It was trailed so long that every good pun had been overused. There would be no novelty in headlines about storms and cup sizes. Sunday night’s CBS interview with Stephanie Clifford (aka “Stormy Daniels”) was originally intended to be broadcast a week ago and Clifford’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, wisely exploited the delay in order to visit network newsrooms where he has repeatedly dropped hints about the allegations. He even tweeted out a photograph of a DVD in a safe, posing the question, “if a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is this worth?” It was cute. No wonder the media love the guy.
The delay only made the anticipation as great as the likelihood of frustration which, in the end, was compounded by the freakish nature of a basketball game that went into five minutes of “overtime”, meaning another 30 minutes of stop/start play. By the time 60 Minutes aired, media embargos had passed. A transcript of the show was online. The salacious bits had been picked out and retweeted far and wide. The story was dead before it had even gone live.
Not that there was much to spoil. What we did learn, we pretty much knew already. Clifford had experienced (“enjoyed” would, by her own admission, not be the right verb) an affair with Donald Trump back in 2006. There had been one moment of unprotected sex for which we were thankfully spared the graphic details. As is now the norm, we were told that The Donald had compared the woman with whom he was about to enjoy an intimate moment with his own daughter, Ivanka. Collectively, a nation had another chance to taste their Sunday dinners.
Then there was the moment of high-gangsterism in a Los Vegas parking lot. It was there that Clifford said was approached by a man who told her to “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story”. Then came the threat. In Clifford’s words, the man “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.”
What was most remarkable about all of this is how irrelevant it seemed after the fact. The threat was historic and it’s doubtful if it could ever be proved. The affair, on the other hand, exists in that peculiarly modern place where people refuse to go. We are taught that we should be non-judgemental. What two people do in a consensual relationship is none of our business. It’s apparently irrelevant that one of those people became President of the United States and the other makes pornographic movies.
And yet… Not to get squeamish about such details, but we have a President who is clinging on to the support of Evangelical Christians who routinely condemn and harangue ordinary folk who have fallen foul of their moral code. The hypocrisy is rank, but indicative of where we are with the Trump story. We are in the dark moral indeterminacy where lawyers feel most at home, where logic becomes twisted and nobody can make much sense of things.
It is astonishing that the very story that Trump feared would leak out is now almost irrelevant compared to the fact that he tried to stop it leaking out. To recap: this is a story that began with Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, putting his name to a non-disclosure agreement preventing people from knowing that Trump had an affair with a porn star whilst Trump’s wife, Melania, was recovering at home after having a child. Cohen denied that the NDA was protecting Trump until it came to claiming the $20 million he says Clifford now owes for breaking that agreement.
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If that were not confusing enough, we then have the matter of the $130,000 in hush money that might have violated American campaign finance law. We also have the legal status of a contract that Clifford signed but Trump did not. Then we have Cohen’s lawyer (that’s the lawyer for the President’s lawyer) sending a letter demanding an apology from Clifford for libeling his client…
This is modern American history playing a game as taught by Roy Cohn, the notorious New York lawyer who made problems disappear and who became something of a mentor to the young Donald Trump. Whenever you are sued, you make sure you counter-sue and escalate. If somebody demands a million, you demand twenty million. If you find yourself in a tight legal situation, make the situation tighter by generating more paperwork. Litigate. Litigate. Litigate.
It’s a strategy that has worked throughout Trump’s career but it’s unclear if this kind of legal hucksterism can work for a president. The laws his team are accused of breaking are not laws that resolve neatly in out-of-court settlements. Michael Avenatti has promised that the 60 Minutes interview would represent only a fraction of what evidence they have. Clifford herself refused to speak about the possibility of her possessing photographs, videos, phone calls, or emails to back up her story. It is to be hoped that he will produce something tangible. It would be a welcome glimpse of something real in a story that has become yet another glass reflecting darkly in the house of mirrors that is this presidency.