Donald Trump so far has weathered accusations and hot mic admissions of sexual assault. But even as the president denies Stormy Daniels account of their alleged affair more than a decade ago, calling it “FAKE NEWS,” her claims have stayed in the medias eye for weeks now. Her appearance Sunday on “60 Minutes” was the highest-rated episode of the CBS News magazine show in a decade. Among the 19 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct or claimed to have had affairs with him, why has Daniels story broken through? And what makes this political sex scandal different from others before it?
Women who have had consensual sex with married male politicians usually play a limited set of assigned roles: In our national consciousness, they could be sex kittens (Ashley Dupré), gooey-eyed love birds (Rielle Hunter) or social climbers (Sydney Leathers).
Stormy Daniels is something new. Never before was such a woman an independent businessperson who, before her scandal, had already made a name for herself and cultivated fans of her work. (Before her alleged tête-à-tête with Trump in 2006, Daniels was already an award-winning adult film performer.) Nor has any such woman ever told her story so unapologetically. Daniels readily admits to having sex with Trump — even to asking him to pull down his pants so she could spank him with a magazine bearing his face on its cover. Nor does Daniels make excuses. She did not have sex with Trump because she felt beholden to a man in power; she did it because, in her recent admission on “60 Minutes,” “I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to his room alone.” (You dont have to be a porn star to find that assertion believable and relatable.)
In fact, what makes Daniels so different is a lot like what makes Trump different — she doesnt seem ashamed. After all, shes a sex professional, and has no qualms talking about the bedroom; theres no fig leaf of decency to protect. Its no surprise, then, that she would monetize the experience once this revelation had entered the public sphere. Stormy Daniels might not bring down Trump in the way that other women in political sex scandals have, but she is rewriting the standard sex scandal script—and happily profiting along the way. Shes owning it.
Stormy Daniels hosts a Super Bowl party in Las Vegas | Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Other women caught up in political sex scandals have knowingly consented to affairs with married politicians and admitted to those exploits. But Daniels makes no effort to protect her onetime sex partner. In fact, she is bullish in her public display of antagonism, seemingly because Trumps associates allegedly threatened her and her family to stay quiet about the affair. And she doesnt sugarcoat her description of the 2006 interaction. In her “60 Minutes” interview, Daniels unflinchingly answered Anderson Coopers questions, coming across as clear-eyed and matter-of-fact. Was she attracted to Trump? No. Not at all? No. Did she want to have sex with him? Nope.
Its clear Daniels is no Ashley Dupré, an aspiring pop singer unaccustomed to an eviscerating media spotlight who in 2008 became better known for her after-hours dalliances with then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. When Spitzer resigned over his “private failings,” Dupré was an unknown in the music industry (though she did have a MySpace account offering a taste of her songs). Once the scandal broke, Duprés inexperience with notoriety overwhelmed her. The only interview she granted in the immediate fallout was to the New York Times. “I just dont want to be thought of as a monster,” she said. In contrast, Daniels not only decided to face head-on the notoriety that scandal laid at her feet, launching a “Make America Horny Again Tour” at strip clubs across the country; she has also made clear that while people are going to label her as they see fit, she will tell her story as she sees fit. Daniels has proven smart, coolheaded and even funny in her clap-backs against Twitter trolls. When one man used Twitter to describe Daniels as a “scank,” for instance, she corrected his spelling.
Nor is Daniels much like Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer for then-presidential candidate John Edwards who had a baby with him in 2008. Hunter once described being “madly in love” with the then-married Edwards before admitting that she “behaved badly” by having the affair. Daniels says she held no romantic feelings for Trump during their brief intimacy, and she now confidently taunts him, 12 years later. “He knows Im telling the truth,” she told Cooper on “60 Minutes.” Theres no mea culpa in Daniels telling of events — not even a courtesy apology to Melania Trump, who was four months postpartum with her and Trumps infant son when he had the affair with Daniels. Its Trump who should apologize, Daniels insinuates — not she.
Daniels also sets herself apart from Sydney Leathers, the Indiana woman who used her illicit sexting exchanges with Anthony Weiner on the eve of his New York City mayoral race to catapult herself into the public eye in 2013, and then launched a career in the adult film industry. (The skin flick Weiner and Me marked Leathers debut as an adult film actress.) Dont let the porn connection fool you: Leathers readily admits that in her initial social media interactions with Weiner, she “had him on a pedestal” and was flattered by the attention he heaped upon her. The two of them never even met in person, only online and on the phone. While Leathers developed romantic feelings for Weiner at the start of their interactions, she ultimately used her experience with him to cultivate a degree of celebrity status she hadnt previously had.
Daniels is proving adept at handling media coverage, too. She understands spectacle — how to orchestrate it; which attorney can help magnify it; the fact that desire, capitalism and sex sell. The lead-up to the “60 Minutes” interview — with reams of news coverage devoted to speculating about the March 25 air date — was a pageant in itself, with rumors that Trumps team was threatening a lawsuit to prevent the episode from airing.
A sign at Little Darlings Las Vegas advertises an upcoming performance by Stormy Daniels
Daniels also knows the power of her voice to throw the president off-kilter and cut through his egocentricity. When Trump talked incessantly about himself at the start of their rendezvous, according to Daniels, she asked: “Does this normally work for you?” She did not interpret his braggadocio as alluring foreplay. She added on “60 Minutes:” “I dont think anyones ever spoken to him like that, especially, you know, a young woman who looked like me.” After all, even considering Trumps playboy persona, we can reasonably assume that Daniels, who has starred in more than 150 adult films, was the more sexually experienced of the two. Trump seemed disarmed by her assertiveness. “Youre smart and beautiful and a woman to be reckoned with,” he said during their tryst, according to Daniels on “60 Minutes.” He had no idea how those words would come back to, well, spank him.
Theres no doubt Daniels is milking the publicity from this scandal and that shes leveraging the attention for professional gain. But as she said directly in the interview, she makes no apologies for that: “Yes, Im getting more job offers now, but tell me one person who would turn down a job offer making more than theyve been making, doing the same thing that theyve always done?”
Daniels is blunt and unashamed. She matches Trumps talk and raises him without bluffing. And she knows its all ratings gold. After all, why shouldnt Daniels reap the benefits of telling her version of events, instead of playing the part of a woman on the side with a muted voice? If Stormy Daniels is going to be talked about, analyzed and outed in a media and entertainment world dominated by men, then shes making sure she gets her fair share of the action.
Hinda Mandell is associate professor in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “Sex Scandals, Gender and Power in Contemporary American Politics“ (Praeger, 2017). She is on Twitter: @hindamandell.