The problem with the likely indictment of Donald Trump is that his offense is a metafiction. It is a story about a story. None of the main plot points—which are expected to lead to Trump becoming the first former or sitting US president ever to be charged with a crime—relate to what actually happened on the night of July 13, 2006, when a twenty-seven-year-old porn star, Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, had bad sex with sixty-year-old Trump in the penthouse of Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino in Nevada. All of them concern, rather, the telling, silencing, commodification, and politicization of that tale. How much was Clifford’s account worth at different times between the encounter in 2006 and January 12, 2018, when The Wall Street Journal ran its headline “TRUMP LAWYER ARRANGED $130,000 PAYMENT FOR ADULT-FILM STAR’S SILENCE”? Who could make the most money from it? What would its political impact be? How could it be defined as crime?
We are in a very Trumpian world where the relationship between real events and the narratives they generate has gone wild. Wrapped up in “catch and kill,” the practice of capturing a sleazy tale and confining it in the cage of a nondisclosure agreement, is the image of a story as a feral creature with a life of its own, roaming out there on the untamed frontiers of scandalmongering, needing to be lured in with the smell of money and trapped in a net of legalities. The irony of the whole episode is that the apparent success of this operation in silencing Daniels did not contain her story. It has turned it into an invasive species that has spread uncontrollably from its natural habitat of juicy gossip and into places it does not belong: the law, politics, and even the Constitution.
Trump is a criminal—but not because he screwed a porn star and paid her hush money. It is not just that using Stormy Daniels as the way to hold him to account plays dizzying tricks with perspective, zeroing in on a molehill of sleaze when the mountain of Trump’s criminal sedition continues to loom so large against the horizon of American democracy. It’s that all of this drags us back into Trump’s territory. This episode comes from, and gives new life to, the world of performative politics in which he remains the leading player. It is a lurid—and seductively entertaining—sideshow in the great circus of which he is the ringmaster. It keeps that fading extravaganza on the road. History is being made, but it is, like Trump himself, history unfolding the second, third, and fourth time as farce, so that its primary tragedy is buried under layers of absurdity.
This is an epic so entangled in fictions that it has its own cast of made-up characters. Clifford herself long ago disappeared into her avatar, Stormy Daniels, the nom de guerre she adopted shortly after she began her career in porn films. We might add to the cast list Daniels’s surgically enhanced triple-D breasts, which she named Thunder and Lightning. Trump, of course, appears in it as The Donald, the ludicrous fantasy mogul from The Apprentice, the reality TV show where she hoped—in return, she says, for “two to three minutes” of bump-and-grind action in his penthouse bedroom—he would make her a contestant. And then there are PP and DD, the names used in the contract that is at the center of the alleged crime, in which Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen (and now the central witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s case against Trump) agreed to pay Daniels $130,000 not to speak about her relations with his boss. In this script Trump plays David Dennison and Daniels Peggy Peterson—names chosen perhaps as the boring antitheses of lurid porn star soubriquets—with their true identities revealed in a secret letter of which Cohen kept the only copy.
It is striking that Daniels—according to her smartly written memoir, Full Disclosure (2018)—reminds us that she took creative writing classes at school, would “write funny short stories about me and my friends,” and came to define herself less as a porn star than as a maker of stories: “I’m a writer.” She pictures herself as an inveterate elaborator of scripts:
Just like my high school friends, my friends know that they need to be careful around me. They’ll tell me something funny that happened to them, and they’ll recognize that funny look on my face as I press Record in my mind. “Oh, shit,” they’ll say. “I’m a script now, aren’t I?” “You totally are,” I answer.
Are we all a script now? We totally are. All three of its central characters were, or thought of themselves as being, in show business. Trump was a reality TV star when he had sex with Daniels and it does seem that he really did make some efforts to get her on The Apprentice. He ultimately told her that his attempts to keep his promise had been blocked by the Irish actor Roma Downey, who was married to Mark Burnett, the show’s producer. (Downey had played both an angel and the Blessed Virgin Mary on TV, so had quite an image to maintain.) This seems to be more than his usual bullshit: Trump told Cohen pretty much the same thing.
Daniels herself was a highly self-conscious performer. When she went to Trump’s penthouse that fateful night in 2006, he told her, “Our businesses are kind of a lot alike, but different.” They were more the former than the latter. Daniels describes her approach to her performances as an erotic dancer:
When you command a room—getting not just the audience’s attention but earning their tips—you need to be a sort of one-woman circus. You’re a ringmaster, clown, lion, tightrope walker, magician, and magician’s assistant all in one. Your clothes have to tell a story, and like any story there have to be layers and reveals to keep people focused on you.
