What Happened to Stormy Daniels Is Not Salacious

by 24britishtvMay 10, 2024, 7 p.m. 25
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One evening in March 2018, I joined some friends at a bar in Washington, D.C., to watch a live broadcast of Anderson Cooper’s interview with the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels on 60 Minutes. For months, we’d all been reading news stories about Daniels’s reported sexual encounter with then-President Donald Trump, along with Trump’s efforts to pay her off in order to cover it up before the 2016 election—and now, finally, we were going to hear from the woman herself. The story itself seemed funny, an absurd dispatch from a faraway, brightly colored world of celebrity gossip.

But once the broadcast started, the story that Daniels told was not funny at all. It sounded, in fact, a great deal like the accounts of many of the women who had been recently sharing their experiences of sexual coercion as part of the #MeToo movement, which had exploded just a few months before, following The New York Times’ reporting on the abuses of the film producer Harvey Weinstein. Daniels hadn’t wanted to sleep with Trump, she told Cooper, but felt that “I had it coming for making a bad decision, for going to someone’s room alone.” Still, she insisted that she was “not a victim.” The atmosphere in the bar remained cheerful, but my “Dark and Stormy Daniels” cocktail no longer seemed quite so amusing an order. I left feeling unsettled.

I remembered that evening this week while following Daniels’s testimony at Trump’s New York trial, where he faces charges over his alleged effort to cover up the hush-money payment made to Daniels in 2016. News coverage of the trial has featured plenty of jokes about the seedy schemes by Trump’s team to quash unflattering stories. And Daniels has seemed happy at times to play her part in the circus, leaning into the character of a brassy Trump-hater. What she described on the stand, though, wasn’t exactly “tawdry” or “salacious,” as some news coverage has suggested. It was something sadder, uglier, and—for many people who have lived in some way in the shadow of sexual violence—more familiar.

Initially, whether the district attorney’s office would call Daniels to testify was unclear. Although she is at the center of the case, she’s also removed from it. Her story is what prosecutors say Trump wanted to silence before the election, but the charges themselves focus on documents allegedly fudged by the Trump Organization after the fact.

This week, though, prosecutors made the call to put Daniels on the stand. She described her experience with Trump in greater detail than she had on 60 Minutes, saying she’d reluctantly agreed to a dinner with Trump and, when she arrived at the hotel, was told to come up to his room—an echo of Weinstein’s tactics. After a long conversation about business—he was interested in the economics of the porn industry, she said, and suggested that she might appear on The Apprentice—she went to the restroom, and emerged to find him stripped down to a T-shirt and boxers. She was shocked: “I felt the room spin in slow motion,” she testified, and remembered thinking, “Oh my God, what did I misread to get here?” She went to leave, and he stood between her and the door. When she went to put on her clothes afterward, she said, her hands were shaking too hard to buckle up her shoes.

As she had on 60 Minutes, Daniels emphasized in the courtroom that she viewed the sex as consensual. She also said that she was conscious of the difference in power between herself and Trump: Though she insisted that she hadn’t felt threatened, he was larger than her and standing between her and the bedroom door; his bodyguard was outside; he had dangled the possibility of a role on The Apprentice. Daniels’s insistence that she is not a victim locates the interaction in a queasy, blurred space of complicated sexual interaction that has become more culturally familiar in the years since #MeToo.

What was striking about Daniels’s story was how normal it seemed. Setting aside the identities of the people involved and the hubbub about hush money, elements were reminiscent of an uncertain disclosure that you might hear from a friend over brunch: Something weird happened last night … In a conversation with my colleagues at Lawfare, Claire Meynial, who has been covering the trial for the French magazine Le Point, described watching the focused, serious faces of the women in the press room as Daniels testified.

Particularly brutal was Daniels’s own frustration with herself for having ended up in a situation where Trump expected sex from her. On the stand, she seemed bitter over her own misapprehension that Trump had been interested in having a real conversation about her career aspirations. She had wanted “to be taken seriously as a writer and director” and hoped that appearing on The Apprentice might help get her there. Again, this carries an echo of Harvey Weinstein, and the many women who described their disappointment when they realized that the producer had no real interest in their work but saw them only as an object for abuse.

For all the attention that Daniels’s testimony has received, how much of a difference it will really make to an eventual verdict is not obvious. Though prosecutors seem to have calculated that her story will help build their case, the key questions they must prove to the jury don’t depend on what Daniels says happened to her that evening or whether she’s telling the truth. And there’s a risk that the sometimes-graphic details shared by Daniels might provide Trump with legal arguments with which to appeal any conviction, on the grounds that they could bias the jury against the defendant in a case that doesn’t turn legally on matters of sex. Twice, following Daniels’s testimony, Trump’s legal team moved for a mistrial on these same grounds—motions that the trial judge denied.

On cross-examination, the former president’s lawyer seemed committed to attacking Daniels’s credibility regarding her interactions with Trump. The questions took a shape familiar to anyone who has ever been questioned about their own experience of assault: Shouldn’t you have known that this was what he wanted? You didn’t say no? Aren’t you just making this all up? Daniels fought back, insisting on the truth of what had happened to her. Throughout it all, Trump sat there silently. When Daniels left the courtroom, he looked straight ahead, not turning to watch her go.

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