There are lots of things that are not surprising about adult film star Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, allegedly having an affair with Donald Trump. For starters, it’s Donald Trump, the man who famously thinks women are pussies to be grabbed, intimidated and assaulted. Secondly, powerful men having illicit affairs is the least surprising thing in the universe. Take the Kennedys or the Profumo affair (a 1960s scandal featuring the British secretary of state) or Bill Clinton or the countless others that haven’t made headlines in quite the same way. Throw in the fact that the president’s shocking behaviour seems to bounce off him like a golf ball on the greens of Mar-a-Lago and you could be forgiven for thinking that Stormy Daniels might just be a name added to the long list of Trumpian WTFs and forgotten by the end of the week.
However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not the case. And I think that’s got a lot to do with Stephanie Clifford herself – which is where things get a bit more surprising. The 39-year-old is currently suing the president for an “invalid NDA” she was forced to sign by him, after they allegedly had consensual sex in July 2006, during a celebrity golf tournament (where else?). Clifford was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about the affair ahead of Trump’s run for presidency, but now she wants that revoked. Last night saw the airing of Anderson Cooper’s 60 Minutes with Clifford, one of America’s top political interview slots, which was full of details you’d rather not know: they didn’t use a condom; she spanked him with a copy of Forbes with his face on it; he said, “You’re special – you remind me of my daughter.” (Where. To. Start.)
Is this farce or is this tragedy? I’m not sure. Either way, it’s certainly believable in the warped world of Donald Trump. But I think there’s something more interesting than Trump’s extramarital behaviour going on here and this is how the world is responding to Clifford.
Clifford's handling of this situation is being done with a knowing wink
To begin with, she’s being listened to – something that, at one time, would have been inconceivable, at least not with the gravitas she’s received from today’s media. When 19-year-old Christine Keeler had an affair with secretary of state John Profumo in 1961, it was scandal and gossip that his career never recovered from, but was she invited into a public space to give her version of events? Would her lawyers have threatened Profumo openly on social media? Would she have had the playfulness of Clifford’s face as she sat on Jimmy Fallon with a “fuck you” smirk? And when did we start listening to female porn stars – people often treated with the most contempt in society? When did they become powerful? (After all, a sex tape can take you a long way these days.) It’s been widely noted that President Trump hasn’t tweeted about Clifford – exceptionally unusual behavior for a serial tweeter who’s not afraid to start wars on the social-media platform. In a profile of her in The New York Times yesterday, journalists wrote, “To many in the capital, Ms. Clifford, has become an unexpected force. It is she, some in Washington now joke, and not the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who could topple Mr. Trump.”
And, from the outside, it appears that Clifford is very much in control of this situation. Just take a look at her Twitter feed. Her hilarious, fearless rejections of heinous tweets give the indication of someone who knows exactly what they are doing (the tweets also give a strong sense of the outrage some men feel when a porn star dares to use her voice and not her body). This is a trait she has apparently long possessed. Nina Hartley, a peer in the industry, told The New York Times, “She’s the boss, and everyone knew it.” She’s been called the “Renaissance porn star” by one of the industry's most famous actors, Ron Jeremy. Judd Apatow has said of Clifford: “She was a very serious businesswoman and a filmmaker and had taken the reins of her career.” She is known for her exacting high standards and professionalism as both an actor and a director. In 2015, she even hinted that she was running for Senate in Louisiana with the slogan “Screwing People Honestly”.
The last time we saw a president embroiled in an affair scandal, the situation was very different. Twenty-four-year-old Monica Lewinsky was an intern; there was the most excessive exploitation of power at play possible and yet Lewinsky was vilified. She became a national obsession; feminists defended Clinton; she was perceived as manipulative, ambitious, responsible. Admittedly, there are some very different things here: Clifford didn’t work for Trump; Clifford is much older than Lewinsky; and Clinton was widely heralded as a liberal saviour, while our expectations of Trump are in the gutter. Yet, our reaction is entirely different to the porn star than the political intern. And, partly, this is because of how society has progressed in our understanding of power dynamics and the privilege of being a man, but also because Clifford has made it clear that she is in control, in a way Lewinsky absolutely wasn’t. Perhaps we “expect” this behaviour of porn stars, people we’ve collectively debased as a society, but either way the usual power play is up in the air as a woman shows no remorse or shame for humiliating a president. (Presumably, this is why Pence never has dinner alone with a woman who isn't his wife. Just look at the trouble you’ll get into, Mike).
Clifford's handling of this situation is being done with a knowing wink. For a woman who has flirted with fame, she’s got what she wants, while upping her earnings to boot, as she continues to strip across the States for higher rates. She is Trumpian in pursuit of her own world domination, perhaps. But she is also a porn star whose testimony and experience has left the most powerful man on the planet in unprecedented silence. And something about that feels equally unprecedented.