After many Democrats largely dismissed Bill Clinton’s Oval Office romp with Monica Lewinsky as a “private matter,” it’s harder for them to make a case that Donald Trump’s alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels a decade before he was elected president really matters. Of course, it might have made a difference to some voters, evangelicals perhaps, if they’d known about the relationship before they cast their votes, but they forgave the “Access Hollywood” tape and Trump’s reference to “grabbing women by…” well, you know. Trump’s voters also chose to ignore the nearly two dozen women who said that Trump did more than talk about sexually assaulting women — that he actually did it to them. But the new wrinkle in the reality TV star/president’s actions is that Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid off Daniels to buy her silence just days before the election. We learned this in January, but the story disappeared quickly in the wake of the scandal-du-jour nature of this White House. Now it’s back on the front pages, in part because Cohen started threatening the actress when he learned she might tell her full story despite the fact that she signed a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for $130,000 in October 2016.
It says a great deal about whom we have become to note that virtually no one is surprised that our president, while married and with a new baby at home, had a relationship with a woman whose claim to fame is acting in, writing and now directing pornographic films. It wasn’t all that long ago that being divorced was an impediment to becoming president, never mind advertising your affairs on the front pages of tabloid magazines as Trump did in 1990 in the midst of his breakup with the mother of his three eldest children, Ivana Trump. Sure, other presidents may not have been saints, but for the most part, they had the decency not to flaunt their behavior in the public’s face, or they wouldn’t have been elected in the first place. Call it hypocrisy that the press stayed silent on President Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime relationship with Lucy Mercer, his wife’s onetime secretary, and President John F. Kennedy’s dalliances with a mobster’s girlfriend, among others. But the old adage about hypocrisy’s being the tribute vice pays to virtue at least recognizes that public appearances matter because most of us know the difference between right and wrong and prefer the former.
Cohen has managed to get an arbitrator to issue a restraining order against Daniels’ telling her story, but to little effect so far because Daniels has now filed suit against Cohen and Trump, asking that the nondisclosure agreement she and Cohen signed be invalidated because Trump did not sign it, though he was listed, under the alias David Dennison, as a signatory. In the past, Trump has always been able to bully others into keeping silent about issues he has wished to hide, and Cohen has played fixer for many of Trump’s embarrassments. But Trump is no longer just a brash and unscrupulous deal-maker; he’s president of the United States. And what he did to try to silence someone with a story to tell less than two weeks before the election takes on much greater significance. Where the money came from matters. Cohen says it was his own, but a lawyer’s paying hush money from his own pocket seems highly unethical, not to mention improbable. More importantly, if the intent was to keep the story out of the press right before the election, it seems pretty clear it was a political contribution in excess of the legal limit, unless Trump used his own money.
If Trump wants to avoid yet another possible investigation into alleged illegal behavior, maybe he should just fess up. The last thing he should do is a version of Bill Clinton’s infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” line. Trump’s followers will believe anything that comes out of his mouth, but lying about what happened could ensnare him in legal jeopardy, just as it did Clinton. And because his admirers have already shown their willingness to forgive Trump of almost anything, maybe he should try truth this time around.