In the past few weeks, the Stormy Daniels story has started to feel a bit like the little scandal that could. But if you were hoping for a TV event that would do serious damage to Donald Trump’s presidency, Daniels’ 60 Minutes interview was a letdown. The episode was not damning of Trump in any new ways (which is different than saying it was not damning). Still, it was a showcase for Daniels and her credibility. The porn star will probably not be bringing down the president, but she will continue to be a pain in the very backside she once allegedly spanked.
According to Daniels, in 2006, the then 27-year-old adult film star had sex with Trump, who was 60 and host of the Apprentice at the time. In the waning days of the 2016 election, as Trump was mired in the Access Hollywood scandal, his lawyer Michael Cohen had Daniels sign a nondisclosure agreement about the affair and paid her $130,000. She is now contesting and ignoring that NDA, which Trump failed to sign. What began as a ho-hum dog bites man tale for this crazy White House—Donald Trump did it with a porn star—has gotten tangled up with possible campaign finance violations, threats, and intimidation.
Told in detail in a highly anticipated 60 Minutes sit-down with Anderson Cooper, Daniels’ version of events had the ring of truth, and the laughter too. In relating her first encounter with Trump, Daniels laughed about how much he talked about himself, as if she still couldn’t believe it: “And he’s like—’Have you seen my new magazine?’ ” she told Cooper. But the story about how she disarmed him—first asking “does that normally work for you?” and then suggesting she spank him with a magazine with his face on the cover—revealed her to be astute and feisty. She took the measure of this ridiculous person and teased him in exactly such a way that he warmed to her. He gave up the pompous pose and became, briefly, human, asking Daniels about herself. Daniels didn’t go easy on Trump relaying this anecdote—he seems ridiculous to her at first; he compliments her by saying she’s like his daughter— but she doesn’t vilify him either. Under the buffoonish veneer was a slightly less buffoonish guy.
This was Daniels’ mode throughout, not going harder on Trump than was necessary. From the opening moments she insisted she was not a part of #MeToo, that their sex was consensual, that she was not a “victim,” and that to say otherwise was to undermine real victims. She then proceeded to outline a bad sexual encounter, all tied up with ideas of what women “owe” to men. Daniels didn’t want to have sex with Trump. She wasn’t attracted to him. But when she came out of the bathroom of his hotel room to see him, in her words, “perched on the bed,” she told Cooper, “I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ [Laugh.] And I just felt like maybe—[Laugh.] it was sort of—I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone. And I just heard the voice in my head, ‘Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’ ” Daniels’ certainty that, in this situation, the only thing to do was just go ahead and have sex with this creepy old guy was kind of heartbreaking. She is also extremely unself-pitying. All I could think was: “Cat Person”!
Throughout the interview, Daniels seemed remarkably self-possessed and clear-headed but nonpartisan. She says that during and after their first encounter, Trump floated the idea of casting her on Celebrity Apprentice. Cooper asked Daniels if she thought he was serious or just trying to keep her interested in him. “Both,” she replied, like a woman who has no problem understanding that people can have multiple motivations. She even acknowledged her own various reasons for being on 60 Minutes: to tell the truth, to not be called a liar, because she has nothing left to lose, and, yes, because she hasn’t made nearly enough money off this thing. As she said, we all know $130,000, the original settlement amount, was a lowball offer. Daniels co-opted Trump’s authenticity game.
Because the bar on Trump’s misdeeds is so very high, anything lower can seem like an exculpation. And we learned very little Sunday night that we did not already know about the president. He is attracted to women who remind him of his daughter, he is a blowhard and a bully, he surrounds himself with blowhards and bullies, he watches Shark Week. If anyone was hurt by this interview, it’s Trump’s goonish lawyer Michael Cohen, who emerged as a perfect fall guy. Cohen is the heavy and bully who dealt with Daniels on Trump’s behalf. If the Trump campaign is in violation of campaign finance reform laws, it seems that will fall mostly on Cohen. Daniels told Cooper that she believes Cohen threatened to make her life miserable. She also claims that someone having to do with the Trump outfit threatened her while she was with her infant daughter with the B-mafia movie line, “It would be a shame if anything happened to her mother.” (Through his lawyer, Cohen denies he had anything to do with that.)
In the end, 60 Minutes was worse for Cohen than Trump. But mostly it was good for Stormy Daniels, a compelling, charismatic adversary for our compelling, charismatic president.
Like Trump, she pitches herself as a straight-talker. Unlike Trump, she’s a lucid one.