On Stormy Daniels and Problematic Storytellers
Russian prostitutes and golden showers. If there is anything about the so-called Steele dossier with which you are familiar, most likely, it’s related to these kinds of salacious details/services that Donald Trump is alleged to have solicited at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013. To be sure, there are more serious concerns to be had within the Trump-Russia dossier. Including notions that Vladimir Putin and Russian operatives cultivated Trump as a candidate and means to disrupt Western alliances, that key members of the Trump campaign worked alongside Russian leadership to foster this relationship and to discredit Hillary Clinton, and that Trump and Co. negotiated deals which outlined a plan for Trump to lift sanctions on Russia and to remove Russian intervention in Ukraine from a list of campaign priorities in exchange for a stake in Russian oil. Very, very serious concerns.
Of course, these aspects of the dossier do not grab attention and headlines quite like lurid tales of peeing on beds as a way of thumbing one’s nose at Barack and Michelle Obama. What’s more, this scatological material and doubts raised by some critics as to the veracity of the dossier’s contents have made even those on the left who would characteristically jump at the chance to exploit such intel about Trump reluctant to do so. It is in this context that we may view the delicate relationship between those who demonize the President and his supposed affair with Stephanie Clifford, known more commonly to the world as Stormy Daniels, screenwriter, director, and pornographic actress. According to Daniels, she had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump after meeting him in 2006 when she was 27 and he was 60. Oh, and he happened to be married to Melania at this point, too.
Recently, Daniels was interviewed by Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, and while many of the details discussed may have been known to people who have been following this story, having it unfold on national television lends itself to being talked about at the water cooler, or throughout the blogosphere or Twitterverse. Much of it, for better or worse, is entertaining. Daniels spanking Trump with a magazine with his own face on the cover or that the pair did not use a condom. Trump telling Daniels she reminded him of his daughter, Ivanka. (Creeper alert!) As with the Steele dossier, there are larger issues to be found within Stormy Daniels’ insider account, including but not limited to a $130,000 payment to Daniels facilitated by Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, associated with the alleged signing of a non-disclosure agreement to keep this affair secret less than two weeks before the 2016 election (which may be part of a campaign finance violation), as well as threats of lawsuits and physical violence against Daniels if she did not comply or violated the terms of the agreement.
Again, there are elements of this story which people on both sides of the political aisle would find disagreeable, and thus would make Stormy Daniels a strange and uncomfortable bedfellow. Certainly, Trump loyalists will question Daniels’ credibility based on notions that she is leveraging her supposed encounter with Trump for fame and money, or that she claims to have lied about the affair never happening because she felt she was under duress or otherwise forced to; Anderson Cooper alludes to these thoughts of naysayers at different points during the interview. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, many Trump haters, though perhaps eager to discredit POTUS on matters of deficient moral fiber, are nonetheless gun-shy about invoking the words of a porn star when they may possess their own reservations about her character. There’s a separate discussion that merits having concerning the expression of sexuality in our society, especially for women, but suffice it to say that even discerning members of the left may view Daniels as a lesser-than who lacks real skill or talent, or worse yet, tantamount to a whore.
Even if we see less value than others do in Stormy Daniels’ chosen profession—though I have a number of concerns with aspects of the adult entertainment industry, I personally don’t see value in shaming sex workers, but you’re entitled to your opinion—and even if we question her motives in speaking out publicly about her affair with Donald Trump, whether or not she’s telling the truth about having sex with “the Donald” or being paid “hush money” or being threatened legally and physically is a separate issue. Jose Canseco may have cheated the game of baseball and its fans years ago by using performance-enhancing drugs, but when it came time to name names, a number of his accusations rang true. The genesis of Christopher Steele’s research into the potential collusion of the Trump campaign with Russian leaders began with funding by the Clinton campaign for the sake of research, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of what Steele came back with is hogwash.
