“There are people who argue that this is much ado about nothing,” Anderson Cooper said on 60 Minutes, “that if this was not a story about an adult-film actress and the president of the United States, no one would pay attention.”
He was talking about the story of Stormy Daniels, legal name Stephanie Clifford, the porn actress who was paid $130,000 to keep silent about a sexual encounter she says she had with Donald Trump in 2006.
Ever since details of the Daniels story began to come out earlier this year, it’s been dismissed as a distraction. “There are enormous problems facing our country,” Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on CNN in early March, “and what are we talking about over and over again? Stormy Daniels.”
But the Monday morning raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room — in which documents related to the payment to Daniels were reportedly seized — shows yet again that Daniels and her claims do matter. Despite the willingness of some to cast her account as nothing more than a salacious sex scandal, and her as a woman unworthy of attention, her story has always been about a lot more than sex.
Her allegations get at a core concern about the Trump presidency: that he may have used (indeed, may still be using) his money and power to make sure the ordinary rules of human behavior don’t apply to him. Monday’s raid makes those questions all the harder to ignore.
“Salacious sexual stories”
From the get-go, the story of Stormy Daniels has been treated as a sideshow at best, a joke at worst. As Marlow Stern of the Daily Beast notes, headlines have frequently omitted Daniels’s name, simply referring to her as a “porn star.” Pundits have snickered at Daniels’s stage name and commented on her clothing. When Daniels told Jimmy Kimmel in a January interview that online trolls had accused her of being an FBI informant or a man, Kimmel quipped, “We’ll have to do a full examination and figure that out.” Then he asked her to pick, from a box of carrots, the one most closely resembling Trump’s genitals.
Even those who have refrained from dick jokes have generally cast Daniels’s account as beneath public notice. “We’ve seen what happens when salacious sexual stories come out about the president, even those that are allegedly nonconsensual — nothing,” wrote Bridget Read at Vogue’s website in January. “Don’t Google Stormy Daniels or get distracted by the latest sideshow, no matter how eye-popping.”
In a March appearance with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), documentary filmmaker Michael Moore called the Daniels story — as well as questions about the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia — “shiny keys to distract us” from the real problems in the country.
The dismissals kept coming even after Daniels said on 60 Minutes that she was threatened in front of her infant daughter and told to “leave Trump alone.” “The story elements — a porn star, the president, hush money, threats of physical harm, a $20 million lawsuit, the big reveal on camera — were the stuff of ratings gold,” wrote James Pindell at the Boston Globe after the interview. “But here is the truth: The Stormy Daniels story doesn’t matter, regardless of how much we talk about it.”
Monday’s raid is yet more evidence that Daniels’s account isn’t just about sex
It’s been clear for some time that the Daniels story is about more than Trump’s alleged infidelity to his wife. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews pointed out, it’s about abuse of power — according to Daniels’s account, Trump’s wealth gave him the ability to quash a damaging story about himself, at least until after the presidential election.
But the events of this week make it even more obvious that Daniels’s account is about more than sex. On Monday morning, FBI agents raided the hotel room and law office of Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer who has claimed he paid Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket, with no coordination with the Trump campaign. According to the New York Times, the agents were looking for records of payments to Daniels and Karen McDougal, another woman who says she was paid to keep silent about an affair with Trump.
The FBI didn’t raid Cohen’s office to find out if Trump was cheating on his wife. The agency is investigating whether Cohen violated campaign finance, banking, or wire transfer laws in connection with the payment to Daniels. If the investigation finds evidence tying the payment to the Trump campaign or Trump himself, that could lead to trouble for the president, not just Cohen.
Of course, a lot would need to happen for Trump to face substantive consequences from Monday’s raid. But the circumstances should remind everyone that the case goes beyond the president’s sex life.
The Daniels case has a lot in common with the unfolding story of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia — both involve allegations of campaign violations and financial malfeasance, of Trumpworld figures working behind the scenes to protect their candidate. But the Russia story has generally been treated (except, perhaps, by Michael Moore) as hard news, while Daniels has been dismissed as fluff.
Part of that clearly has to do with the fact that Daniels is a woman, and a porn actress (and director, and writer) at that, making allegations that have to do with sex. Media figures, operating in a larger landscape where women are doubted and disbelieved, especially if they’re seen as promiscuous, are primed to laugh at her and everything she stands for.
This reaction isn’t just sexist — it’s also dangerous, because it has led many in the country to ignore a very serious allegation against the president: that he has used his money and power to shut up women who might embarrass him. This isn’t a “distraction,” but gets right at core concerns about Trump and his ability to govern — the Daniels story is one of many warnings that suggest Trump believes that laws and policies that limit the behavior of ordinary humans simply don’t apply to him. If Americans ignore that warning because it comes from a porn actress, they’re making a big mistake.