A Stormy (Daniels) situation: A porn star scandal Trump can't shake

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

Image source, Getty Images

Call it the October surprise that didn't happen - and a presidential scandal that hasn't caught fire. Yet.

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal lawyer and all-around fixer, set up a private company that made a $130,000 (£94,000) payment - out of Mr Cohen's personal funds - to adult film actress Stormy Daniels on 17 October, 2016 - just weeks before Mr Trump's shocking general election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

To place that in the timeline of major presidential election events, that was just 10 days after the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Mr Trump boasted of making unwanted sexual advances on women made headlines, and 11 days before James Comey's equally infamous letter re-opening the investigation into Mrs Clinton's email server.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story last month, the payment was made to Ms Daniels in exchange for her agreement not to discuss a year-long extramarital affair she had with Mr Trump that began in 2006.

Ms Daniels had been in communication with media outlets in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election, but those contacts ceased after the Cohen payment was made.

Cohen has said the president "vehemently denies" any romantic involvement with the adult film star, while the White House called the WSJ story "old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election".

Would a Trump porn-star sex scandal have made a difference in the election?

Counter-factuals about the 2016 election are a fool's game. What's of more immediate interest is why the Wall Street Journal report hasn't made a bigger splash in the US media and among the public at large. And it's not just a stodgy financial newspaper's reporting, either.

If a good sex scandal needs salacious details, this one has the abundance, due to an extensive 2011 interview Daniels (her real name is Stephanie Clifford) gave to In Touch magazine, which was published in full on Friday.

According to the report, Daniels discusses in detail how she allegedly met Mr Trump (at a golf tournament), their various dalliances (a first date in his hotel room, where he met her in his pyjamas), his television-watching habits and his obsession with and overwhelming fear of sharks (he allegedly said he wished the species would die).

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Michael Cohen reportedly set up a Delaware corporation that made a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels in October 2016

Back in 2016, multiple news outlets were apparently pursuing the story. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg has recounted his communications with Daniels, who he said had alleged the romantic involvement with Mr Trump.

"Daniels said she had some corroborating evidence, including the phone numbers of Trump's long-time personal assistant Rhona Graff and his bodyguard Keith Schiller, with whom she said she would arrange rendezvous," Weisberg writes. "While she did not share those numbers with me, I did speak to three of Daniels' friends, all of whom said they knew about the affair at the time, and all of whom confirmed the outlines of her story."

Weisberg says Daniels cut off communications with him around the time the Wall Street Journal reports she received payment from Cohen.

CNN has also reported that Fox News was investigating the alleged Trump-Daniels affair in October 2016, including securing an on-the-record interview with Daniels' business manager repeating the claims, but the network spiked the story.

Fast-forward a year and a few months, and the story - and the journalistic digging around it - is finally seeing the light of day. And yet the reports have been buried beneath coverage of a possible federal government shutdown, back-and-forths over the exact expletive the president used to describe impoverished nations and the president's mental and physical health.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Donald Trump and his family in January 2007

Why? Perhaps it's scandal fatigue for a public figure who has been a tabloid fixture for decades.

"If you think the media haven't created a new set of rules for Trump, here's a thought experiment," writes Judd Legum of the liberal media watchdog group ThinkProgress. "Imagine the coverage if it was reported in 2013 that Obama paid a porn star 130K to keep quiet about an extramarital affair."

That prospect has conservative columnist Tim Carney, of the Washington Examiner, somewhat despondent.

"It's a sign that our culture has been debased that people are shrugging off this latest story about Trump's infidelity," he writes. "Specifically: Trump has debased us. We're worse because of him."

That may be changing, however, now that the New York Times has followed up on the Wall Street Journal's story and received a statement from Mr Cohen confirming the payment but denying any wrongdoing.

If the payment had been made out of campaign funds and not, as he says, from his personal account, it could constitute a violation of election law.

Reports of the alleged affair itself, which other media organisations have repeated, are more than a decade old.

A story about possible attempts to cover up a salacious story just before an election, however, could wound a White House that is already on its heels.