As for Daniels, her career involves people having sex on camera, and she stands to make more money as a result of being in the spotlight of late. But this has no bearing on how truthful her public statements are. Anderson Cooper—and likely scores of viewers at home—too questioned the motives of Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti. Cooper noted how, in the past, Avenatti has done opposition research of his own for Democrat Rahm Emanuel, and how this type of case is not his usual cup of tea, suggesting to some that this involvement is politically motivated. Avenatti, for his part, said he had not been involved in politics in some 20 years, and that he took the case because Daniels is “credible” and “telling the truth.” Skeptical as we may be of that assertion, if the evidence bears out that what his client says about Mr. Trump and her is accurate, who are we to judge? Unless critical evidence is being hidden or manufactured, the truth is the truth and should be recognized as such, regardless of the source.
Stormy Daniels’ account of extramarital intercourse with the man who is the putative “leader of the free world” also makes for a compelling case study against the backdrop of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. In saying this, let me stress that Daniels is not a victim of sexual assault or other misconduct here, nor is she claiming to be; in the interview, Daniels was explicit about the idea the sex was consensual. If there’s any fault-finding to be done here regarding what transpired back in 2006, it’s on the side of morality, and that’s on the individual voter to decide how much (or little) he or she cares about what Donald Trump did before he was ruining the country as President. Still, it’s not as if Trump has been free of genuine allegations of unwanted advances and other impropriety along the lines of #MeToo and Time’s Up. Hell, the man was caught on tape boasting of his ability to exploit his status to cop a feel. That he is a philanderer doesn’t automatically make him a predator, but it doesn’t help recover his character either.
Yet more to the point, the uneasiness that bringing up Stormy Daniels’ name promotes—both among those who defend Donald Trump and those who want to see Congress vote to give him the ol’ heave-ho—intersects with concerns about defending “imperfect” accusers that existed long before advocates of victims’ rights were tweeting their outrage about systemic oppression. Should we value Daniels’ concerns about her image and about what happened concerning the NDA less because she is an adult entertainer, thereby engaging in another form of “slut shaming?” Does the notion she accepted the $130,000 invalidate those concerns completely? Does her reluctance to bring threats made against her to the police also work to undermine her arguments? On top of all this, even if Daniels were a victim, would the public be putting her lower than, say, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, one of Harvey Weinstein’s more recent victims (from 2015) and a key figure in his downfall, in their continuum of esteem simply because she (Daniels) is a sex worker?
These are seemingly problematic questions even for purported liberals and feminists, making it that much harder for women who tell their stories to find advocates when tabloids and other publications go out of their way to cast aspersions on their character. Battilana Gutierrez’s reward for shedding light on Weinstein’s misdeeds was a slew of negative press about her and her apparent blacklisting in terms of modeling gigs. Kathleen Parker, a nationally-syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, pulled no punches in her negative assessment of Daniels, underscoring the fact she is not a victim and that she could’ve resisted the advances of a man to whom she had no attraction, suggesting she is no more than an attention-seeker “whose principal purpose is to facilitate her audience’s onanistic gratifications,” and asking, point blank, “Who cares about Stephanie Clifford, really?” Jeez Laweez, Ms. Parker. She is a human being, after all.
Even if you, the reader, are not as brutal as Kathleen Parker in your condemnation of Stormy Daniels or as dismissive of the whole affair with Donald Trump, you might very well share her sentiment of “Who cares?” Particularly if we are subjecting this case to the “whatabout-ism” that evidently plagues today’s politics and political analysis, the encounter occurred 12 years ago—before Trump was President of the United States—and thus meriting a distinction from the antics of someone like Bill Clinton. By this token, it’s old news, plus, nobody got hurt. Daniels got her money and is getting mainstream attention. Everyone wins, right? Besides, it’s not like this is apt to damage Trump in any substantial way. After all, for some of us, it’s pretty hard to like him any less than we already do, if we’re thinking ahead to 2020. Nor will this episode lead to his impeachment, even though that is a “careful what you wish for” scenario given that Mike “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1699” Pence is next in line.
