence in the village. What was the lustful nobleman to do?

This (completely made-up) legend more or less illustrates the position in which President Trump finds himself vis-à-vis Stormy Daniels, the porno star with whom he is alleged to have had an affair in 2006.

If he was telling the truth last Thursday when he insisted to reporters that he had no knowledge of the $130,000 payment made on his behalf by his lawyer Michael Cohen, then it goes a long way towards vindicating Daniels and her attorneys in their claim that the nondisclosure agreement is void. This means that like the rest of the American people she is free to say, write, or perform anything she likes about the president. The quickie memoir would write itself. There could be an HBO or Amazon original series or Stormy: The Musical on Broadway.

If, on the other hand, Trump was lying last week and he was in fact notified of the payment made with Cohen’s money and approved of it, he is probably in what legal experts refer to technically as "deep trouble." The large payout was an undisclosed contribution to his presidential campaign that exceeded the cap on individual donations by more than $100,000. There are also possible tax implications for such a large transaction and even the risk of Trump and Cohen running afoul of blackmail statutes. Even if Trump happened to use his own funds to reimburse Cohen, who used a Trump Organization email address in his communication with Daniels, the contribution, while not in excess of federal limits, was still undisclosed. "It’s the John Edwards prosecution on steroids," one credentialed wag put it on Twitter.

It’s obvious which of these two outcomes would be worse for the president. Which might go a long way towards explaining why Trump decided to speak out.

The American people, perhaps especially the large segment of the American people who espouse supposedly "traditional" views about marriage and family and sexual mores, are absolutely fine with having a twice-divorced serial philanderer former Playboy actor with a somewhat creepy fixation on the attractiveness of his oldest daughter in the White House. Did learning that he also enjoys getting his buttocks smacked with a picture of his own face by the star of Sex Door Neighbors and finds images of large vertebrates of the clade Selachimorpha both scary and, presumably, titillating change any hearts or minds? None. What else could Daniels possibly have to say about a man who is incapable of being embarrassed? At this point Vladimir Putin, perhaps in response to the administration’s latest round of sanctions on Russian officials, might as well go ahead and release the fabled pee tape.

What would the consequences be, other than possibly making the president’s interactions with female world leaders and members of his staff slightly more awkward than they probably are already when he announces during a meeting that he needs to use the restroom? As long as Trump promises to appoint likely opponents of abortion to the Supreme Court, social conservatives of the voting persuasion are in a catch-22 off their own. If they decide that the latest outrage is more than they are willing to tolerate, what are their other options? Supporting a party that will not even tolerate a candidate for the mayoralty of a medium-sized city in possibly the nation’s most socially conservative state to be pro-life? The difference is that for the latter the stakes are the lives of millions of unborn children rather than the remote possibility that a man who says he has never asked God for forgiveness might feel ashamed of himself.

The bathos of their dilemma is a perfect summary of everything wrong with American political life.