Why The Stormy Daniels Story Matters

Why The Stormy Daniels Story Matters

I have actively endeavored to avoid all things related to the President’s alleged affair, and subsequent cover-up, with Stormy Daniels. No matter where I turn, I cannot escape coverage of the scandal. So, I decided to give it another thought and found that perhaps there is more to it than I assumed. In case you have been living under a rock and are blissfully unaware of the controversy, the short version is simple. The President allegedly had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The affair began in 2006, shortly after Melania Trump had given birth to their son Barron.

While that story in and of itself is salacious, it has reached a fever pitch and dominated the news cycle for weeks. The President’s long-time personal attorney Michael Cohen admittedly paid Daniels $130,000 as hush money for the affair shortly before the 2016 election. Cohen claims the money paid was his and not at all tied to Trump. In fact, he says he took out a home equity line to pay Daniels off - now that’s Trump-size loyalty. Recent reporting shows that Cohen used a Trump organization email address to facilitate the wire transfer to Daniels. Daniels signed a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for the cash. Daniels also claims to have been coerced and intimidated by Cohen into signing a statement saying there was no affair.

Daniels has now filed a lawsuit, claiming that the non-disclosure agreement is invalid because the President himself never signed it. Instead, it was signed on his behalf by a fake consulting group created as a cover for the payoff. In her lawsuit, Daniels is not looking for damages, she is asking for the ability to speak freely. Daniels has gone so far as to offer to return the hush money in exchange for the ability to speak openly about her experience. Before she filed her lawsuit, Cohen got a restraining order against her from an arbitration agreement in the non-disclosure agreement. That restraining order was granted without any notice or participation from Daniels or her attorney. It seems clear; Cohen wants to keep Daniels’ mouth shut.

So, what does it matter? It is not as if anyone is under any delusion that Trump is of high moral character or qualifies as husband of the year. Beyond the fact that the media get to say ‘porn star’ and ‘the President’ in the same sentence, are there are actual substantive issues at play here?

Possibly.  

First, and perhaps most significantly, this scandal exposes potentially serious campaign finance violations. A nonpartisan government watchdog organization, Common Cause filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission arguing that the $130,000 paid to Daniels was an in-kind campaign contribution to then-candidate Trump’s campaign. If the argument is found to be true, the payment would be a violation of federal law.

In response to that assertion, the Trump administration points to Cohen’s statement that “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly.” 

That may not be sufficient as Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause explained. Ryan says that Trump may not be off the hook because “the actions of agents are attributable to their principles.” In other words, Trump is responsible for Cohen’s actions as Cohen was an agent acting for Trump.

Then there is the nondisclosure agreement itself, which was released in Daniels’ lawsuit. The documents make clear that Trump is a party to the agreement. The President did not sign the agreement but is named in it. Instead of putting his own signature on the document, it was signed by the consulting company established as a front for the hush money payout.

As the President is party to the agreement, if he authorized the payment, it becomes nearly impossible for him to explain exactly why his campaign did not disclose it as is required by federal law.

Corporations are not allowed to contribute to federal election campaigns. This is one of the very few campaign finance provisions regulating the way campaigns receive money in the United States. While Cohen claims to have made the payment personally and aside from his affiliation with the Trump organization, he used his Trump organization email to negotiate and facilitate the deal with Daniels.

Next, the payment itself is arguably linked to the campaign as it was made just before the election and was intended to keep quiet a story that would have negatively impacted Trump’s Presidential run. It is these two facts, when put together, that seem to equal a violation of campaign finance laws. Philip Bump of The Washington Post said it this way, “Those two things together — that a Trump Organization email address was used to facilitate the payment and that the payment was linked to the campaign — would constitute a legal violation.”

Campaign finance violations are not the only cause for concern in this scandal. The fact that the President has secrets that he and his friends are willing to pay six figures to be kept quiet is also extremely concerning. Cohen has gone to great lengths to keep Daniels from talking. This is obviously a serious issue for Trump. The White House all but confirmed the President’s involvement when Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the restraining order was “won in the President’s favor.” 

The aggressive approach to keeping Daniels quiet begs the question, what is there to hide? Stormy Daniels recently did an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes. While the interview has not been aired and CBS will not comment on its content, it has been widely reported that Daniels has new things to say about the President in the interview. Buzzfeed reported Sunday that “Lawyers associated with President Donald Trump are considering legal action to stop 60 Minutes from airing an interview with Stephanie Clifford.”

Of course, it is exceptionally difficult to convince a judge to order the “prior restraint” of speech, but the fact that the option is being considered points to the gravity of the story in Trump world. If the President has such secrets, how vulnerable might he be to blackmail, or undue influence?

While the Stormy Daniels story seems, on the surface, like a non-event in this administration where chaos and scandal reign supreme, we should treat it with importance nonetheless – if only to add it to the growing pile.