Even the business of Michael Cohen facilitating a hush money payment to Daniels and potentially violating campaign finance laws is likely considered weak sauce to many. On the campaign finance side, as serious as the implications are for this scenario (recall the close proximity of Cohen’s payment to Election Day) and topic undermining democracy, election financing is not a sexy topic. Not when the fate of Dreamers remains uncertain or when people like Stephon Clark are getting shot 20 times by police or when high schoolers have to become activists on gun law reform because previous generations have failed to do their part. There are so many issues facing our country and our world today, and election laws, assuming we are even familiar with them or understand them, aren’t the attention-grabber that they could or perhaps even should be, another aspect of the political process about which to throw up our hands and “wish” we could change.
As for CBS’s decision to make the Stormy Daniels story its feature presentation on 60 Minutes, the network and the show’s producers are being criticized in their own right for their seeming opportunism. Sure, they may have delved into consideration of campaign finance law and possible infractions therein, but as some would have it, what they were peddling was, ahem, trumped-up smut that appealed to a lower common denominator. Stephen Galloway, the executive editor for The Hollywood Reporter, indicates as much in a response piece to the Daniels interview’s airing:
Landing an interview with the porn star was a terrific scoop for Anderson Cooper, but it further lowered an already low bar on broadcast and cable. It was the kind of thing once reserved for the tabloids, until the dividing line between tabloid and mainstream vanished with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that came to light exactly a quarter-century ago.
Twenty-five years since the media indulged in an orgy of Lewinsky coverage, nothing’s changed for the better. The sordid and the squalid are still given priority over anything that might shape actual lives.
Sure, 60 Minutes tricked up its interview with talk of campaign finance and the legal risks to President Trump, just like all the news media that have been breathless in Daniels’ pursuit; but deep down, its producers knew we were looking for smut. We were eager for dirt, anxious to glean any detail of licks and tickles and bites. We wanted the licentious, the kind that Standards and Practices probably would never have permitted on the air.
There’s nothing wrong with that — to a degree. But in giving Daniels and her peers so much attention, TV is leaving no room for anything else. Switch on the evening news and you barely get a glimpse of the important events around the world. Turn on cable and it’s even worse: an endless recycling of the same three or four stories, with nary a sop to Brexit or the UN or the refugee crisis that’s upending nation states and devastating millions of lives.
Severe lack of confidence in the media, including cable news, has been brewing for some time now, and for what Galloway’s comments are worth, this TMZ-worthy fodder probably won’t help. Worse yet, Trump supporters probably see this story as further evidence of bias against Donald Trump and a deliberate attempt by the “liberal left” to take down the President. Such a reactionary attitude is reminiscent of the quip that it’s not paranoia if everyone is genuinely out to get you, but I’ll leave it up for you to decide whether or not CBS is merely trying to get a rise out of its viewers or is interested in pursuing legitimate news.
Going back to the subject of morality, what may be of greatest value with respect to the Stormy Daniels affair is any additional strain this puts on evangelicals and other Christians who contort themselves to defend “Two Corinthians” Trump despite his “lapses” and, while we’re keeping it 100, his ignorance of the Good Book itself. Christians, by and large, went hard for Trump in spite of his adultery, his less-than-fervent commitment to a “love thy neighbor” outlook, and his petty name-calling leading up to the 2016 election. To some, this is just another indication that many ultra-conservative Christians are hypocrites, the likes of whom are standing behind Trump because he defends their positions on abortion, “religious liberty,” and other matters of heightened importance to them.
Then again, it may be simply in the Christian spirit to forgive one for his or her trespasses. Of course, it would help this theory if Trump were to admit he has “sinned,” and not only does Trump refuse to acknowledge he had sexual relations with Daniels, but he apparently has commented that he doesn’t even find her attractive. This seems highly dubious, as anyone with a pulse seems more like his speed, but again, you can believe what you choose to believe.
Whether or not you care about whether or not Donald Trump cheated on Melanie with a porn star and later paid her off/threatened her is one thing, but why you care or don’t care is another. Discussions about how we regard Stormy Daniels and sex workers in general, how much importance we place on getting money out of politics, and whether morality matters in today’s politics are all worth having. For all the time spent watching what is captured through a camera’s lens, we should be turning the lens around and seeing what our own reactions say about us.