It’s been quite a news week, even by recent standards.
The U.S. is potentially hours away from a partial government shutdown. The debate rages on over the president’s reported comments about not wanting to accept immigrants from “s**thole countries.” “Girtherism” has erupted over the president’s latest height and weight measurements. Officials are scrambling to figure out how to avoid another false ballistic missile alarm, like the one residents of Hawaii suffered last weekend.
Also, the Wall Street Journal reported that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer at one point paid off a pornographic actress to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump.
The affair between Trump and actress Stormy Daniels is reported to have taken place in 2006. At that time, Trump had been married for a year and a half to Melania Trump, now the first lady, and their son Barron was four months old. In statements to the Wall Street Journal, both Trump and Daniels denied an affair.
Startlingly, we are in such a news cycle that it’s possible to have ignored a story about the president of the United States’ alleged affair with an adult film star. If you missed it, here’s a rundown of who reported what, what allegedly happened and how people are responding to the whole thing.
The story that Daniels and Trump had an affair was in fact already public before the 2016 election. In a November 4, 2016, piece, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the National Enquirer (whose parent company is headed by Trump friend David Pecker) paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story about an affair with Trump…then killed the story, keeping it quiet.
That story also reported that Daniels had been considering going on ABC’s Good Morning America to talk about her alleged affair, and that the Trump campaign also denied the affair. But the Stormy Daniels story gained new life on January 12 of this year, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had arranged to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about a 2006 sexual encounter between them.
In that story, both the president and Daniels denied that the encounter took place.
“President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels,” Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told the Journal.
And in a statement also supplied to the Journal by Cohen, Daniels denied both the affair and receiving any payment.
“Rumors that I have received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false,” she told the Journal via Cohen.
However, celebrity magazine In Touch soon threw those denials into question, publishing a nearly-5,200-word, never-before-published 2011 interview with Daniels describing several occasions on which she met or spoke by phone with Trump, including a sexual encounter.
On January 18, the Journal followed up with a story about how the Trump team hid the payments, setting up Essential Consultants, LLC in Delaware on October 17, 2016, to make the payments.
Since the Journal first ran with the story about the $130,000 payment, multiple other outlets, including Slate, Fox News and the Daily Beast have revealed that they had started reporting on the story before the 2016 election.
However, each outlet had a reason why the story did not run — Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote this week that Daniels had stopped responding to him “about a week before the election,” and that he couldn’t confirm that she had been paid for her silence. The Daily Beast likewise wrote that Daniels backed out of a potential interview five days before the election. And Ken LaCorte, who had headed up Fox News’ digital operation at the time, wrote this week that he thought his organization’s story didn’t have enough evidence to be publishable.
“In the end, it was an easy decision, and no legitimate news organization would have published what we had,” he wrote at LaCorte News.
Who is Stormy Daniels?
Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, has acted in 152 films and directed 78 according to IMDB . In addition to appearing in adult movies, she has had bit parts in some mainstream films, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
She had a brush with politics when — fueled by a “Draft Stormy” movement — she considered a 2010 challenge against then-Sen. David Vitter, R-La. She ended her campaign in April of 2010, expressing her frustration with the political system, as well as her treatment by the political establishment and press.
“Simply because I did not fit in their mold of what an independent working woman should be, the media and political elite have sought to relegate my sense of civic responsibility to mere sideshow antics,” she said in a statement.
Vitter himself had had his own sex scandal in 2007, when it was revealed that he was a client of the “DC Madam.”
What’s in the In Touch interview
At more than 5,000 words, there’s a lot of detail. The majority of it isn’t about the sexual encounter itself. Daniels lays out years of interactions with Trump. She explained that she met Trump at a 2006 charity golf tournament, where he asked her to dinner. She said they ate dinner in his hotel room and conversed for hours before having sex.
Trump continued to call her regularly after that — “about every 10 days,” Daniels said.
