When the history of Donald Trump's presidency is written, one major theme will be how much he got away with. You can imagine him tweeting about it: Worst president ever? I didn't do anything @billclinton & JFK didn't do, but I did it bigly and openly. Sad!
Last night's 60 Minutes interview with porn director and actress Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford) is the most recent case in point. (Watch the clip and read a transcript here.) I'm not sure that anyone at this point doubts that she had a relationship with Trump, but she's convincing on that score and describes the one time she says they had fully consensual sex. At no point does she suggest he was coercive or violent, thus adding little to what has already been widely discussed.
He was married at the time, but the American public seems to care little that he may have committed adultery in his pre–White House years. He was dangling the possibility of an appearance on The Apprentice in front of Daniels as part of his come-on to her, but she insists that she's "not a victim," either of sex-by-force or a transparent ploy by Trump to get her into bed. The one note of terror she strikes comes in May 2011, after she had agreed to sell her story to a tabloid.
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, gettin' 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….I was rattled. I remember going into the workout class. And my hands are shaking so much, I was afraid I was gonna drop her.
That's disturbing for a million different reasons, but also hard to corroborate. It sounds exactly like something a Trump minion would do. (Read this account of a young Trump trying to intimidate Jerome Tuccille, his first biographer, back in the 1980s.) Again, precisely because it's expected from Trump, it becomes less damaging.
But here is where Trump is more media-savvy than many in the media and many of his opponents in both the GOP and the Democratic Party. He knows we've seen this movie before, with Bill Clinton back in the 1990s, and with John F. Kennedy long before that. Kathleen Willey, a Democratic Party donor and White House volunteer, said that Clinton groped her while she was asking for a job and that his people killed her cat as a warning. Juanita Broaddrick accused Clinton of rape and a physical attack that included biting her lips so hard she bled. (His alleged parting comment to her, "You better put some ice on that," even became a dark tagline in the pre-meme era.) People still talk about JFK's sex life, which included strippers, Mafia molls, and interns. As Joshua C. Kendall writes in The Los Angeles Times,
While Trump presumably confined his grabbing of women's genitals to his pre-presidential days, Kennedy continued to do so while living in the people's house. As described by biographer Geoffrey Perret, Kennedy "brazenly put his hand up their skirts, propositioned them within minutes of meeting and groped their breasts and buttocks even as he danced with them."
None of this exonerates Donald Trump, especially from the charges of nonconsensual sexual behavior that have been levied by over a dozen women, but it strongly suggests that the Stormy Daniels story is unlikely to take him down a peg, much less remove him from office. There remains a question of whether hush money paid to Daniels by Trump's personal attorney violates campaign finance laws, but as former Reason staffer Radley Balko notes, that question is an indictment more of the law than of the president:
That no one seems to know for sure if the payment to Stormy Daniels violated campaign finance laws would seem to be a pretty damning indictment of campaign finance laws.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) March 26, 2018
Here is where Trump is very much like Bill Clinton, but even more so: He is not embarrassed by anything that comes out about his personal or even professional life. Trump may well be the raging narcissist that his critics suppose, but being a narcissist means never having to say you're sorry. Clinton survived endless scandals because he "ignored traditional Washington wisdom for dealing with exploding scandal and instead used the capital's notorious scandal machine against itself," Charles Paul Freund wrote in Reason back in April 2000.
Clinton refused to give in to calls for the conventional morality and common decency that everyone simply expected politicians to heed back then, he didn't try to get "ahead of the story" with preemptive apologies that inevitably lead to more trouble, he used the power of the presidency to shift the focus to new areas, and he wasn't afraid to launch the odd missile strike or two to distract attention from domestic tumult. (He delayed his own impeachment trial via bomb runs!) "The lesson of the Clinton example is that [Richard] Nixon should have bombed somebody," Freund wrote. "While it probably wouldn't have saved his presidency, it would have bought him some time."
Trump has taken all of these lessons to the next level. He may not be playing 10-dimensional chess, but he doesn't have to. He's dealing with a press corps and political opponents who simply aren't at his level. This is the guy who managed to squeak out a win against Hillary Clinton, perhaps the only living politician who might have been able to take it to Trump.
Early on in Trump's ascendancy, Politico's Jack Shafer counseled that we should all "stop being Trump's Twitter fool," that we should focus on the song and not the singer. The Stormy Daniels interview lands just a few days after the president signed a ridiculously swollen omnibus spending bill that pours more gas on the nation's dumpster fire of debt while accomplishing virtually none of his party's legislative or policy goals. It also comes after he's named invasion-crazy John Bolton as his new national security adviser. Turn away from conversations about whether the pre-presidential Trump used a rubber during his adulterous assignation with a smart and serious adult-film auteur and start reading the budget bill that nobody in Washington had time to read. It is, like the budget deal preceding it, the worst of all possible worlds: It gives defense fanboys everything they want and more, while also blowing out any possible restraint on the domestic-spending side.
That's where the real damage that Trump and our elected representatives on both sides of the aisle is buried, in plain sight. Trump has already made history, his biggest ambition, simply by improbably becoming president. Whether he and other politicians crater our future through out-of-control spending and other actions is in our hands. But not yet in our sights.