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Amanda Marcotte

Trump is right to fear Stormy Daniels

As a lifelong lover of the English language, I'm being slowly driven mad by one word that haunts the news coverage these days: "affair." It's the favorite word that journalists and pundits use to describe the interaction between adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump, a onetime meeting that led to a series of alleged crimes aimed at covering up what happened between them at a Nevada golf resort in 2006. Journalists like the word "affair" because it manages to be both tawdry and discreet. It invokes a sexual relationship without getting into the unseemly and — considering the alleged butt-and-ketchup stank of the defendant in this case — stomach-turning details. 

But the word "affair" is misleading. Yes, an affair is illicit by definition, and quite likely a bad idea. But an affair is also exciting, erotic, possibly even romantic. An affair suggests two people who can't keep their hands off each other, despite knowing it's wrong. None of this comes close to describing the nauseating single encounter that Daniels has described, whether to journalists or in her memoir. She has insisted, repeatedly, that she did not want to have sex with Trump and gave in because it seemed easier than resisting his advances. 

For those who missed this at the time or have simply forgotten, Daniels explained the situation to Anderson Cooper in her 2018 interview for "60 Minutes." She says she met with Trump alone in a hotel suite in hopes of getting a spot on "The Apprentice." When she came out of the bathroom, he was "perched" on "the edge of the bed." She continued:

Stormy Daniels: And I was like, "Ugh, here we go." (LAUGH) And I just felt like maybe — (LAUGH) it was sort of — I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, "well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this."

Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.

Stormy Daniels: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?

Stormy Daniels: No.

Anderson Cooper: Not at all?

Stormy Daniels: No.

Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?

Stormy Daniels: No. But I didn't — I didn't say no. I'm not a victim.

Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is expected to testify in Trump's Manhattan criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin this week. While she has always said that the sex was "consensual," we can see why Trump was intent on silencing her after the 2016 release of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape in which he brags about sexually assaulting women. Her story wasn't dangerous because it was evidence of adultery. It was yet more evidence of Trump's long history of acting entitled to women's bodies. 

Trump struggles with basic emotional regulation on the best of days, but even by his low standards, his abject terror over this trial is remarkable. He posts hysterically on Truth Social at all hours. His lawyers, always trying to manage the feelings of their volatile client, have filed a series of increasingly silly motions aimed at delaying the trial, all of which have been shot down. No doubt he's afraid of being convicted, especially since the evidence is much stronger than skeptical media reporting initially led people to believe. Polls suggest that 64% of respondents — including four out of 10 Republicans — believe the charges to be serious. 

I suspect there's another underrated source of Trump's fear and rage: He knows Daniels will be taking the stand. Hers is a story that is likely to make him look bad, well beyond garden-variety adultery. The fact that he was an adulterer was probably the best-known aspect of his life going into the election. There's a reason the "Access Hollywood" tape sent his team into overdrive, trying to pay Daniels to shut up. Trump and his minions are able to wave away many of the odious aspects of his personality with seeming ease, from his proud ignorance to his childish insults to his relentless efforts to cheat every system, including elections. But his predatory sexual behavior cannot be explained away by yelling "deep state" or claiming he was "just joking" or insisting that "all politicians do it."

Trump's conduct with women makes clear that he's both a bully and a coward, who victimizes vulnerable people in situations where they have no real way to fight back. It also undermines his lifelong effort to portray himself as an irresistible Lothario and sexual dynamo. The ladies don't swoon over Donald Trump. They spend every minute wondering when it will be safe to wriggle free from his stubby fingers. 

While plenty of men, including former White House chief of staff John Kelly, have spoken out about their negative experiences with Trump, women have generally been the most compelling witnesses against him. Former journalist E. Jean Carroll testified in two civil trials about how Trump sexually assaulted her and then defamed her. Juries found her persuasive enough to award her nearly $90 million. Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson wasn't sexually abused by Trump (although her interaction with Rudy Giuliani is a different story), but became the most striking witness in the Jan. 6 hearings during the previous Congress. Her accounts of Trump as a petulant child who throws ketchup and flails impotently at Secret Service agents rang true in a way that was difficult for even the most delusional MAGA heads to deny. 

It's hard to say why women have been able to cut through the noise and speak truth about Trump with such sobering clarity. Maybe it's precisely because they lack power, at least in relative terms. Trump sees all other people as nothing more than objects to step on as he grasps for money and domination, but he has special contempt for women, as do so many of his rabid followers. We recognize that women who speak out against Trump are doing so from a position of moral urgency, and often at great risk to themselves. That's hard to dirty up with the usual MAGA mudslinging. 

As Salon's Melanie McFarland notes in her review of the recent Peacock documentary "Stormy," Daniels has been relentlessly "co-opted to suit others’ purposes," and her history of sex work makes it easier to see her as "a prop to be hoisted when it’s convenient for a particular constituency and abandoned at will." We'll no doubt see more of that, from all sides of the Trump political melodrama, during and after this trial. 

But consider that E. Jean Carroll was actually able to wrestle control of her story back through her testimony against Trump, as difficult as that clearly was. The stakes are lower for Daniels, who has never described herself as a victim or accused Trump of assaulting her — but still. She has been through hell, and now she'll get an opportunity to tell her side of the story, in a situation where everyone else has to shut up and listen. From what I've seen of her, she is plenty capable of rising to the challenge. Trump tells lies all day every day, especially about the women he has mistreated and abused. When one of them gets to look him in the eye and tell the truth, that's a rare moment. And I suspect it will be a powerful one. 

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