When it comes to defining public opinion through the power of television, the reality-show presidency may just have met its match.
Interviewed on “60 Minutes” about her alleged sexual relationship with President Donald Trump, Stormy Daniels (née Stephanie Clifford) revealed herself to be as gifted a practitioner of the language of reality TV as we’ve lately seen. She was relatable in an utterly outsized fashion, human and yet slightly more than that.
Her seeming candor — emphasized with a simultaneous frankness and composure that rarely come in tandem — indicated that she’s a media sensation that may be here to stay.
Daniels’s interview with correspondent Anderson Cooper had been heavily hyped before it aired; it was also, in what vexed viewers at home and surely frustrated CBS, was delayed on the East Coast due to a NCAA basketball game running into overtime. CBS released a transcript of the interview before it aired, but reading it without watching the video cuts off a vital dimension of Daniels’s power; it’s like reading the lyrics of a song before hearing the melody.
In telling the story of her role at the center of an alleged White House cover-up — through which she is said to have collected money from Trump’s personal lawyer in order to ensure her silence about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter — she was rattlingly freewheeling, all while operating within the safe boundaries of the TV newsmagazine interview.
It’s tempting to suggest Daniels may have been prepped — her lawyer, the genuinely and strangely sharklike fellow “60 Minutes” interviewee Michael Avenatti, seems a candidate — but there are some things that can’t be taught. Or, at least, not taught by lawyers: Daniels’s ability to play to camera, showcasing a sharp sense of humor undercutting the high dudgeon of her surroundings, may well have reflected some aspect of her professional training. She was more interesting than was the script.
Daniels chuckled lightly recalling propositioning Trump by offering to spank him with a magazine on whose the now-President appeared. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” she recalled. What a strange thing to admit to — not in its shameful aspects but in its utter specificity, recalled with humor, glancing wit, and a TV-ready willingness to give us just enough detail. (Trump “pulled down his pants a little” to accept the spanking, but was wearing underwear and only bore “a couple swats.”)
Daniels went on to, in a fashion complicated enough for the current discourse around sex and gendered power dynamics, declare that she didn’t want to have sex with Trump but that she’d still done so consensually. “I thought of it as a business deal,” she said. The upside, in her telling, was limited; she says that she knew even then that she’d never be cast on “The Apprentice,” the prize dangled before her by Trump.
The sense came through the screen that until a certain point in global history, Daniels had considered this an odd and divergent experience, a risk taken and capitalized on as far as it could go; everything that came after, including what she says was a threatening encounter with a hired goon in a Las Vegas parking lot, was borne with forbearance and no small share of good humor. Asked how the public could know she was now telling the truth, Daniels said, “Because I have no reason to lie. I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger, and definitely a whole lot of s—.”
In that sense, this interview diverges from its closest recent precedent: Barbara Walters’s interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999. In that case, Lewinsky, who has gone on to speak out about the ways in which the media had mistreated her at the height of her notoriety, seemed to have been coached to her extreme detriment; her moments of candor reflected her in an unkind light, and her genuine attempts at humor were lost on a public in the midst of a real moral crisis. Nearly twenty years of reality television later — one and change of which have included a reality star as president, one who was elected with his own on-tape claims of sexual assault as part of the deal — Stormy Daniels can’t help but seem more media-ready.
She’s not an aberrant divergence from our normal reality — she’s a part of it, and perhaps the part best equipped to be honest, so close is her argot to the President’s own.
Why hadn’t she gone public before, Cooper asked. “I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, in my heart, and some people argue that I don’t have one of those, but whatever, that I was doing the right thing,” she said. The length of a sentence strained to contain her resentments, her reprisals, her appeal to sentiment, and her genuine wit. It seemed familiar — the language of the on-camera “confessional,” or of the nouveau presidency. She went on to note that her worst fears had been realized without a payday. “Guess what?” she asked Cooper. “I don’t have a million dollars.” She laughed. “You didn’t even buy me breakfast.”
That may be so, and her stated fears that her career may dry up may yet come to pass. But with witty, self-aware yet self-aggrandizing remarks like that, Daniels has been established, in some 30 minutes of airtime, as a defining figure of a presidency that had so far seemed to allow only one. That may end up being worth more than an egg biscuit.