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What #MeToo means for Trump and his alleged affairs

It’s getting harder to buy women’s silence.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“I was into his intelligence + charm,” Karen McDougal reportedly wrote about Donald Trump sometime after they met in 2006. “We talked for a couple hours — then, it was ‘ON’!”

According to Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, who reviewed McDougal’s handwritten accounts as part of his reporting, McDougal, a former Playboy model, had a nine-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. At the time, Trump’s marriage to his current wife Melania was relatively new, and their son was a baby. This news, while it may matter to President Trump and his family, has little consequence for the country.

What matters more is the evidence, outlined in Farrow’s piece, that American Media, Inc. (AMI), which publishes the National Enquirer, sought to keep McDougal’s story quiet, perhaps as a way to protect or influence Trump. Thanks, it appears, to a payout and a legal agreement, McDougal’s account stayed out of the public eye during the 2016 election and beyond — but now, because of to #MeToo, McDougal has decided to break her silence, at least partially.

McDougal acknowledges that hers is not a story of harassment or assault. At the same time, she says she’s been emboldened to speak out by the accounts of survivors who have come forward in recent months — she hopes her story will help others faced with agreements like the one she signed. And McDougal’s story may be an indication that in the #MeToo era, it’s not as easy to buy a woman’s silence as it once was, or to shield a powerful man from the scrutiny of others.

The crucial part of McDougal’s story is the fact that it hasn’t been told

McDougal’s account comes amid ongoing developments in the story involving porn actress Stormy Daniels, who once claimed to have had an affair with Trump (Daniels has said she will tell the full story publicly soon). Neither woman has reported that Trump ever harassed, assaulted, or coerced her, and any consensual sexual affairs the president may have had do not necessarily affect his fitness to lead the country. We don’t know whether the Trumps have an expectation of monogamy in their marriage — if they do, any violations of that expectation are primarily a matter for them. Trump has denied he had an affair with either woman.

The allegations about coverups, however, are more concerning for the country as a whole. Farrow reports, based on a review of emails, texts, and legal documents, that when McDougal initially sought to sell her story to AMI on the advice of a friend, the publisher was lukewarm. That changed when Trump officially won the Republican nomination for president in August 2016. On August 5, she signed an agreement granting the company “exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any ‘then-married man,’” Farrow reports.

AMI agreed to pay McDougal $150,000, according to Farrow. Three men who helped negotiate the deal — a lawyer, McDougal’s friend, and another intermediary — together got 45 percent, leaving McDougal with $82,500.

What followed, he writes, was a campaign of promises from the company — many of them broken — designed to ensure her silence. Representatives from AMI talked to McDougal about collaborating on a skincare line, which never materialized. They promised to publish nearly 100 columns by her on aging and wellness, but have only published nine (AMI says she did not deliver the remainder).

When New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin asked McDougal about her ties with AMI and Trump for a story about AMI’s CEO in 2017, Farrow writes, an AMI representative wrote a draft response for her, emailing it to her with the subject line “SEND THIS.” Later that year, the representative talked to McDougal about hosting awards show coverage for AMI, which has not happened.

AMI’s efforts to keep McDougal silent intensified, Farrow reports, when the Stormy Daniels story broke. After that, AMI representatives suggested McDougal complete media training, and mentioned possible new opportunities — a magazine cover, and hosting the Emmys for OK! magazine.

The goal, apparently, was to control McDougal’s story. Former AMI staffers told Farrow that buying stories with no intention of running them was common practice for the company’s CEO, David Pecker. One former senior editor said Pecker specifically protected Trump, whom he considered a friend. Another former editor said Pecker used unpublished stories as “leverage” over celebrities, and could do so with Trump: “In theory, you would think that Trump has all the power in that relationship, but in fact, Pecker has the power — he has the power to run these stories. He knows where the bodies are buried.”

This is, in many ways, the most disturbing part of Farrow’s report: The allegation that a powerful man and his company worked to bury a woman’s story in order to benefit — or maybe control — the president. If a company like AMI can influence Trump by threatening to publish information about his affairs, that’s information America needs to know, since it would certainly affect Trump’s ability to govern.

It’s also important for the public to know and reflect on the way McDougal, in Farrow’s telling, became a pawn in a game between men.

The cost to the men involved — $150,000 — was relatively low. The cost to McDougal, meanwhile, was her freedom to speak about her own life. She told Farrow she was afraid to even mention Trump’s name to the press. In exchange, she got $82,500 and, Farrow’s reporting suggests, a lot of broken promises.

Now, she seems to be rethinking the bargain.

#MeToo helped inspire McDougal to speak out

McDougal is careful in her comments to Farrow and avoids discussing the details of her alleged relationship with Trump, to avoid violating her agreement with AMI. But she does tell Farrow, for instance, about her regrets regarding the AMI deal: “I’m the one who took it, so it’s my fault, too. But I didn’t understand the full parameters of it.”

McDougal also says that the women who have come forward to report abuse by powerful men helped inspire her to talk about her situation, to the extent that she has. “I know it’s a different circumstance,” she told Farrow, “but I just think I feel braver.” She also says she hopes that her experience will make others think twice before signing agreements like the one she signed with AMI: “Every girl who speaks is paving the way for another,” she said.

Her words are a reminder of one of the clearest impacts of #MeToo: more and more women are coming forward to share stories, some of them about sexual harassment or assault, others about pregnancy discrimination, or other abuses. A larger conversation has developed around appropriate workplace behavior and, more broadly, around gender, sex, and power.

In the last few months, the American public has begun to take accounts of sexual misconduct more seriously, and some survivors have felt safe going public about their experiences for the first time, knowing that their reports, now, may actually be heard.

In this moment, when non-disclosure agreements and secret settlements are coming under increased scrutiny for silencing harassment survivors and protecting perpetrators from consequences, it may be harder than ever for powerful men and the companies they run to keep other people quiet. And those who have been silenced may have more impetus to speak than ever before.

Of course, there’s still the question of the real-life impact of their words. McDougal’s comments, and Farrow’s story, may or may not have any effect on a president who was elected after bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” and after being publicly accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women.

But McDougal’s account does show that while it may once have been possible for men like David Pecker to keep Trump’s secrets, we now live in a time when secrets are coming out. The long-term effects on Trump, AMI, and the country remain unclear. What is clear is that McDougal is no longer content being a pawn, and that the larger game, in which men can control and benefit from women’s stories, is beginning to change.

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