Approximately 22 million viewers tuned in to "60 Minutes" March 25 to watch as Anderson Cooper interviewed Stephanie Clifford. Clifford, better known as adult film actress Stormy Daniels, alleges that she had an affair with now-President Trump in 2006.
Daniels is currently in the midst of an escalating legal battle with the president and his hapless Attorney Michael Cohen. She alleges that the latter paid her $130,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the relationship in the lead-up to the 2016 election, but that the agreement is invalid because Trump himself never signed it — now leaving her free to share the story. While her latest recounting included some explicit details of the encounters themselves with Trump, it also included harrowing aftereffects, including an ominous threat made against her in a parking lot.
It is a peculiarity of the Age of Trump that such an extraordinary saga is given only a portion of the news cycle rather than exhaustive, wall-to-wall coverage. But even with the relatively limited conversation around Daniels' story, many among the liberal commentariat — particularly men — have been quick to wave it away entirely, or clarify that they are interested not in the sordid details, but only anything pertaining to some kind of legal impropriety on the president's part.
Their arguments are focused on Cohen's six-figure payout. His payment, if it was truly made out of his own pocket, could represent a violation of campaign finance law — perhaps an “in-kind” contribution to the Trump campaign, well beyond the legal limit for such spending. A similar case can be made for the new suggestion that someone, with or without then-candidate Trump's knowledge, was trying to threaten Daniels into silence; blackmail is clearly criminal conduct, and should be taken extremely seriously by commentators and authorities alike.
But commentators need to get over their high-mindedness, because many other aspects of Daniels' story deserve both attention and thoughtful analysis. For one, the White House press shop refuses to answer questions about the ordeal, insisting that the president stands by his "repeated denials" of the affair — except that he hasn't denied it at all. So at the very least, the Daniels story deserves discussion because it is obviously weighing on the president and causing his already remarkably dishonest surrogates to "spin" harder and faster than ever before.
Daniels' story is also important because of the non-disclosure agreement. Between Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal (whose affair story was stifled by a contract with the National Enquirer), it has become clear that Trump is willing to use complex legal means to silence those who could corroborate any stories of his impropriety. The same, perhaps, can be said for allegations of misconduct and abuse — consider, for example, his first wife's retracted account of spousal rape. It is a tremendous problem if the most powerful man in the world is using the law to distort the already fraught public record of how he treats women. This all also underscores Trump's own vulnerability to blackmail — and the question of what other actors, foreign and domestic, might have resultant influence over him.
But most critically, Daniels' story should matter to Americans of every gender because it is a story told by a woman about the treatment of women by this president. It is obviously relevant to a cultural moment wherein we should be listening and believing women when they share exactly these kinds of experiences. As a man, it isn't my place to write exactly what the Stormy Daniels story means; plenty of smarter, more articulate women have done that, and you should read them. But it seems clear that focusing on only legal minutia discounts a critical human element and will inevitably minimize Stephanie Clifford's role as a woman who is currently standing up to a man in the most intimidating position of power.
Graham F. West is the communications director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Cagle Cartoons Inc.