The fact that President Donald Trump is so immersed in scandal helps inoculate him against the porn-star story. An aura of scandal and controversy that has hovered around him since early in his campaign has simply absorbed new revelations as they came out.
By our count, at least six media outlets were aware of the alleged affair between porn star Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump before the 2016 election.
• InTouch magazine spoke with Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford) in 2011 — before she allegedly signed an agreement with Trump’s team in which she was paid $130,000 not to discuss the incident.
• Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote this week about having been tipped off about the story in mid-2016 and confirming it with Daniels — who also described the pending agreement for her to keep quiet.
• Fox News killed an October 2016 story about the affair, according to CNN reporting.
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• That report also indicates that “Good Morning America” spoke with Daniels about an interview before Election Day.
• The Daily Beast had a similar story, describing ongoing interviews with Daniels before the election — with her backing out less than a week before voting.
• The Smoking Gun ran a story in mid-October 2016 focused on the relationship between Daniels and Trump. It doesn’t explicitly state that the two had a sexual affair, but hints at it strongly.
Each outlet likely had overlapping reasons for not running with the story, including that Daniels’ unwillingness to go public with her story made it tricky. But Weisberg offers another rationale that’s revelatory:
“Given what was going on in the final weeks of the campaign, during which Trump was facing a torrent of accusations of sexual abuse, I didn’t think an extramarital affair would be a highly significant story. What interested me more was Daniels’ allegation that Trump had negotiated to buy her silence.”
Slate didn’t run the story, unable to corroborate the nondisclosure agreement, which The Wall Street Journal first reported on last week. This, though, is an amazing thing to say: “I didn’t think an extramarital affair” — with a porn star, involving a presidential candidate — “would be a highly significant story.”
It’s amazing because it’s almost certainly true.
Over time, the past becomes compressed; entire years seem like single flashes of overlapping events. We’re far enough from October 2016 now for the events that led to Trump’s election to all seem like part of one blob of bizarreness. But it’s worth breaking out all of the various things that would lead an astute observer back then to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the risk to publish a loosely corroborated report about a presidential candidate having an affair with a porn star shortly after the candidate’s wife had given birth.
Trump had, by that point, moved past all of the following incidents which, for another candidate, would likely have been either disqualifying or significantly damaged his chances.
• Calls immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists. (June 2015)
• Disparages Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., military service since he’d been captured. (July 2015)
It was shortly after this that Trump took the lead in the Republican field.
• Revealed to have settled discrimination suits in the 1970s. (July 2015)
• Apparently refers to journalist Megyn Kelly’s menstruation. (August 2015)
• Disparages Carly Fiorina’s looks. (August 2015)
• Says he gets military ideas by watching TV shows. (August 2015)
• Appears to blame George W. Bush for allowing 9/11 to happen. (October 2015)
• Calls Iowa voters stupid for supporting Ben Carson. (November 2015)
• Lies about seeing Muslims celebrate 9/11 in New Jersey. (November 2015)
• Mocked a disabled reporter. (November 2015)
• Calls for a ban on allowing Muslims into the country. (December 2015)
• Tells the audience at a rally that he’ll pay legal bills for those who attack protesters. (February 2016)
• Repeats an audience member’s referring to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as a “pussy.” (February 2016)
• Has his past alleged employment of undocumented Polish workers raised during a debate. (February 2016)
Trump has by this point placed second in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary.
• Calls the pope “disgraceful” for questioning Trump’s religiosity. (February 2016)
• Tells CNN’s Jake Tapper that he won’t condemn the support of racists because he doesn’t know enough about the groups endorsing him. (February 2016)
• Makes a reference to his genitalia during a debate. (March 2016)
• Supports his campaign manager even after a video recording shows him grabbing a reporter. (March 2016)
• Accuses a man who rushed the stage at a rally of being in the Islamic State based on something he saw on the internet. (March 2016)
• Tells MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that women who have abortions should be criminally punished. (March 2016)
• Refuses to release his tax returns. (April 2016)
• Accuses a judge hearing a case involving Trump University of being biased because he’s of Mexican heritage. (May 2016)
• Oh, also: Trump faced a fraud lawsuit in relation to how his real estate seminar series was run.
• Is shown to have repeatedly stiffed contractors working for the Trump Organization. (June 2016)
That record of not paying debts is also why Weisberg says Daniels contacted him: She was afraid Trump would postpone payment until after the election and then never pay.
By that point, Trump had secured the Republican nomination.
• Gets into a feud with the parents of a soldier killed in action and disparages the soldier’s mother based on her religion. (July 2016)
• Faces numerous questions about his rhetoric on Russia — and calls for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. (July 2016)
• Revealed to have used his foundation to pay his own legal bills and pay for artwork. (September 2016)
• Is alleged to have violated the Cuban embargo in the 1980s. (September 2016)
• Caught on tape making crude comments about sexually assaulting women. (October 2016)
• After he denies actually committing such assaults, faces a spate of women coming forward to allege that he’d assaulted or groped them. (October 2016)
This skips over all of the things we knew about Trump coming into the campaign: his questionable business ties, his corporate bankruptcies, his multiple wives and past affairs.
All of that was in the books when Weisberg and other outlets were considering whether to reveal the Stormy Daniels allegations. It seems likely that other outlets made the same calculation as he did: Without stronger evidence and given what people already knew about Trump, the importance of the story diminished.
There are two important points here:
First, the very fact that Trump is so immersed in scandal helps inoculate him against it. This isn’t a novel observation, mind you, but it’s worth reiterating. There’s a lingering aura of scandal and controversy that’s hovered around Trump since early in his campaign that simply absorbed new revelations as they came out. Those who’d committed to supporting Trump early on despite that aura never showed much indication that some new scandal or revelation would deter them: in for a penny, in for a pound. Once you’ve rationalized support for Trump despite all of the bullet points above, it’s hard to say what new bullet point would prompt you to reconsider. (The “Access Hollywood” tape was one moment when some Trump supporters reconsidered their positions, but not many.)
The other is that many Trump supporters like him precisely because he’s not the sort of politician who would be hobbled by negative revelations about his beliefs and past. By casting himself as an outsider from the outset and by consistently doing and saying things that were shunned by established politicians, he reinforced his position with much of his base.
What’s more, by repeatedly and broadly casting the media as the biased opposition, he gave his base a reason to dismiss any new stories if they chose to do so. A recent survey found that 4 in 10 Republicans see negative stories about Trump as “fake news” — even if the stories are true.
Given all that, what’s one more story about Trump’s improprieties — even one with as many red flags as the Stormy Daniels story?
The Journal’s reporting about the alleged payoff (mirroring a story the paper broke right before the election about an affair with a Playboy model being buried by The National Enquirer) adds a new facet to the story that those other outlets had been chasing. But the effect will likely be the same: Those inclined to give Trump a pass on the 30 individual things articulated above will likely give him a pass on this, too.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reporting, by any stretch. But it is worth pointing out just how abnormal it is for a sitting president to be accused of something this serious — and to have it barely make a ripple in the public’s consciousness.
This story originally appeared in The Washington Post