Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
For those of us who follow this stuff obsessively, there was little new information in the “60 Minutes” interview with porn star Stormy Daniels. The alleged physical threat against Daniels if she told anyone about her alleged 2006 dalliance with Donald Trump? Her lawyer leveled that charge on CNN more than a week ago. The possibility that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election violated campaign-finance laws? That had already been reported by The Washington Post, among others. For that matter, many of the details we heard Sunday go back to The Wall Street Journal’s original story of Jan. 12.
But that doesn’t mean there was no news value in Daniels’ sitdown with Anderson Cooper. For one thing, there was the simple fact that we were hearing all this for the first time from Daniels herself. For another, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to be heard above the media din, “60 Minutes” remains one of the few outlets in which it is still possible to reach a mass audience. Viewers who knew little about this before learned a lot. Daniels’ story has now moved to center stage.
The question now is whether the Stormy Daniels affair will eclipse all the other ugliness surrounding and involving President Trump — or if it should. Even given Daniels’ allegation that she was physically threatened, her one-time consensual encounter with Trump — still denied by the president — hardly rises to the seriousness of the numerous credible claims by women that Trump sexually assaulted them. Then, too, there is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which appears to be moving ever closer to the president. A possible $130,000 campaign-finance violation is trivial when seen in that light.
CBS News posted the transcript of the interview while we were all waiting for the basketball game to end, so I had a chance to read it and then watch. Several aspects of the interview struck me as worth pondering, and we’ll see how they play out in the days ahead.
• Daniels said Trump told her she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. Trump’s sexualized talk about Ivanka has been remarked upon for years, but repetition makes it no less vile. In 2004, Trump said to Howard Stern that it was all right for Stern to call Ivanka “a piece of ass.” The future president assessed the quality of his daughter’s breasts, too. There are other examples I could cite, but I’ll simply note that, just last week, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had sex with Trump, told Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview that Trump said she was “beautiful like her” — that is, like Ivanka. This is deeply disturbing behavior if true.
• Daniels has some serious credibility issues. I found Daniels to be believable — articulate and composed, with no obvious holes in her story. But that’s not the same thing as being credible. Cooper bore in on her and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, noting that she had signed a nondisclosure form Cohen gave her and took the $130,000, and had signed statements on other occasions saying she’s never had sex with Trump. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?,” Cooper asked Daniels. Her response: “’Cause I have no reason to lie. I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger and definitely a whole lot of s***.” Avenatti, speaking of his client’s past denials, conceded: “I think there’s no question that it calls into question her credibility.”
• Anderson Cooper is a first-rate interviewer. It’s too bad that Cooper’s CNN gig has been reduced to presiding over panels of empty — sorry, I mean talking — heads. He’s a fine journalist, and he did a calm, professional, and thorough job on Sunday. He managed the difficult task of letting Daniels tell her story without seeming to endorse it in any way. As I said, he pressed Daniels and Avenatti hard on the credibility issue. He also questioned Avenatti on his (distant) past as a Democratic operative. Cooper got experts to discuss the possible campaign-finance violation, and viewers came away understanding that it’s not at all clear whether that aspect of the story is especially important — although it could be.
Daniels was a tease on perhaps the most titillating question of the night — whether she has videos, photos, or other records that would prove embarrassing to Trump. Under the nondisclosure agreement, she was supposed to turn over any such documents. But she’s already violated the agreement (she and Avenatti say there is no agreement because Trump never signed it), so who knows what might come next? As The New York Times noted over the weekend, Trump has never tweeted about Daniels. We may speculate on the reasons for that.
The most likely effect of the Daniels interview is that it will feed into Trump’s towering rage and the utter chaos that is surrounding him, as reported in another Times article on Saturday. If nothing else, Daniels’ decision to wage a public battle with Trump could very well lead the president to lash out in other directions. It’s a frightening prospect, but we live in dark times.