Politics

How 60 Minutes Provided the Perfect Venue for Stormy Daniels

Stormy Daniels on CBS' 60 Minutes.
Stormy Daniels on 60 Minutes.

Stormy Daniels appeared on 60 Minutes on Sunday night, delivering the program its largest audience—21 million viewers—since a post-election interview with Barack and Michelle Obama in November 2008. In conversation with Anderson Cooper, Daniels detailed how her affair with Donald Trump began (bland, unenthusiastic sex), why she is speaking to the media now (to clear her name, pre-empt an expensive lawsuit, and boost her own career), and the lengths Trump’s team went to in order to keep her quiet (a threat to her life and livelihood).

In spite of the nondisclosure agreement she signed in October 2016, Daniels has successfully kept herself in the headlines of major news outlets for months. But, with her 60 Minutes interview, she finally found the right venue for her story. The program did right by Daniels, questioning the adult film star with the solemnity and tough-but-fair posture it would any other source. At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg called Cooper’s respect for Daniels “radical” in a society that typically treats sex workers as immoral, flighty, and fundamentally untrustworthy. His treatment may have made a measurable difference in public perception: My colleague Willa Paskin wrote that Daniels appeared more credible than ever in her Sunday night appearance, in part because the show allowed her to flesh out the complexity of her motivations and showcase her charisma without having to be the punchline of a sex joke.

Compare that to her treatment on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show in January, where the host unveiled several of her bikini-shoot photos, purportedly from his personal “library,” to compare her signature on the pictures to one on a statement she made. It was the first of several unsophisticated gags Kimmel deployed to remind the audience that Daniels was famous for having sex. When Daniels said the internet was full of hurtful rumors, including one that accused her of being a man, Kimmel quipped, “Well, we’ll have to do a full examination,” to fervent applause. Later in the show, he asked her to choose which of three carrots best resembled Trump’s penis and tried to get her to re-enact sex with the president by way of anatomically accurate dolls.

Daniels deflected Kimmel’s insulting capers with the dignity of a person accustomed to navigating unwelcome surprises on camera. She was kind and deferential as she refused to give Kimmel what he was looking for, quick to offer him an elegant way out of an awkward segment with a giggle and a joke. The closest she came to actually confronting him about his childish games was when he guessed that she could describe Trump’s “junk” in perfect detail. “What is wrong with you?” Daniels asked, smiling in disbelief. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Kimmel stammered. “What is wrong with you is the question.”

This off-the-cuff comeback revealed the subtext of much public discussion of Daniels up to now: the idea that there is something deeply suspicious about a conventionally beautiful woman who would willingly have sex with Donald Trump. Daniels’ decision to go that route was complicated, and she has done an admirable job leaning into that complexity. On 60 Minutes, Daniels explained that when she emerged from a hotel bathroom to find Trump sitting on the bed, she felt like she had taken their flirtation too far and had little choice but to have sex with him, even though she didn’t entirely want to. Money was also a factor: Trump would later promise Daniels fame and fortune by way of a spot on Celebrity Apprentice while trying to wheedle her into bed. It should come as no surprise that money was on Daniels’ mind when she began her affair with Trump—like many women, she has found it profitable to make herself attractive and available to men. Her experience is not so far from that of, say, Melania Trump, or any other gorgeous women who explicitly or implicitly trade their desirability for wealth by giving older, decrepit men marriage, sex, or companionship.

But Trump and the right wing are anxious to discredit money as an honorable motivation, even as they seek to augment their wealth by ever-skeevier means. “So much for the porn performer on 60 Minutes who’s story doesn’t stack,” wrote Bill O’Reilly on his website. “She says she didn’t want money to attack Donald Trump but accepted money. She doesn’t want money now either. So why are you on national television with all this garbage?” The implication is that someone telling the truth about a sexual encounter would reject all monetary compensation for discussing it, an impractical ask for anybody outside the 1 percent. Daniels has built her whole career on the commodification of her sexuality—why shouldn’t she profit from a sexual relationship with a reality show host–cum­-president? It would be nearly impossible not to, as she works in one of the few industries that rewards rather than punishes sexual recklessness. Trump himself might admire her business chops—“She likes to maximize her profits,” her agent told the New York Times of her Trump-themed stripping tour—if he wasn’t so busy trying to shut her up.

Still, Daniels has realized that a money-hungry stripper is less likely to inspire public support than a concerned mother, even if their stories are the same, even if they’re the same woman. On Kimmel’s show, Daniels wore a cleavage-baring minidress and struck a coy pose, answering Kimmel’s questions with questions of her own. (“Do you have a nondisclosure agreement?” “Do I?”) She made oblique references to her porn career: “I know a lot about dirty and even I wouldn’t do that,” she said of Trump bringing Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers as his guests to a 2016 presidential debate. She was performing, as written, the role of a tabloid-cover porn actress in a political scandal. It’s how she has interacted with the public for her whole life, and it’s made her a ton of money. She had no reason to play any other part.

With Trump’s threats of a lawsuit looming and a new wave of online hate to consider, Daniels has changed her approach. She brought up her daughter more often than her career in her 60 Minutes interview, for which she wore a button-down shirt and uncharacteristically subtle eye makeup. She occasionally tried to lighten the mood with a joke, but she didn’t fill dead space with girlish giggles as she did on Kimmel. If Daniels appears more believable on 60 Minutes than she did on Kimmel, it’s because, for women, the distance between being a trustworthy victim of threats and being a greedy liar can be as narrow as a modest blouse and some good PR advice.

Cooper lent another layer of credibility to the broadcast. Unlike Kimmel, he approached Daniels with empathy, as someone with smarts and legitimate concerns. His unflustered lines of questioning drained the blood out of the sex parts of Daniels’ story, even the spanking bit, leaving viewers to focus on the disturbing threats made against her and the Trump team’s possible violations of campaign finance law. (The studiously dull, highly edited production style of 60 Minutes helped set the sober tone too.) One could argue that the sex part of Trump’s sexual indiscretions is extremely germane, because he and a major portion of his base have a demonstrated interest in regulating sex and punishing people for having it. But, as Kimmel and the hubbub around Trump’s “pee tape” have shown, a little bit of sex talk can easily drown out other critical points of a narrative.

And, critically for Daniels, sex talk is often used to drape a cover of scuttlebutt or disgrace over women’s narratives, camouflaging truths with prurience. Cooper and the 60 Minutes producers resisted that impulse. The interviewer becomes a proxy for the audience in a televised conversation like the one the program aired Sunday night. Sometimes, viewers need to watch a trusted man take a woman seriously before they can do it themselves.