Stormy Daniels could have stepped right out of the 1990s.
She would have been a natural in a Bill Clinton scandal, and, in fact, all the same means would have been used against her.
Donald Trump’s tactics in these cases are almost indistinguishable from the Clintons’. The effort to shut down the accusers, the unconvincing denials, the legal maneuvering, the sleazy fixers, the media allies trying to sweep it under the rug — it’s all there.
That Daniels finally broke into the news cycle a few weeks ago is a step toward normality in the Trump era. Prior to that, it was downright bizarre that a sex scandal involving a porn star got overshadowed by other mediagenic outrages.
But now Daniels is firmly on the agenda. It helps that there is a legal fight — she wants out of her nondisclosure agreement — which gives the media the excuse to cover it like all it cares about are the finer points of contract law.
The legal battle, and that of former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal (seeking an exit from her agreement with the publisher of the National Enquirer giving it exclusive rights to her story of a Trump affair), doesn’t seem complicated. You don’t get to sign such an agreement and then turn around and get out of it when it no longer suits you.
Of course, the effort to buy their stories in the first place speaks volumes. There was no reason for Trump fixer Michael Cohen to spend $130,000 to silence a random porn star making up a ludicrous fantasy about his boss. A simple denial would have sufficed and been more in keeping with Trump’s parsimony.
Even if Trump’s side wins the legal battles, Daniels and McDougal have, in effect, found ways around their agreements by making such a stink about them. The point of an NDA is supposed to be that no one knows about the NDA. Typically, the subject of an NDA doesn’t promote a tour of strip clubs based on the affair she was supposed to not disclose.
Trump’s best strategy in all of this would be one easy sentence: “I’ve done things I’m not proud of.”
It would have the advantage of being true, of acknowledging what everyone knows, and of not delving into the details of any particular allegation while allowing everyone around him to revert back to this statement whenever Daniels or another woman comes up.
Standing in the way of such a simple expedient is Trump’s M.O. of never giving an inch in favor of no-holds-barred legal combat (Daniels will owe $20 million in damages!), perhaps the worry that any show of weakness will encourage other women to come forward, and, presumably, the personal element. How would a semi-confession affect Melania?
As the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had to settle for dalliances with Little Rock lounge singers and low-level government workers — porn stars and playmates were out of his reach. But the basic picture is the same.
Stormy Daniels is Trump’s Gennifer Flowers. Summer Zervos, the former “Apprentice” contestant suing Trump for defamation, could be his Paula Jones, if she actually gets him embroiled in civil litigation. What Trump lacks is a Monica Lewinsky to drag all of this into the present. It was Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and his lies about it under oath that transformed his scandals from lurid distractions to all-consuming national scandal.
That’s a significant difference, and something that Trump’s evangelical supporters can hang their hat on. Almost all of them know that Trump is not, and has never pretended to be, a paragon of virtue. Their calculation now is the same as it was in the general election — the alternative to Trump is a disaster on every policy front, so stay close to nurse for fear of something worse.
The cost is a tawdry spectacle that they scorned 20 years ago and is now part of the scenery of their own side.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.