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It’s time to start taking the Stormy Daniels scandal seriously

It’s tawdry. It’s funny. But it’s also about corruption and national security.

Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, arrives to perform at Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale in Pompano Beach, Florida, on March 9, 2018.
Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, arrives to perform at Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale in Pompano Beach, Florida, on March 9, 2018.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Stormy Daniels scandal feels like the kind of salacious yet pointless story that distracts the public from the truly important issues of the Trump era.

But it is important. At its core, the Daniels story isn’t about tawdry details of infidelity. It’s about the corruptibility of Donald Trump — a president whose personal life and finances are shrouded in unprecedented opacity. Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen paid Daniels, an adult film actress, $130,000 in exchange for her signing a nondisclosure agreement in the final days of the 2016 election that kept her from saying anything about an alleged affair with Trump.

The payoff raises two big ethical and legal problems. First, it is an attack on America’s threadbare system of campaign finance regulation; one of the few remaining laws on the books bans corporations from giving gifts to a candidate. (Cohen used his Trump Organization email to arrange the deal.) If we turn away from this drama on the grounds that it features too many uses of the phrase “porn star,” we’ll have blown another enormous hole in the web of rules that are supposed to separate our democracy from a plutocracy.

Michael Cohen (left), President Trump's personal attorney, stands with his attorney Stephen M. Ryan, in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee chambers in Washington DC, on September 19, 2017.
Michael Cohen (left), President Trump's personal attorney, stands with his attorney Stephen M. Ryan in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee chambers in Washington, DC, on September 19, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There’s also the fact that secrets worth paying north of a hundred grand to keep are secrets that could be powerful tools in the hands of foreign governments or domestic special interests. Is Daniels the only woman Trump has paid off? Have his other secrets been successfully kept from other interested parties? Who has leverage over the president, and what are they using it for?

Daniels has filed suit to try to invalidate the nondisclosure agreement she signed, freeing her to speak about her relationship with Trump. From the public’s standpoint, however, the key issue isn’t Daniels’s story — it’s the circumstances surrounding the payoff and how many similar deals are out there.

Congress should look into these matters, and the press should be unashamed to call on press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other administration figures for answers. Just because a story is, on one level, profoundly silly doesn’t mean it can’t also be profoundly serious.

There’s a serious campaign finance issue here

Cohen, the veteran Trump consigliere, claims he cut Daniels a $130,000 check out of his own pocket with no thought of repayment or discussion or coordination with anyone else in Trump world. Even if that’s true (a big if), it doesn’t matter.

There’s cut-and-dried evidence that Cohen negotiated the deal while using his Trump Organization email account. Corporations are banned from contributing to federal election campaigns, and the use of official Trump Organization corporate resources would constitute a violation of that rule.

As Philip Bump explained for the Washington Post, “those two things together — that a Trump Organization email address was used to facilitate the payment and that the payment was linked to the campaign — would constitute a legal violation.”

Of course, one could argue that a payoff made weeks before Election Day to prevent the dissemination of damaging information about a presidential candidate had nothing to do with the campaign. But that — like the true origins of the money and the extent of other Trump figures’ involvement in the payoff — is a matter worthy of serious investigation.

Two 21st-century Supreme Court cases, the famous Citizens United ruling and the less famous but probably more significant Bush-era McConnell v. FEC, have left American campaign finance law in a weak state. But there still are rules on the books. If we as a society turn away from enforcing the rules about coordination, corporate contributions, and disclosure simply because the particular facts of the Stormy Daniels case are tawdry, we will come to regret it.

Figuring out exactly which laws were broken and how seriously requires an inquiry into the details of what happened rather than an armchair assessment, but that simply underscores that an investigation is needed.

Secrets worth paying for are dangerous

Trump is a notorious philanderer, and the Trump Organization was a notorious deployer of aggressive nondisclosure agreements for years before he became a candidate. Trump himself is the subject of an array of sexual assault and other misconduct allegations, none of which has been properly investigated by congressional Republicans, who prefer to stay in the dark.

Taking all this into account, it’s hard to conclude that Daniels is likely the only person whose silence Trump has purchased.

Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury quotes Steve Bannon as saying that another longtime Trump attorney, Marc Kasowitz, “has gotten him out of all kinds of jams. Kasowitz on the campaign — what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.”

Even if Bannon is exaggerating about the total number here, we have at least one clear example: the National Enquirer delivering a $150,000 payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep her quiet about an affair.

While a cynic might wonder how, exactly, Trump’s reputation could possibly be damaged by revelations of extramarital affairs, the free market has spoken here. That he and his allies are willing to cut large checks to buy a woman’s silence indicates that they think these secrets are valuable.

The problem with a powerful public official having valuable secrets is they can be exploited for more than just financial gain. Nobody with this kind of exposure to blackmail or manipulation by special interests or foreign intelligence agencies would be able to get a high-end security clearance, and, traditionally, at least, that would have made someone ineligible for a high-level White House position.

The president, of course, is exempt from the normal security procedure rules on the sensible grounds that the voters rather than the security bureaucrats should be able to decide. But that simply underscores the fact that the voters deserve to know the truth about the scope of Trump’s secrets and the lengths he’s willing to go to keep them.

The Daniels situation warrants serious investigation

There are a lot of serious issues in the United States, and the inclination to try to stay serious and talk about guns, trade, Medicaid, or drug overdoses rather than reports of the president’s alleged past affairs with porn actresses and Playboy playmates is understandable and, on some level, laudable.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the American people have a right to know whether the president, his associates, and the businesses he controls violated campaign finance law. We also have a right to know whether he is habitually in the business of cutting large checks to buy ex-lovers’ silence and, thus, how broadly susceptible to blackmail or other forms of exploitation he may be.

A responsible United States Congress would investigate these matters, and it speaks volumes about how invested the current Republican majority is in turning a blind eye to such a broad range of Trumpian misconduct that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wonder whether investigations will happen.

But midterm elections will be held in a few months, and they may bring new blood to Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, a special counsel is already investigating Trump’s team, albeit on different grounds.

There is some overlap between the two issues, both in terms of personnel (Cohen is an important figure in both the Daniels and Russia stories) and subject matter (yes, I am politely alluding to the alleged “pee tape”), and it would be eminently reasonable for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to formally expand Robert Mueller’s mandate to include the campaign finance questions in the Daniels reports.

Either way, it’s time for Washington to stop tittering in embarrassment and recognize that there is a serious scandal here.