If that doesn’t remind you of anyone, you haven’t been paying much attention to American politics for the last seven years.
And Cohen always knew that, as Trump’s “lackey” (a term Cohen uses about himself in his 2020 memoir, Disloyal), he was essentially a low-grade stagehand. He recounts the old joke
where the circus worker is shoveling elephant shit and someone asks him why he doesn’t find a better job. What, he asks, and leave show business? That was me: shoveling shit but part of the show.
Trump spread his own big top over American democracy. Daniels was a one-woman circus. Cohen shoveled the shit in order to remain part of the Greatest Show on Earth. That is the nexus in which this whole story lives and breathes. An indictment of Trump over the Stormy Daniels affair would not threaten to end the show—it would be a revival.
A debasement of democracy is inherent in the movement of this kind of performativity from the periphery to the center of the discourse surrounding the US presidency. It can be summarized in the shifting use of a single phrase. In 1996 the then first lady Hillary Clinton (two decades later, of course, the Democratic candidate beaten to the presidency by Trump) published a best-selling book called It Takes a Village. It is a serious discussion of the effects of social institutions and policies on the life chances of children. Its title recurs in Daniels’s memoir, where she is recalling her first visit to a porn movie set:
These four girls were going at it like they were inventing girl-on-girl rough sex. The grunts, the cries, the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” One girl was using a double-ended dildo to fuck another one doggy-style while also thrusting the opposite end into herself. Devon was helpfully spreading the ass cheeks of the receiver while getting fucked with another dildo. It takes a village.
This is quite a journey for a little proverb: from earnest encapsulation of a public argument to a knowing wink at a political history that now exists only as it is encoded in a dirty joke.
Why is it not obvious that those who care about democracy should be very reluctant to join Stormy and The Donald in their quick and dirty clinch? Because, for those of us who despise Trump, the Stormy saga has the dangerous allure of a kind of political revenge porn. It conjures an alternate reality TV show in which Trump, instead of being the masterful mogul, is brought as low as he can possibly go. This indeed is the scenario imagined by Cohen, whose rage at his former boss’s failure to save him from jail as the fall guy for the hush money operation is the great driver of the story’s later chapters. Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, on his popular podcast, Mea Culpa, Cohen summoned a delirious vision of Trump’s future fate:
Beyond the pure karmic justice of it all, Trump going to prison would make for the world’s greatest reality show. Imagine Donald Trump, Eric and Don Jr. all sharing a cell, working in the sewage treatment plant. Then there would be his appearance. In prison he’d turn into an absolute freak show. Without access to his ridiculous array of hair products and attendants fixing his [shoulder] length combover he’d resemble no less than the Golem himself.
What makes this putative freak show such a draw is that it does feel, on the surface, like karmic justice. There are so many ways in which it seems that Trump is reaping what he himself sowed.
One of them is the boomerang effect of kiss and tell. Before he was David Dennison to Daniels’s Peggy Peterson, Trump was John Barron and John Miller, the names he used in the 1980s and 1990s when he called tabloid editors to let them in on some salacious gossip about himself, intended to create and sustain his image as a great lover. The apogee of his career as cartoon lothario was the New York Post front page of February 16, 1990, allegedly created at his own insistence: “Marla boasts to her pals about Donald: ‘BEST SEX I EVER HAD.’” (Marla Maples, later his wife, being the woman with whom he was then committing adultery.)
There is thus a wicked glee not just in the idea of Trump being prosecuted for trying to close down a sex story but in the way that tale, when it emerged, revealed the self-declared king of the boudoir as a pauper without prowess. The script for what actually happened between them is entirely written by Daniels—we are surely never going to get Trump’s version. She played to her gallery with a withering description of Trump’s sexual performance that serves as a cri de coeur for so many of her sisters. After he has sex with her, he asks, “How can I get ahold of you, honey bunch?” She recounts her unspoken thoughts:
How many women have been in this situation? You’re a bore, you’re the definition of bad sex, you call me this insipid name, I want to teleport out of here and be somewhere eating snacks with my girlfriends—but sure, let’s do this again.
Would the whole chronicle be quite so satisfying if Daniels claimed that it was the best sex she ever had? For her anti-Trump audience bad sex and bad politics are conflated in a way that is highly enjoyable as a fantasy of Trump’s comeuppance. But is the first really a useful correlative for the second?
