With the political world obsessed with the seemingly questionable indictment in New York of former President Donald Trump, here’s what puzzles me: Why did Trump pay off somebody to keep quiet something that was already prominently in the public domain?
The whole transaction between Trump’s lawyer and porn performer Stormy Daniels was weird. A full five years before the payoff, almost the entirety of Daniels’ tale was published online in an entertainment-focused publication called In Touch. And even then, she had been telling it openly for five years, including to Democratic consultants in 2009 during an “exploratory” tour for a putative U.S. Senate campaign.
That 2009 story is rather amusing, in a wacky “only in Louisiana” way. The then-incumbent Republican senator, David Vitter, had been caught in a prostitution-related scandal that local Democrats wanted to highlight. Andrea Dube, a Louisiana Democratic consultant, told me last week that what happened resulted from “a bunch of staffers in their twenties coming up with dumb ideas because they were bored between campaigns.”
Their idea was to start “looking for any sex worker” to run a mock campaign against Vitter. Somebody said that Daniels was from Louisiana, so they called her up — and, amazingly, Daniels said yes to the lark.
In an exclusive interview, fellow Democratic consultant Brian Welsh, now out of politics and working in the art world, picks up the story from there. (To my knowledge, Welsh has told this story several times before, but never with his name on the record until now).
Anyway, after they filmed some footage at the Gold Club where Daniels got her start, they were in the next-door hotel waiting to leave for the next stop on her Senate “listening tour.” Welsh suggested that they use the time for her to try to think of contacts she had who might donate money. She started going through her phone, naming rich people in the pornography world, when she stopped and said: “Oh, [bleep]! Of course, Donald Trump: That b**tard should give me some [campaign] money.”
And that’s when she told her detailed story, which in the next 14 years has barely changed at all, to Welsh and those with him. Welsh texted Dube, and they had a good chuckle about it. (The original, contemporaneously dated texts and the story, minus Welsh’s name, were published by Mother Jones in 2018.)
The point is that Daniels was telling this same anecdote, rather randomly, six years before Trump ran for president, and then she told it very publicly to In Touch two years after that, still four years before Trump ran. It’s not as if she suddenly decided in 2016 to concoct a narrative just because Trump was in a presidential campaign.
As has been amply noted over the past five years, Daniels has offered so many details that check out factually that, combined with the regularity with which she told the story long before Trump was a candidate, it is almost impossible to believe Trump’s denials of the sexual incident.
This leads to the question with which this column began, plus a point about Trump’s legal strategy now that he has been indicted. The question, again, is why Trump (through his attorney) would pay $130,000 to hush up something that already was not just public but published. The only thing I can think of is that he was afraid Daniels would offer even more details of the encounter that could be verified and that would embarrass him.
The legally dubious indictment, though, which remains sealed, apparently involves a question of financial impropriety, part of which depends on an analysis of Trump’s motives and part on his credibility. For the reasons above, almost no juror is going to believe Trump’s denials, not even for a moment, that he and Daniels had a sexual encounter. It is a generally accepted reality of sex-based accusations that the credibility of an accuser (in this case, Daniels) is enhanced if she recounted the event to others somewhat contemporaneously and with verifiable details, long before going public with it for her own gain.
The randomness of the Louisiana-based account from 2009, with contemporaneous emails among amused 20-something staffers to confirm it, bolsters her credibility and hurts his. If Trump keeps on denying it, jurors will see him as a blatant liar and will thus be less likely to believe whatever explanations he offers for the financial transactions. In sum, what looks like lies about the encounter hurt his own defense in a setting where details and corroboration are crucial.
Trump’s lawyers must understand this. Yet Trump continues, doggedly, right to this day, to deny the nature of the encounter. Why?
Here’s the answer: Trump isn’t playing as much for acquittal as he is for Republican primary votes. His denials may hurt his case with jurors but may help him play a martyr for the MAGA cause, around whom the GOP electorate presumably will rally in anger at the politicized prosecution. Part of his emotional appeal always has been that he admits nothing, apologizes for nothing, and his very pose of certainty gives supporters psychological cause to believe him.
Trump wants less to win the courtroom than to win the White House. He thinks that maintaining at least a thin veneer of deniability will help him weather the political Storm.