Stormy Daniels’s American Dream

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Donald Trump seemed to be in an impish mood, on Thursday morning, as he walked into his criminal trial in lower Manhattan. He wore a light-blue shirt and a cerulean tie underneath his navy suit jacket, looking not unlike a clear spring day, and when he passed by the reporters in the courtroom gallery, he cocked a finger gun at Greg Kelly, the conservative Newsmax host, who responded with a reassuring smile. This air of playfulness, however, was replaced by a rigid sobriety as the adult-film star Stormy Daniels approached the witness stand for her second day of testimony, her heels clicking loudly on the courtroom floor. The former President jutted his chin forward and trained his gaze on Daniels, who was dressed in a form-fitting green dress underneath a loose black jacket, her eyeglasses set on top of her long blonde hair. She looked like a no-nonsense administrative manager of, say, a C.P.A.’s office—attractive, bright, can-do.

Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is a blunt and gregarious blonde, who has famously dubbed her triple-D silicon breasts “Thunder” and “Lightning.” She has alleged that, during a 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, she met the future President, had less-than-mediocre sex with him, and, a decade later, in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election, was paid a hundred and thirty thousand dollars to keep quiet about it. Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer at the time, transferred the money to Daniels and was then allegedly repaid by the Trump Organization, which identified the sum as a “retainer” for “services rendered.” Trump is accused of thirty-four felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up the hush-money payment and conceal damaging information before the election; he has pleaded not guilty.

One of the markers of the Trump era, since its onset, has been its comic vulgarity. Like shiny objects waved in a toddler’s face, the former President’s sillier antics—serving fast food at a White House reception, suggesting to a seven-year-old that Santa isn’t real, staring head-on at the solar eclipse—have been a welcome distraction from the more sinister political realities of his Administration. Eventually, Trump will go on trial for the serious crimes with which he’s been charged: his alleged illegal attempts to overturn the 2020 Presidential election, his role in the January 6th insurrection, and his possible mishandling of classified documents. But, until then, we have his hush-money trial in Manhattan, which has felt like a lurid parody of twenty-first-century Americana. The trial has given us Trump’s former aide Hope Hicks bursting into tears on the witness stand and the ex-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker telling the court how hard it was to get Trump to pay him back when he caught and killed potentially damaging tabloid stories about him. And yet this seeming diversion of a trial might also lead to the first guilty verdict of a former President in American history, with Stormy Daniels as the implement who gets us there. Who would have thought?

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to parents who divorced when she was very young, Daniels, who is now forty-five, began performing at a local strip club when she was seventeen. She became a pornographic actress in her early twenties, and, soon thereafter, became a screenwriter and director of adult films—a rarity for a woman at the time. In her 2018 memoir, “Full Disclosure,” Daniels, who has been wed four times and is a mother to a teen daughter, describes her peripatetic life, moving between homes and marriages, from Louisiana to Los Angeles to Florida to Vegas to Texas. In one memorable section, she recounts meeting the heavy-metal band Pantera at a club in Florida in the early two-thousands and spontaneously joining them on their tour bus for two weeks. (“We were this new circus family,” she writes.)

But despite Daniels’s seeming flightiness, when I recently read “Full Disclosure,” what I was most struck by was her steadfastness and gumption. Raised in squalor by an unloving and neglectful mother—her father was largely out of the picture—Daniels was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor, and managed to find what solace she could in horseback riding and doing well at school. Her resources, however, were nil, and she knew that a good life was also an expensive one. (“Part of the American dream is making money,” she writes in the book. “I am a firm believer in capitalism.”) Her salvation was work. “I was a machine and got up to working six nights a week, with at least five of them being doubles,” she writes, about an early gig at a strip club. She was canny about leveraging her looks and sexuality to maximize her earning potential, which helped her achieve a financial security that had eluded her from birth. She was nothing if not pragmatic: a natural brunette, she recalls how she dyed her hair red, and then blond, in a quest to earn higher rates. (“The more blonde I got, the more work I got.”) And then there were the boobs: “I noticed that the girls at the Gold Club who invested in breast implants got more tips.” Her decision to follow in their footsteps proved immediately remunerative. (“I got a lot more tips. Instantly.”) In order to make yet more money as a stripper, she transitioned to doing nude pictorials, and then, finally, movies. (“The only way to bump your rate up after you top out is to do films.”) In 2002, she started performing in Wicked Pictures productions, becoming one of the studio’s contract stars, and later expanded her reach by writing and directing films for the company.