There’s also, within this story, a morality tale about the wages of meanness. Trump has long been notorious for stiffing people who do jobs for him, and it is pleasant to reflect that had he not indulged this habit he would probably not now be facing indictment. Cohen had to pay the $130,000 to Daniels (though much of it went to her lawyers and agent—she says she actually received just $80,000, which she spent on a new trailer for her horse) because the usual way of dealing with “catch and kill” operations did not work. The established system was that Trump’s devoted acolyte, David Pecker, would buy the story for his National Enquirer and then sit on it, having received an NDA in return for a payment. Pecker had already done this in 2016 in relation to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who’d had an affair with Trump, paying her $150,000 through his company American Media. Trump was supposed to find a way to return $125,000 of this to American Media. But he didn’t. Thus, when Cohen was looking for a way to pay Daniels by proxy, Pecker would not oblige. As Cohen explained, “stiffing American Media meant they weren’t going to come to his financial assistance again.” Cohen had to use his own money and then get reimbursed by Trump through bogus legal fees—the nub of the accusation.
There’s a nice symmetry to Trump’s sexual boasting and financial chicanery recoiling upon him. There is also, though, a broader sense in which the story of this alleged crime has emerged from deep within his own world. Part of Trump’s political persona is that of a very rich man with the same tastes as his much less wealthy followers. He connects to many of his voters through a shared love for things that liberal sophisticates disdain: fat-rich fast food, pro wrestling, trash TV, NASCAR, and, as it turned out, porn stars. Daniels is a product of that universe. She is a Republican who insists that “Part of the American dream is making money. I am a firm believer in capitalism.”
More importantly, as she is acutely aware, her fans and Trump’s came from the same constituency. Presumably, most of them have since protested her betrayal by deciding to spill their seed before some other goddess. But in 2006 Trump was right to sense that she and he were in the same business. She recalled in her memoir,
As my fan base grew over two decades of work in film and feature dancing, my demographic was usually middle-aged white men. Forty-five- to sixty-five-year-old white dudes—Republicans, basically.
Perhaps they saw the same thing in him as they did in her. A middle-aged man at a Trump rally could experience the same ritual reassurance about the security of his status as a white dude that he might get from having Daniels strip and dance before him. In addition, just as Trump’s live appearances were his TV image made flesh, the god coming out of the machine, Daniels was paid a premium for her live act because the clubs knew that their customers already felt connected to her filmed image from her porn movies.
Very close to the surface of her amply displayed skin, Daniels had the same raw nerve that Trump became so good at touching: the resentment of those who fear that uniquely American term of contempt, white trash. The most haunting thing in her memoir is her recollection of being a child of a chaotic family in Baton Rouge and overhearing her friend’s father being asked why he lets his daughter play with her: “‘I don’t know,’ her dad said. ‘We try to do what’s right and not judge, but yeah, she’s white trash.’” Later, when her boyfriend’s parents find out that he has been having sex with her, they “let me know that I was a piece of white-trash shit.” Trump has been very good at intimating to his fans (especially after Clinton’s remark about the “deplorables”) that this is how liberals think of them, too.
It becomes possible, then, to see Daniels, and the grief she has brought to Trump, as another kind of retribution, the embodiment of all those white trash anxieties returned to haunt the man who has so effectively manipulated them. Her surgically enhanced Thunder and Lightning are the instruments of divine wrath at his cynical stirring up of toxic resentments. Because of her unwanted role in American history as the trigger for what’s expected to be an unprecedented presidential indictment, Daniels is magnified far beyond her actual importance—and, to be fair, beyond her own intent.
In 2018, when Daniels emerged from the cage of her NDA, she was greeted by many as some kind of savior. It is worth remembering that her release into the wilds of America’s political psychodrama was yet another example of “purposes mistook/Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads.” In this case, it was Cohen’s desire for his own shot at fame—the shit-shoveler’s demand for a turn in the big top—that hastened his own disaster. This bargain-basement version of hubris and nemesis was another story about a story. Cohen drafted a twenty-page book proposal promising an “intimate” portrait of Trump by his friend and fixer. He and his agent did a road show of the five largest publishing houses in New York, with Hachette agreeing in principle to publish it for a $500,000 advance. In February 2018 someone leaked a copy of the proposal to The Daily Beast. It included the fateful promise to tell the truth about the “unfortunate saga” of Stormy Daniels and the $130,000 he had paid her before the 2016 election.
