Stormy Daniels and Trump: Should the president be worried?

Jon Sopel
North America editor
@bbcjonsopelon Twitter

Media caption, Stormy Daniels: 'I was threatened'

A porn star has given details in a television interview of an alleged affair with the US president. What impact might this have on Donald Trump?

Like kids waiting for Santa to come down the chimney, how can the expectation and anticipation ever live up to the reality?

And so it was with Stormy.

There were "watch parties" as friends gathered a la Superbowl or Oscars, with bowls of nachos and popcorn lined up on coffee tables. Bars were offering Dark and Stormy cocktails in honour of the eponymous star of the show. Like so much else in this presidency it was reality TV on steroids.

I confess I had been with friends and we discussed what would be the worst thing she could say. What if she brought on to set three 12-year-old blond-haired boys with comb-overs and red ties that went below their waist?

In the event there was nothing of the sort. Stormy Daniels seemed poised throughout the interview. She detailed a night in Lake Tahoe where she says she had sex with the president, without too much salacious detail.

Yes, a bit of light-hearted slap and tickle. But the way she described it, it was more saucy end-of-the-pier show than it was Fifty Shades of Grey.

Image source, European photopress agency
Image caption, Some people were glued to it

She is whip smart (to coin a phrase). And with a quick wit. I thought one of the killer lines was when she recalled that Donald Trump is alleged to have said: "You are smart, just like my daughter." (I can't imagine Ivanka taking kindly to that).

Stormy was very quick to point out their encounter was consensual, and that she was making no #MeToo-style complaint. On social media most of the discussion seemed to be about the size of her pupils during the interview. They were huge, and normally when you are under blinding camera lights they are pinpoints.

The interview also suffered because quite a lot of things had been offered as teasers before it aired. I knew she was going to allege that she had been threatened. Her lawyer had said as much in an earlier interview. And we knew all about the $130,000 (£91,000) non-disclosure agreement.

Also, it wasn't an affair - it was one night only. So when I finished watching I thought: "Well, there really isn't that much there."

And the biggest tease of all - the picture posted on social media by Stormy's lawyer of a CD or DVD, with the caption "If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is this worth…?"

There was no explanation.

It was gratingly and somewhat too-clever-by-half left unexplained. Is it bluff, or is it real? Is it the secret weapon, only to be detonated in extremis? Whatever it is, the viewer was left none the wiser.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Trump denies they had a relationship

So a big yawn, and nothing like as exciting as the Kansas vs Duke basketball game that went into extra time, thus delaying the airing of the 60 Minutes interview.

But hang on. This isn't a woman making allegations about some two-bit soap star. This is about the man who is now president of the United States.

And yes, there is a lot of he said, she said - but isn't a "she said" that some goon threatened her as she was taking her infant child out of a car seat that unless she dropped the Trump allegations, kind of alarming? And her claims of repeated attempts to silence her? And then there is the one undisputed fact in all this.

Donald Trump's lawyer paid her $130,000. You don't do that because you're worried that Stormy might reveal she had tea with Mr Trump at a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe or that she met him at a vodka launch in California.

Does that payment pass the smell test? Are we to believe that this philanthropic, beneficent great big softie of an attorney just dishes out suitcases of $100 bills to anyone passing by? "Here you are young lady, go and buy yourself a lovely new mink coat, courtesy of me…"

You don't have to believe every word that Stormy Daniels uttered (although most people I've spoken to - and by no means all anti-Trump - think she came across as credible), and she admits that she lied in putting her name to the denial of an affair. There are uncomfortable questions for her conduct and her motives. But surely the burden is on the president to explain why she was paid that money, and with such stringent conditions attached.

Again, as I say, if it was just a cup of tea and a little chat about appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, why would you want her silenced?

Which brings us to consequences. There is a legal argument over whether this payment breaks campaign finance laws. I am no scholar in this matter, but isn't this a payment to benefit the Trump campaign? Surely it strains credulity that the payment, made 11 days before polling, was some kind of weird coincidence.

Her silence certainly did help his campaign. The rockiest moment of Mr Trump's bid for the White House had come earlier with the publication of the Access Hollywood tape when he was heard making lewd comments about what he could do to women. Fresh disclosures from a former porn star would have certainly whipped up a Stormy storm.

Complaints have been made to the Federal Election Commission and to the Justice Department. That is awkward, but wheels there move slowly - and what is the worst that is going to happen? A fine? A slap on the wrists? Perhaps more dangerous is that this might prick the interest of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, looking into allegations of Russian collusion and the Trump campaign.

And before you rightly say to me: "Huh? What's Stormy got to do with Russian cyber-hacking?" it's worth pointing out what happened with the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who was appointed to investigate Bill Clinton.

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It started as an inquiry into an Arkansas land deal, and ended with the perjury committed by the president over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Mr Mueller might be investigating Russia, but if he's going through a dark room with his torch/flashlight and trips over something else, the thing that he accidentally kicked over can easily become the subject of investigation.

Another thing. In Washington we move from story to story with lightning speed. Everything is here today gone tomorrow. I honestly struggle to remember which story I covered two days ago, such is the breathless pace. Stormy Daniels has been in the news for weeks now.

It may not affect the Trump core of supporters. But the 52% of white, college educated women who voted for him in 2016? The evangelicals? The independents? Old-school Republicans? There are important mid-term elections coming up in November, remember.

There's been no response from the president since the interview and all calls to his press office refer us to previous White House statements denying the relationship took place.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Stormy Daniels was interviewed by Anderson Cooper for CBS News 60 Minutes

So a final question - does Mr Trump care or is he just brushing this off?

He boasts about what a great counter puncher he is. And we've seen it again and again. Theresa May criticises him over retweeting anti Muslim videos - and biff - he hits back.

Meryl Streep dares to question him - and thwack, she's an overrated actor. His enemies are mercilessly assailed: weak, pathetic, useless, snivelling, lying, low-energy, little.

And of Stormy Daniels he has not tweeted a single word.

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