We learned things Sunday in the "60 Minutes" interview that could help unravel Trump’s wretched presidency.
Because there is broad consensus that President Donald Trump is a lewd degenerate, nothing Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress and director, told “60 Minutes” about their alleged 2006 sexual encounter was particularly astonishing. (Though the mental image of Trump dropping his pants at Daniels’ command for a spanking will likely dampen libidos throughout the land.)
Everyone knows Trump is a disloyal husband, so it’s no shock that he slept with Daniels — and, at about the same time, with the former Playboy model Karen McDougal — while his wife, Melania Trump, was caring for their new baby.
Everyone also knows that Trump has a repulsive compulsion to sexualize his daughter Ivanka — he once happily concurred with Howard Stern that she was a “piece of ass” — so it’s not surprising that he told Daniels she reminded him of his child before he slept with her. (According to McDougal, Trump said something similar to her.)
Nevertheless, the Daniels interview aired Sunday was important, portending danger for both Trump and his personal lawyer Michael Cohen. As I’ve written before, the Daniels affair is a corruption scandal disguised as a sex scandal. And on the corruption front, we learned things Sunday that could help unravel Trump’s wretched presidency.
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Daniels’ most shocking disclosure was her account of being threatened, apparently on Trump’s behalf, in 2011, a few weeks after agreeing to tell her story to a gossip magazine for $15,000. She said she was in a parking lot with her infant daughter when a man approached and said: “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.” Then, she said, he looked at the baby and warned, “A beautiful little girl — it would be a shame if something happened to her mom.”
There was another, less direct threat this year, Daniels said, after The Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen had arranged a $130,000 hush money payment to her before the 2016 election. Both her former attorney and her former business manager, she told “60 Minutes,” pressured her to sign statements denying the tryst and the payoff, saying of the Trump camp, “They can make your life hell in many different ways.”
In a statement from his lawyer Monday, Cohen denied threatening Daniels and said he didn’t believe the parking lot encounter ever happened. But Michael Avenatti, the aggressive, mediagenic lawyer who took on Daniels’ case this year, is convinced the attempted intimidation originated with the Trump camp, and he told me he “absolutely” has evidence about the threat that has not yet become public.
Avenatti has been strategically — if maddeningly — coy about just what he’s holding back. On Thursday, he tweeted, “If ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ how many words is this worth?,” accompanied by a photo of a CD or DVD. Whatever was on that disc, we didn’t see it Sunday. “In no way would we play our entire hand on ’60 Minutes,’” he told me.
Of course, he could be bluffing. But if he’s not, this case could provide a crucial window into Trump’s thuggish way of doing business.
Right now, Daniels and Avenatti are fighting to have the nondisclosure agreement she signed in 2016 declared null and void. If she signed it because she felt threatened, that strengthens her position. As the suit proceeds, said Norman Eisen, chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “Stormy and her lawyer will be able to bring in a lot of evidence of other threats associated with Trump.”
There’s already quite a bit in the public domain, some thanks to BuzzFeed News, which obtained FBI reports on cases involving threats made by alleged Trump associates. In 1995, the site reported, security guards working for Trump “shoved, threatened and held a 12-year-old boy and his mother against their will,” in an attempt to silence a whistleblower. In 2009, BuzzFeed News’ Jason Leopold wrote, a lawyer representing investors who stood to lose over $1 billion in Trump’s casino bankruptcy got a threatening phone call. We “know where you live and we’re going to your house for your wife and kids,” the caller said.
If you can find this and more with a Google search, imagine what Avenatti might uncover through the legal process of discovery.
The fact-finding potential of the case expanded further Monday, when Avenatti filed a revised complaint in U.S. District Court in California. The part that made headlines is that Daniels is now suing Cohen for defamation. More significant, though, is Avenatti’s claim that the original hush agreement is invalid in part because it “was entered with the illegal aim, design and purpose of circumventing federal campaign finance law.”
If the case proceeds, Avenatti could get a look inside the Trump campaign. “The amended allegations will provide me and my team with significantly more discovery relating to what Mr. Trump knew, when he knew about it, and what he did about it, if anything,” Avenatti told me Monday evening.
Will the new strategy work?
“I think it’s well done,” Eisen told me, though far from a sure thing. I don’t want to get my hopes up about a porn star saving the republic. But I can scarcely think of a more satisfying way for this terrible era to end.
© 2018, New York Times News Service
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.