At the beginning of the year, The Wall Street Journal reported that, a month before the 2016 elections, Donald Trump arranged for his personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen to pay one Stormy Daniels $130,000 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair between the presidential candidate and the porn performer, writer, and director. The story was salacious and damning for Trump — after all, the affair supposedly started in 2006, just over a year after Trump married his third wife and the current first lady, Melania, and months after the birth of his son, Barron. Still, after a week, it hadn’t not gained much traction, and seemed like it would soon fade.
Sex scandals don’t stir up as much outrage as they used to. A November 2016 story about another hush payment made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal had already fallen flat, as had some two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct made against Trump. Plus, in the Trump era, there’s always some new scandal or crisis to take over headlines, burying otherwise major stories.
But the Daniels story didn’t die. Instead, it escalated. By late March, Daniels was speaking openly about the affair on shows like 60 Minutes, and political wonks were half joking about how Cohen’s payments likely constituted a campaign finance violation, and how if Trump had directed them, it could spell serious legal trouble for him. (Last week, a federal court sentenced Cohen to three years in jail for exactly this violation, among other crimes. He has indicated to prosecutors that he did indeed make the payment at Trump's direction.) Lawsuits and insults flew between Daniels, Trump, and their teams. By the fall, TIME was referring to Daniels as the Zelig of Trumpian White House scandals. And the scandal is still grinding on into 2019: According to Robert Watson, a historian of presidential sex scandals, the Daniels affair has managed to gather more steam, staying power, and impact than almost any such event in U.S. history.
Some political insiders credit the Daniels story with toppling Cohen, who might be, as historian Julian Zelizer put it, “one of the pillars of multiple cases against the president.” Daniels herself has also become a major public figure. As she has gained a spotlight and navigated this scandal, she has not only outfoxed Trump at many turns. She has set new standards for evaluating sex scandals, built new models for women implicated in them to react to men and the media, and may also challenge stereotypes about porn and those involved within it. “Stormy’s changing everything,” Watson said. “It’s interesting to watch, isn’t it?”
Sex scandals have, historically, been very brutal for the women caught in them. Often they are private citizens, for whom sudden media scrutiny is an unnavigable nightmare. Most women try to hide from that spotlight. Powerful men, meanwhile, use the levers of power to limit, control, or deflect scandal coverage, often by denigrating and discrediting the women involved, who will forever live in the shadow of these events while the politicians move past it and redefine their careers. Trump has proven especially adept at, and brutal in, slandering those who accuse him of sexual misconduct, trying to own the news cycle around their stories, and always pushing focus on to some new bluster or fiasco.
And whenever porn and the people involved in it make it into the news, reporters and their sources often respond with, as adult performer and chief marketing officer of virtual-reality porn company PVR, Ela Darling put it to me recently, “hand-wringing over the dangers of porn, painting [a given performer] as an unreliable, scheming harlot, using her legal name instead of the name she’s known by,” which often happens to porn stars but almost never to other celebrities with stage names, “using ‘porn star’ as a pejorative, and a wave of jokes where dehumanization or violence against sex workers is the punch line.” If they’re not making attacks or jokes at performers’ expenses, outlets often characterize them as helpless victims of life circumstances and the sex trade. But reports almost never give performers agency in defining themselves.
Daniels has actually been through the media porn treatment before. From 2009 to 2010, she floated a campaign against David Vitter, then a Republican senator from her native Louisiana. She was reportedly recruited to do so by wonks who wanted to use her as a prop to highlight Vitter’s own sex scandal. She, like other porn star political candidates of the aughts, was treated as a political joke and stopped running, reportedly, in part due to the press treatment of her campaign.
“They really think I’m going to take the president down. That is fucking insane to me.”
True to this widespread historical precedent, when the Daniels story first emerged, Trump denied it wholesale, discredited her in the press, and tried to use the non-disclosure agreement Daniels had signed to literally silence her. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, painted her as subhuman because of her career. She was called a liar, a whore, and a joke. Even non-Trump-aligned media focused primarily on the salacious details of the story at first.
But Daniels turned out to be incredibly persistent and formidable opponent for Trump, refusing to be silenced despite legal threats and vicious mockery and intimidation. She has directly, repeatedly, and consistently challenged Trump’s narrative of their (in his telling, non-)affair and shared more and more details. And she has done so without apologizing for either the affair or her porn work, playing into respectability politics to push back against Trump. She has instead owned her sex worker status and asserted her businesswoman status. She has cashed in on her association with Trump, unapologetically riding it to a strip club tour and new adult industry contracts, not to mention a memoir. And she has effectively used mainstream and social media to counterpunch at Trump whenever he has come at her.
