Any decent public relations professional would have done anything to avoid footage of President Donald Trump arriving back at the White House on Marine One and sullenly trudging across the lawn alone as reporters shouted questions at him about the highly anticipated "60 Minutes" interview with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. But that's what they got on Sunday night when the president returned to Washington, leaving the first lady behind in Florida.
One imagines that people around Trump desperately wanted Melania to play the dutiful wife, as so many political spouses have done before, and stand by his side as the whole world looks on with pity. Considering that this major television interview came on the heels of another one, with former Playboy model Karen McDougal -- who says she had a full-fledged love affair with Trump during the same period -- one cannot blame Melania if she told them all to go to hell.
Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported that Trump had dinner on Saturday night with his attorney Michael Cohen and Melania was not in attendance. It's possible the dinner conversation was a bit stilted, considering that Trump's trusted henchman is at the center of this scandal. Indeed, his behavior is one of the issues that takes this out of the realm of creepy marital misbehavior into something else entirely.
What's unfolding isn't just a story about a rich man's extracurricular liaisons or his alleged episodes of illegal sexual misconduct. The first isn't really of much interest except to the extent that it exposes the flagrant hypocrisy of his supporters, who rent their garments over the personal immorality of presidents of the past and now profess to be uninterested in such private matters. The second is a disgrace that may yet have a reckoning if another accuser, Summer Zervos, gets her day in court.
But beyond the cultural and social aspects of this scandal and what it says about the privileges of rich, white men and the exploitation of women, there is another serious issue of national civic importance. This is a story about a rich (and now extremely powerful) man who is so worried about being exposed or blackmailed that he has everyone who works for him sign nondisclosure agreements. Now it appears that he set up an elaborate system for paying hush money to keep people quiet. If Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels are telling the truth this system may include coercion, conspiracy and threats of violence.
In the "60 Minutes" interview Daniels basically told the same story about the Trump encounter that she told In Touch magazine in 2011. (The magazine was threatened with a lawsuit by Michael Cohen and held the story until last month.) What we hadn't heard before was that a few weeks after Daniels originally gave the interview, this happened:
I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. Taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, getting all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, "Leave Trump alone. Forget the story." And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, "That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom." And then he was gone.
Daniels said she was "rattled" and indicated that encounter was in her mind later when she was offered large sums to tell the story during the 2016 election campaign. So when her attorney, Keith Davidson, came to her with the far less generous $130,000 offer from Michael Cohen, she took it, believing that the smart move was to get some money without having to fear for her safety. For similar reasons she agreed to sign additional denials about the affair after Trump became president. But in January, after the Wall Street Journal reported the story anyway, she hired a very clever lawyer to contest the nondisclosure agreement.
Those alleged threats would sound much more far-fetched if it weren't for the fact that Cohen himself is known to threaten people with language out of a grade-B gangster movie, and if Trump's former bodyguard Keith Schiller wasn't on film manhandling reporters at Trump's instruction (among other things.) According to BuzzFeed, in 2009 an attorney representing some of the people who stood to lose fortunes in Trump's umpteenth casino bankruptcy reported a threatening phone call to the FBI in which the person said, "My name is Carmine. I don't know why you're fucking with Mr. Trump but if you keep fucking with Mr. Trump, we know where you live and we're going to your house for your wife and kids." They traced the call to a pay phone in New York, across the street from where Trump was appearing on David Letterman at the same time.
Let's just say that Trump cannot claim that people around him would never stoop to thuggish behavior.
Karen McDougal's interview illustrates another dimension to this story. She is suing American Media Inc. (AMI), the publisher of the National Enquirer, which bought the rights to her story but did not publish it. She claims that her attorney Keith Davidson (who was also Daniels' former attorney) worked secretly with Michael Cohen and AMI as "part of a broad effort to silence and intimidate" her, and that this was a mutual effort to "catch and kill" stories that could damage Donald Trump.
This quote from David Pecker, the owner of AMI, from a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin says it all:
"Once she's part of the company, then on the outside she can't be bashing Trump and American Media."
I pointed out that bashing Trump was not the same as bashing American Media.
"To me it is," Pecker replied. "The guy's a personal friend of mine."
(This article by Scott Pilutik in Slate runs down the possible legal problems with this sort of "collusion," and they are substantial.)
As mentioned above, Davidson also represented Stormy Daniels, encouraging her to sign the nondisclosure agreement and accept the hush money. There are a number of parallels between the lawsuits filed by the two women, which raises the question of how many other people Trump may have paid off through this Cohen-Davidson back channel. How many have signed non-disclosure agreements under duress?
This isn't just idle tabloid curiosity. Donald Trump could not pass a background check to work as a security guard at the Mall of America, much less the White House. It is clear that he has paid hush money to people and worked in concert with friends to keep them quiet. All of this can only lend more credibility to the suspicion that he might be subject to blackmail by other people, beyond the women with whom he's had sex. Who knows? It might even be a foreign government or two.