No way back to normality
The Stormy Daniels affair is more threatening to Trump than it might appear, writes Paul Demarty
We have suggested before that acute domestic strife might push the United States president to seek popularity through military adventures.
Far be it from us to accuse the mercurial bigot presently occupying the most exalted office in world politics of exploiting events in the Middle East to distract attention from the grubbiness that attends to every part of his public life. Nonetheless, the coincidence is quite striking - as each new wave of scandals hits him, he tries to ride to safety on the back of a cruise missile. Certainly the connection is not lost on the op-ed writers of the American mainstream media (unlike the vile, credulous jingos of our own yellow press, whose whole contribution is to egg Theresa May on, as she competes with Emmanuel Macron for the title of ‘most obedient poodle’).
It is worth our while, then, to look at Trump’s home front, and our attention turns first of all - for we are only human - to the most salacious and yet least surprising allegations recently to dog the White House.
We speak, of course, of Stormy Daniels, a veteran performer in and director of what American polite society charmingly calls ‘adult movies’, whose claim to have had a brief affair with Donald Trump many years ago has drip-dripped into the media over the course of several months. She claims that she met him on a golf course in 2006, whereupon she was invited to dinner. A much reported scene ensued of her spanking Trump with a copy of Forbes with his mug on the cover (“just a couple of swats”) for failing to shut up about himself, after which things became more congenial. He dangled the prospect of a job on Celebrity apprentice in front of her, invited her back to his room, whereupon things took the course you might expect.
The Apprentice gig never materialised, and despite Trump’s best efforts, Daniels never again went to bed with him. (Divining whether these two things are connected may be left as an exercise for the reader.) In 2011, a gossip magazine got hold of the story, but was browbeaten by Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, into silence. Daniels claims she was physically threatened by a stranger in Las Vegas to keep quiet. Five years later again, as Trump closed in on glory, and the world gawped at the Access Hollywood tape, women like Daniels started getting a lot more phone calls. The offer she took, however, was from Cohen - $130,000 in return for silence.
This year, all this returned with a vengeance, and now Daniels has come forth with her version of the story - most notoriously in the interview on CBS’s 60 minutes show.1
The story according to the Trump camp - how to put this? - lacks the coherence and plausibility of Daniels’ version. Trump denies having slept with her. Cohen, however, has admitted to paying her $130,000 to keep quiet, which he claims to have done from his own pocket (albeit via a non-transparent Delaware shell company). Quiet about what? No answer is forthcoming: but Trump’s lawyers are nonetheless making crudely warlike noises about taking Daniels to the cleaners for violating the non-disclosure agreement (by disclosing events that did not happen). Cohen even proclaimed that he was going to take a long holiday with the money he made out of Daniels, although - as events have transpired - his next stretch of time away from home might not be in the sort of luxury he presumably had in mind.
For Cohen’s office was subsequently raided by the Feds, as a result of Trump’s overarching problem - Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president’s Russian connections. Early attempts by Trump’s (remaining) lawyers to restrict access to Cohen’s client paperwork were ruled out by a judge on April 16.
The matter that puts Cohen immediately in the frame here is that he is known to have liaised with Russian contacts during the Republican nomination campaign concerning a potential real estate development in Moscow; no doubt Mueller is interested to hear Cohen’s memories of exactly what was discussed. Stormy Daniels comes into things because Cohen’s pay-off might amount to an illegal campaign contribution. Then the intrepid special counsel has a shot at intimidating Cohen into rolling over on the boss. The prospect cannot be an attractive one for Trump - he and Cohen have been as thick as thieves for many years, and the latter will know an awful lot of things that Trump would like to stay buried.
Although we have been having fun - like everyone else - with the more burlesque features of l’affaire Daniels, we should stress that this is now a very grave matter. The fact that it apparently gave Mueller what he needed to send in the goon squad makes a big difference. If Mueller is to be the instrument that destroys the Trump presidency, this is how it will be done - pin the underlings with lesser charges, which can be used to make them squeal. Paul Manafort is already in that position; perhaps Cohen will be soon. The more, the merrier, from a special prosecutor’s point of view.
Thus whole thing seems to be a spectacular own goal. It is conceivable that, back in the late 2000s, Trump had not yet accrued his reputation for philandering (although readers should note that his “grab ’em by the pussy” tirade was recorded in 2005), and so hush money might have been in order at that time. Even so, they did not pay, but (according to Daniels) made threats of violence. And in 2016? Just let it come out, surely - it could not have done any more damage than Pussygate for it to become known that Trump had bedded a porn star. For all their desperate labours, the American right was unable to turn Monica Lewinsky’s dress into the death knell for Bill Clinton’s presidency. Between them, however, Trump and Cohen just might turn Stormy Daniels into a fatal blow, through their absurd sub-Mafiosi posturing and legal thuggery.