Some have painted her as a foil to the president, using brash, reality television tactics akin to his own to dominate the news cycle and steal the initiative on stories, but in the service of transparency rather than obfuscation, truth rather than mendacity. Not all of this is Daniels’s talent alone at work. She, like Trump, is a beneficiary of a scandal saturated and ratings crazy media, which has slowly grown addicted to the kind of tactics she and the president use. She has also gained traction because her story plays into liberal narratives on Trump, and has been unexpectedly salient to the ongoing probe into potential Russian collusion in the 2016 elections, given the key role Cohen has played as a cooperating witness therein.
Thank you. And you are sadly correct. https://t.co/ZqnxPNXhfI— Stormy Daniels (@StormyDaniels) November 30, 2018
Despite heroic portraits of her unbending willpower, Daniels is not made of stone. In an October interview with The Cut, she spoke openly about the pressure she feels thanks to coverage of this scandal, and the expectations Trump critics have of her. “About every two to three weeks, I would have a breakdown,” she said of the early days of the story. “I’d be like, What if I let everybody down? They really think I’m going to take the president down. That is fucking insane to me. I was like, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.” Nor is Daniels a perfect being. She is also caught up in distracting-to-worrying conflict with her own allies, like her lawyer, Michael Avenetti, who she claims has been duplicitous in his dealings with her. And she has expressed skepticism about feminism and elements of the #MeToo movement, putting her at odds with many other Trump critics eager to embrace and support her in her conflict with the president.
But Daniels’ story’s longevity and mass appeal, especially to those who see her as a hero of the anti-Trump resistance, has also forced the media to move past porn jokes and tropes and find new ways of covering her. Thanks to her poise and wit, they have paid attention and given air time to her own voice and story. In long-form profiles, they have shared her sympathetic backstory — as someone who grew up in poverty and escaped thanks to her talents as an entertainer and entrepreneur — and portrayed her as, among other things, a devoted mother and a talented equestrian. They have, in other words, treated her as a three-dimensional human rather than a cliche. (These depictions, it is worth pointing out, hew fairly closely to the way Daniels portrays herself in her memoir, released this fall, which, though it discusses Trump’s “Yeti pubes,” is mostly about her non-Trump life.)
Her competence, and the complexity of portrayals of her, have upset the overall viability of longstanding, tired porn star tropes. This has seemingly caused apparent consternation among some conservative critics, who fret that she’s part of some new valorization of porn and sex work. Coverage of Daniels has also inspired public conversations about how people should talk about sex work and sex workers in general, in the press and in everyday conversation.
Granted, she’s not the only force pushing these re-evaluations. Melania Trump’s history of nude modeling, some have noted, also makes it harder for conservative critics to trash the morality and credibility of everyone involved in the porn world. This year, anti-sex and -sex work policies on platforms like Craigslist, Patreon, and Tumblr, to name a few, as well as new anti-sex work legislation have brought sex workers out of the shadows to talk about their work and their world with nuance and pride. The rising visibility of female- and minority-made and -focused porn, which makers and observers claim is made more conscientiously than most male-made and -focused porn and which purportedly highlights alternative, often marginalized views of sexuality and desire, has given the adult industry newfound social credibility and capital as well.
But even with Daniels’s influence and these broader social forces it isn’t as if mainstream coverage of the adult industry and sex work have increased drastically beyond her story, or those related to new legislation or big websites’ policies, in the last year. Tropes, biases, and general habits always die slowly and hard. But Daniels’ story is hardly over, even it’s hard to say exactly what is next for her. Much likely depends on how ugly her brewing conflict with Avenetti grows, and thus how much she is able to focus on staying relevant as investigations into Trump’s lies and shady dealings evolve. Even if her affair with Trump becomes less visible or important in the news cycle, though, or other conflicts distract her, she will remain a mainstream public figure for the foreseeable future, capable of weighing in on the Trump administration and major political brouhahas at will, like other outspoken celebrities. And that will allow her to keep challenging, and perhaps slowly changing, views of her, her profession(s), and her industry, slowly but surely, for years to come.