Cohen did not in fact intend to tell the truth—that Trump had repaid the money using fake legal fees as a cover. But his proposal to discuss the events at all effectively rendered void the NDA he had induced Daniels to sign. It allowed her, ironically, to do what Trump had promised in 2006 to help her do: to cross over from porn stardom into mainstream celebrity. Her three minutes of bad sex were upgraded to a special edition of 60 Minutes. But in the process her story acquired a whole new potency. It jumped species from sex and sleaze to politics, the law, and ultimately history itself.
In this process, Daniels appeared as an avenging angel, not just for all the insults Trump had delivered to his enemies, but for all the sins of the patriarchy. Gay men began to come to her shows and tell her in emotional terms “about feeling bullied by an administration that makes their marriages and freedoms seem less safe.” Older women started to come to her shows in groups. She wrote in 2020 that “The women I see on the road have a lot of anger. Not at me, which I initially expected…. No, they’re angry at Trump, who seems to be a stand-in for every man who’s ever bullied them.” Because Daniels spoke up about being repeatedly raped by a neighbor as a child, her experience of unpleasant but consensual sex with Trump merged with the much wider issue of sexual exploitation. Women talked to her about “A friend who killed herself after being raped. Or their own stories, feeling voiceless and unprotected.” In this rapid multiplication of stories, Daniels—weirdly—became an almost Christlike figure who took on the sins of the world, or at least of all violent and domineering men: “They leave me,” she wrote of these women, “with ‘You’re going to save the world.’”
And no, Stormy Daniels was never going to save the world—or save America from Trump and Trumpism. She was not born great and did not achieve greatness—she merely had greatness thrusting upon her for a few minutes in a casino hotel in Nevada. And a rather debased form of greatness at that. She may not, to misquote Monty Python, be merely a very naughty girl but she is not the Messiah either. The inflation of her story into a historic moment is not a blow against the Trumpian culture of hyperbole, but a continuation of it.
For the reality behind that story is that it did not matter at all. Cohen went to prison, and Trump is expected to be charged, over their attempt to suppress a supremely inconsequential narrative. What would have happened if Daniels had spoken during the 2016 campaign about her tawdry tryst with Trump? Almost certainly nothing. The payment of the hush money was agreed upon at a very particular moment: three days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump was heard to boast about how, when he sees a beautiful woman, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Cohen paid off Daniels because of the expectation that the release of these remarks would inflict huge damage on Trump’s campaign and that another sex scandal would destroy it. But this perception was utterly wrong. Pussygate did not harm Trump at all. Those of his supporters for whom his sexual behavior ought to have been an issue had already decided that God works in mysterious ways—and if the Almighty had chosen Trump as His representative on earth, who were they to argue? For another part of his constituency—the one he shared with Daniels—the thought of his screwing a porn star was not shocking. It was (like so much else about Trump’s appeal) vicarious wish fulfillment. (It is striking that, according to Daniels, Trump, at the climax of their encounter, “came on me, not in me,” reenacting the money shot.)
The evidence is that Trump himself understood that to the fans he shared with Daniels, having sex with her was not a negative. As he told Cohen about the Daniels story, “If it comes out, I’m not sure how it would play with my supporters. But I’d bet they think it’s cool that I slept with a porn star.” For her part, Daniels was ever more certain that “Me saying I slept with him would just be another consensual notch on his belt that his fans could pat him on the back about.”
This is the ironic twist in the tale—there was no scandal to hush up. In Trumpworld, scandal no longer exists. The shameless cannot be shamed. The payment to Daniels was thus completely irrelevant to the presidential election. It certainly involved a falsifying of business records, which is a misdemeanor—though in this case a tiny one in relation to the way Trump habitually conducted his businesses. But to get from that to a crime against the democratic electoral system is a leap too far—especially when his actual crimes against democracy are so gross and so glaring.
Why, then, did Trump approve the payment to Daniels? All the public evidence we have, which is chiefly from Cohen, suggests that what he was really afraid of was the reaction not of his voters but of his wife. At every stage Trump wanted Cohen to reassure Melania that he did not sleep with a porn star shortly after she had given birth to their son. (Before he did so, he showed Daniels “a photo of Melania holding little Barron, who was only four months old.”) What Trump was scared of was that his wife would use Daniels in a divorce case that would be ruinously expensive. The payoff was a lot cheaper. As Trump told Cohen, “A hundred and thirty thousand is a lot less than I would have to pay Melania.”
Is that sleazy calculation really the hinge on which American political history turns? If the American democracy can be shaped by nasty intricacies of a martinet’s strange marriage, it is even more deeply mired in the cult of a narcissistic personality than it already seemed. Making a drama out of Trump’s sex life is turning politics back into another freak show, the very genre in which he thrives.
This article was originally published online March 28, 2022.