If I had told you two years ago that Donald Trump will be elected president, and his most bedeviling public antagonist will be an adult film actress, you probably would have said, "The first part sounds outlandish to me, but if it happens, the second part sounds about right."
For months, Trump has all but silent in public about Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, her name not passing his tweeting fingers — until this week. Maybe the stress of having his lawyer's office raided got to him ("Trump was so upset, in fact, that he had trouble concentrating on plans that were laid out for him that day by his national security team about potential options for targeted missile strikes on Syria," The Washington Post reported). But on Wednesday, after Daniels went on The View and released a sketch of the man she says threatened her in a parking lot in 2011 if she were to speak publicly about her alleged affair with Trump, he couldn't hold it in anymore:
There are two explanations for Trump's quiet about Daniels up until now. Either he didn't want to dignify her allegations with a response, or he was scared of what would happen if he did. And he was probably right to be, since Daniels has stuck around much longer than anyone could have anticipated, trolling Trump expertly and bringing him more grief than anyone could have anticipated.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
How did she do it? One part of the answer is that, as many people have pointed out, Trump tries to shame his enemies, and it's tough to shame a porn star. The name-calling he has used to great effect in the past just won't work. And because she comes from outside the political world, it's hard for him to impose an easy cost on her. She doesn't need anyone's votes.
When you see Daniels interviewed, you can immediately tell that she's smart and self-possessed — and she's enjoying herself. Her brief liaison with Trump may not have gotten her a spot on The Apprentice (and as she describes it, she never really believed his promises that he'd get her on the show), but it has certainly opened up some new entrepreneurial opportunities.
But perhaps most importantly, Daniels seems to realize that her career — and the electrifying words "porn star" — are absolute catnip to the media.
Let's face it: With the Stormy Daniels story, everybody — those who produce the news and those who consume it — gets to indulge in a bit of harmless prurience. Articles about her are illustrated with shots of her in revealing clothing. Titles of her films are dropped in for comic effect. Respectable people who would never publicly admit to using "incognito" mode on their browsers get the little thrill, conscious or unconscious, of having a serious political discussion that just happens to also be about porn, if only indirectly. It appeals to that part of your brain where the pubescent 13-year-old you once were still resides.
I'm guessing that Stormy Daniels understands that well, how the adult film industry is the subject of both scorn and endless fascination. But she is also executing a brilliant PR strategy, part of which involves spreading the story out enough to keep it alive but not so thinly that people will lose interest. She told the story of the parking lot threat in an interview on 60 Minutes that aired three weeks ago: "'Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.' And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, 'That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom.' And then he was gone." But it's only now that she released the sketch, hooked to another high-profile media appearance. People will naturally now try to find the person in the sketch, which could produce another round of dramatic stories.
There remain legal questions around the $130,000 Daniels was paid to keep silent, and the non-disclosure agreement she signed, which will continue to be an issue, particularly as Trump lawyer Michael Cohen faces his own legal troubles. Unlike her first lawyer, Keith Davidson — who seems to have had some sort of arrangement with Cohen in which they co-operated to arrange for the silence of multiple women in exchange for hefty fees — Daniels' current lawyer, Michael Avenatti, is obviously skilled at both law and public relations. His latest move is to predict that Cohen, whom Avenatti used to call a "thug," will do the right thing for the sake of his family and roll over on Trump.
At moments like that, the Trump team seems terribly overmatched, frustrated, and put on the defensive by an adult film actress and her lawyer, who are having the time of their lives. Something tells me this isn't the last time we'll see the president rage-tweet about Stormy Daniels.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.