By the time Daniels met Trump, in Lake Tahoe, she was twenty-seven, and one of her industry’s leading stars. This past Tuesday, when she began testifying in Trump’s criminal trial, she told Susan Hoffinger, one of the prosecutors, that she believes Trump was drawn to her business acumen. After they met at the golf tournament (Wicked Pictures was sponsoring one of the holes), Trump invited Daniels to meet with him at his suite, where he asked her about her work in the adult-film industry. “He was very interested in a lot of the business aspects of it, which I thought was very cool,” she told the court. “He asked questions like, ‘Are there any unions? Do you get residuals?’ ” As my colleague Eric Lach, who has been reporting on the trial for The New Yorker, told me, this was the moment in which “game recognized game.” No one, after all, is a firmer believer in capitalism than Donald Trump.

At the time, Trump was the host of the NBC program “The Apprentice,” then in its fifth season, and he suggested to Daniels that she appear on his television show, to prove, as she said on the stand, that she is “not just a dumb bimbo.” Daniels, disbelieving at first, was nonetheless intrigued, and eager to pursue possibilities outside of the adult-film industry. “It would have been great for my career,” she told Hoffinger on Tuesday. But professional discussion turned into something quite different when, as Daniels alleges, she emerged from the bathroom at the suite and Trump was waiting for her on the bed, in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. “Oh, my God, what did I misread to get here?” she recalled thinking, in court. The sexual encounter (which Trump denies took place) was consensual but entirely joyless. (“I was staring at the ceiling,” Daniels testified.) After she left the suite, Daniels, hoping that “The Apprentice” gig would still pan out, continued to be in touch with Trump, although she never had sex with him again. When Trump finally told her, some time later, that he wasn’t able to include her as a contestant on the show, she stopped taking his calls and went on with her life.

In 2011, Daniels got word that the story of her encounter with Trump had been leaked to the press, and she decided to take control of the situation so that she could at least benefit monetarily from it and make sure the story was accurate. She gave an account of her evening with Trump to the gossip magazine In Touch Weekly, which it ended up not publishing until 2018. (It was later reported that, in 2011, Michael Cohen demanded to have the story dropped and threatened legal action if it were published; in Daniels’s memoir, she also claims that, around the same time, she was carrying her then infant daughter in a parking lot in Las Vegas when she was approached and threatened by a man who told her to “leave Mr. Trump alone.”) Years later, in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election, Daniels contacted the National Enquirer and attempted to sell her story again. Trump didn’t need more bad publicity in the wake of the “Access Hollywood”-tape scandal, and Cohen paid her to sign a nondisclosure agreement. But in 2018, Cohen himself began shopping around his account of the Trump Presidency, including the Daniels hush-money tale, at which point Daniels figured the N.D.A. was null and void. (“This dim bulb Cohen was out there selling a book on my name, but I was the only person taking this N.D.A. seriously?” she writes in her memoir. “I can’t comment, profit, or defend myself?”) She began to talk.

The publicity that has come with the revelation of the alleged affair has been both a boon and a burden for Daniels. On the upside, she secured a lucrative book deal, participated in more than one reality show (most recently, as the host of the queer dating program “For the Love of DILFs”), was made the subject of a documentary (“Stormy”), and has successfully toured strip clubs under the tagline “Make America Horny Again.” On the downside, she split up with her husband and the father of her child, whom she says she didn’t tell about the Trump affair until it became public. (She has since married another man.) She’s received many death threats online, and she had to pull her daughter out of school and retain costly security personnel. She has been defrauded by her publicity-loving onetime attorney, Michael Avenatti, and is in debt thanks to her legal bills, including hundreds of thousands of dollars that she owes Trump, for his attorney’s fees, after her failed defamation suit against him in 2018. She has become a focus of a President’s ire—not something that anyone would wish for, especially when that President is Trump.

