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Why the Stormy Daniels story matters, in one paragraph

Her 60 Minutes interview shows it’s not about sex. It’s about the abuse of power.

Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford) claimed on 60 Minutes that she was threatened twice by employees of Donald Trump  — including Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. CBS via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

You don’t have to be a jaded cynic to wonder why the Stormy Daniels scandal matters. Yes, the president having an affair with an adult performer seems scandalous. But at best the story can seem frivolous, and at worst it can feel like a distraction from the damage done by Trump’s policy decisions (like, most recently, appointing a man who has called for war with both North Korea and Iran as national security adviser).

I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. As Daniels’s interview on 60 Minutes Sunday night makes clear, this isn’t a scandal about sex. I don’t care if Donald Trump had consensual sex with a woman other than his wife; that’s a matter for him and Melania to handle privately.

What I do care about is that the president is a bully who attempts to silence through money and intimidation anyone (but particularly women) who stands between him and what he wants.

This is about abuse of power, pure and simple, a point that Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, makes extremely well in his own interview with 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper:

COOPER: There are people who argue that this much ado about nothing, that if this was not a story about an adult-film actress and the president of the United States, no one would pay attention.

AVENATTI: This is about the cover-up. This is about the extent that Mr. Cohen and the president have gone to intimidate this woman, to silence her, to threaten her, and to put her under their thumb. It is thuggish behavior from people in power. And it has no place in American democracy.

Avenatti is exactly right: This is about the cover-up. It’s about the fact that Trump was willing to exploit his money and power to intimidate Daniels, through agents like his longtime attorney Michael Cohen. And it’s about the entitlement that lets him justify that behavior to himself.

Extramarital affairs are commonplace. Hush agreements are not. But because of Trump’s extraordinary wealth and fame, he had the resources to make the matter just go away — including, according to Daniels, by threatening her and her family:

DANIELS: I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T-taking, you know, the seats facing backward in the back seat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, “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.

COOPER: You took it as a direct threat?

DANIELS: Absolutely.

This is, in the purest of senses, privilege: the ability to avoid the consequences that most anyone else in the same situation would have to endure — and, along with that, the ability to walk all over less powerful people in order to avoid those consequences — due to one’s own power and social position.

That privilege is also on display in the mere text of the hush agreement. Daniels is, under the terms of the deal, granted $130,000 but obligated to pay $1 million for every violation of the deal.

On its own, this makes no sense. If the privacy of all the information Daniels has about the affair is worth $130,000, then why should divulging only one portion of that information cost her $1 million? That asymmetry has no principled defense. It can only really be explained by Trump’s immense power in his negotiations with Daniels, power that, according to her, was exercised in part through threats and intimations of possible violence.

A decent person who had an affair would, when faced with the prospect of that affair going public, tell their spouse what happened, apologize, and accept the consequences. That is not what Trump did. And it’s not what Trump is still doing. Even now that the affair is public knowledge, Trump and his legal team are seeking $20 million or more in damages from Daniels, out of retribution more than anything else.

A billionaire (or near-billionaire, depending on whom you ask) using expensive lawyers to try to extract tens of millions of dollars from a working mother, out of anger that she refused to keep silent — that is bullying. It’s disgraceful behavior. And it’s illustrative of the way Trump has treated other people throughout his entire career in business and politics.