Off the hook
Apart from Mueller and Daniels, there is also the forthcoming release of James Comey’s memoir, rather grandly titled A higher duty.
Until recently director of the FBI, Comey’s role in the Trump era is highly ambiguous. It is certainly Hillary Clinton’s view that Comey cost her the election by announcing - in a letter he must have known would be leaked - that a dormant investigation into Clinton’s private email server had been reopened (nothing came of it). He was later fired by Trump, ostensibly over the email fiasco, but in the immediate context of refusing to assure the president that he was not in the frame for collusion with Russian state agents. The latter, it is fair to say, was the causal connection generally drawn in the Washington lobby, and the price Trump had to pay was the setting up of Mueller’s vast fishing operation.
At any rate, Comey is promoting the thing like billy-o, and so it is all in the public eye again. Not surprisingly, @realDonaldTrump is fulsome in his denunciations of the “slimeball”, Comey: he should be in jail three or four times over, and anyway the book has been very badly reviewed. (Sad.) In reply, Comey’s judgement is pretty damning. Asked by news anchor George Stephanopoulos whether Trump is unfit to be president, he replied:
Yes. But not in the way I often hear people talk about it. I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or [in the] early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above-average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president.
I think he’s morally unfit to be president. A person who sees moral equivalence [between neo-Nazis and anti-racists] in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it - that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.2
Comey’s comments are interesting because he is a clear representative of the traditional American establishment - once a rather faceless FBI chief who did not so much achieve political notoriety as have it thrust upon him by the great unravelling of 2016.
Every capitalist state has a formal or informal party of the state, and if the American instance could turn itself into a formal political party, Comey would - but for his ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ experience two years ago - look good on a presidential ticket. His most interesting comment, however, was in response to Stephanopoulos’s subsequent question, as to whether Trump should be impeached:
Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values … Impeachment in a way would short-circuit that.
It is not often we find ourselves in agreement with US justice department types, still less former directors of the FBI; but there is something in that. Surely all American voters can agree that US politics is seriously screwed up at the moment - the argument is whether Donald Trump is the cure for or the symptom of that sickness.
So let us suppose that Mueller gets the catch of a lifetime, and a legal coup follows against this most extraordinary of modern presidents. What happens next? We say hello to vice-president Mike Pence, whose Christian-fundamentalist far-rightism might actually be worse in some respects; but that is by the by. What Donald Trump’s election showed is that the American electorate is prepared - just about - to elect Donald Trump. If that constituency is there, another Trump will show up, for he is not nearly as special as he thinks.
America, despite its republican veneer, has what you might call a mixed constitution. Embedded in many of its provisions is a plebeian suspicion of the tyranny of traditional elites - the rights to free speech, arms and military self-organisation, the protection from warrantless search and seizure and self-incrimination are all representatives of this tendency. There is also an aristocratic, ‘Hamiltonian’ fear of the mob in there, embodied in its fundamental political architecture - the separation of a limited-monarchical presidency from a bicameral and severely unproportional legislature and an appointed supreme court.
Clearly this compromise is under severe strain: both houses of Congress have fallen into a rhythm of routine hostage negotiations over budgets, appointments to the supreme court have long ceased to enjoy the slightest veneer of non-partisan high-mindedness, and the presidency is in the hands of a man who plays a capitalist on television. So much for checks and balances.
It is interesting, and surely no accident, that the past decade should have produced as a major cultural phenomenon a hagiographic musical about Alexander Hamilton and its rapturous reception among liberals. The mainstream liberal (and conservative) pining for the good old days of bipartisanship is based on a myth: the meaning of American democracy has been fought over from the very beginning. Hamilton is the man who came closest to strangling it in its cradle - more laudatory, revisionist views of him rely ultimately on a liberal fear of the mob. History tells us that the liberalism falls away faster than the fear. Free people must - and with the correct information shall - listen to the wise counsel of their betters; but it is more important that they listen than that they are free, even if the counsel is false and directly harmful to them.
The relentless attempts to delegitimise Trump’s presidency is in fact evidence for this. What emerges is a vast conspiracy theory that ties together greedy and unscrupulous social media organisations, Russian spies and neo-fascist ideologues in a plot to put an incompetent demagogue in the White House. Yet, even if it is all true, what does it say about America that such an alliance was able to suborn its highest offices? Only that the measures designed to prevent such an eventuality are worthless.
Truly overcoming the sickness that leads such absurd creatures to power means discarding liberalism, which is congenitally compromised by its subservience to capital. It cannot therefore in the end replace the fake mass politics of Trump’s slavering crowds with a truly authentic realisation of America’s best democratic promise.