The first day of Daniels’s testimony will likely go down in history as a highly embarrassing one for Trump. (On the stand, she told the court how she spanked the former President with a magazine, and that they had sex in the missionary position without a condom.) Afterward, Todd Blanche, one of Trump’s lawyers, expressed concern that there was no way for his client to recover from such a blow. “How can we come back from this in a way that is fair for President Trump?” Blanche asked Judge Juan Merchan, to which the judge responded that the only remedy was “cross-examination.”

That cross-examination, conducted by Susan Necheles, another Trump lawyer, was ruthless. And yet Daniels was more than capable of rising to the occasion. Intelligent and exacting, she struck me as eminently credible. (As I watched her, I thought that she could have handily won “The Apprentice.”) She was also quite funny. At one point, Necheles questioned her about a tweet in which she called herself “the perfect person to flush the orange turd down,” claiming that Daniels was positioning herself as “instrumental in putting Trump in jail.” The witness clarified that she was responding to a Trump supporter who had called her a “human toilet.” “I’m pretty sure this is hyperbole,” Daniels said, of her own tweet, before adding: “I’m also not a toilet, so . . .”

The defense’s strategy, seemingly, was to try to convince the jury that Daniels had made up the whole story of having sex with Trump. And so much of the cross-examination was Necheles belaboring, in a kind of petty gotcha mode, seemingly minor differences between the account of the encounter with Trump that Daniels gave to In Touch back in 2011 and the way she described it on Tuesday, under direct questioning from the prosecution. (Necheles spent endless, mind-numbing minutes litigating whether Daniels and Trump had eaten dinner at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe or whether food was skipped.) The defense also didn’t hesitate to revert to a spot of slut-shaming in its attempt to brand Daniels as a liar. “Your career for over twenty years [was] writing, acting, and directing sex films, right?” Necheles asked. “So, you have a lot of experience in making phony stories about sex appear to be real, right?” Daniels appeared taken aback for a moment, but she recovered quickly. “Wow,” she said, with a slight laugh. “The sex in the films, it’s very much real. Just like what happened to me in that room.”

Necheles, however, was undeterred. She harped on Daniels’s financial motivations, in an attempt to argue that Daniels had fabricated a sexual encounter and then, essentially, extorted Trump. Under questioning from the prosecution, on Tuesday, Daniels had explained that she didn’t bother trying to negotiate up the amount of her hundred-and-thirty-thousand-dollar N.D.A. “I didn’t care about the amount,” she said. “It was just to get it done. The number didn’t matter to me.” This sentiment might seem contradictory to the way in which Daniels portrays herself in “Full Disclosure,” as a go-getter who went to great lengths to make money. But, then again, she had likely never been threatened by such powerful people before, and the N.D.A. was seemingly a way to get them to stop. As she writes in the book, her coping mechanism has always been to “keep moving.” This is what she did when she was a kid, what she did when a man allegedly menaced her and her child, and what she seemed to be doing now. She was not a victim but, rather, as pragmatic as she had always been. On Thursday, Daniels responded in the affirmative when the prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, in her redirect examination, asked her if part of her reasoning to enter into an N.D.A. was to make sure she had a paper trail to keep her safe. “And you were also happy to take the money—you are not saying that you were not happy to take the money, right?” Hoffinger continued. “No, we are all happy to take money,” Daniels answered.

Daniels never denied that making a living was part of her motivation, even as Necheles tried to argue that, in recent years, she has been peddling her presumptive hatred of the President to resistance liberals for financial gain. “You continued this strip tour in 2018 and 2019, right?” Necheles asked, of the “Make America Horny Again” run, and Daniels replied, calmly, “Yes. I continued doing my job, dancing at clubs, which I’ve done since 2001.” If Daniels’s post-Trump-scandal life was a cash grab, as Necheles implied, then her entire working life up to that point had also been a cash grab, and what was wrong with that? Later, Necheles brought up as evidence a “Stormy, Saint of Indictment” candle that Daniels sells on her online store. (“You make forty dollars on each of them,” Necheles said. “No, I’m actually making about seven dollars,” Daniels corrected her.) When the defense attorney suggested that Daniels was “celebrating” Trump’s indictment “by selling things,” the witness was quick to reply: “Not unlike Mr. Trump!” It was a good reminder that absolutely no one has profited more from all of this than the President himself. ♦


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