He always called me “honeybunch.” He’s like, “How’s it going, honeybunch?” He always started the conversation off, I think it was always his excuse to call, “I just read about you in such and such or there’s a quote about you in magazine, I turned on my channel in my hotel room and guess whose face popped up?”
During that first encounter, Daniels added, Trump had talked about getting her a spot on The Apprentice, and in these phone calls, he continued to say he wanted her on the show, though she expressed skepticism.
In addition to phone calls, Daniels said she and Trump encountered each other at parties and that she at one point went to meet him in Beverly Hills, where she spent several hours watching Shark Week with the future president (among the many details Daniels recounted was that Trump “is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks.”).
As of 2011, when the In Touch interview was conducted, Daniels said her last interaction with Trump had been a year and a half earlier. She also expressed anger that he had “promised” she would be on his reality TV show.
“I didn’t have any unrealistic expectations of actually being on the show; I figured my chances were 50-50,” she told In Touch. “I did believe that he was shy. So now I wonder if the whole thing was just a f***ing lie.”
In Touch added that the story of Daniels’ alleged affair with Trump is backed up by two others: “The account of her affair was corroborated by one of her good friends and supported by her ex-husband.” The magazine also said that Daniels, her friend and her ex-husband all passed polygraph tests.
How are people reacting?
Any political sex scandal is going to get attention. When the president is involved, that magnifies it a hundredfold. And on top of that, when one participant is a porn star (as opposed to, say, a nurse or an architect or a housekeeper) it ups the salaciousness factor exponentially.
Still, the sex as recounted by Daniels was consensual, and it doesn’t look like anything otherwise illegal took place. As Trump and Daniels now both deny the encounter, there is the overarching question of who might be lying and about what.
But some argue that this story matters for other reasons.
At the Washington Post, Molly Roberts argued that the alleged sex wasn’t the problem here so much as the alleged cover-up, as it could compromise the president:
If a foreign country acquires damning information about the United States’ leader, it could, either by threatening to expose past indiscretions or by laying a sexual trap, twist international policy to its benefit. A domestic group could also hold dirty little secrets over the man in charge to draw special favors.
That — not some vague concept of the president as perfect role model — is what makes it newsworthy that a president or presidential contender may have paid a bunch of people not to say they had adulterous sex with him.
In addition, as some of Trump’s supporters are conservative Christians, there’s the possibility that Trump’s alleged actions could alienate them. On Wednesday, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg called on social conservatives to denounce the president’s actions:
[W]hile voters are perfectly free to make their own decisions about what factors they want to take into account in their estimation of politicians, I am at a loss as to how various social- and religious-conservative leaders can, with clear conscience, or even a straight face, shrug off this kind of thing, never mind defend it. … At the very least, Jerry Falwell & Co. should be condemning Trump’s behavior.
However, some commentators — like MSNBC’s Joy Reid — believe that the list of women accusing the president of sexual assault and other misconduct should get more attention than this alleged affair.
What the White House and other Republicans are saying
Very little. In a Thursday press gaggle, deputy press secretary Raj Shah quickly shut down questions about Daniels.
Q: This is an issue that hasn’t really gotten much attention amidst everything else, but nonetheless, this woman named Stephanie Clifford, goes by the name “Stormy Daniels,” she says that she had an affair with the President. She spoke on record about it to a magazine. They say that she took a polygraph test. What is the President’s response to her allegations?
MR. SHAH: This allegation was asked and answered during the campaign, and I’ll point you to those comments.
Q: Was there some kind of settlement, some kind of hush money that was paid?
MR. SHAH: Like I said, this matter was asked and answered during the campaign, and anything else could be directed to Michael Cohen.
Meanwhile, there hasn’t been much reaction from top Republicans on Capitol Hill. Trump supporter Steve King, a Republican representative from Iowa, told Buzzfeed News that the Daniels story “didn’t catch my attention.”
“When I’m going through and reading the news, I need to read the things that I can change,” he added. “So I filter things out and get down to, ‘What can I have an effect on?'”