The American philosopher Hilary Putnam, who died in 2016, was known during his life for his work in mathematical logic, his contributions to philosophy of mind, and, most significantly, his understanding of realism. Continually scrutinizing his own work and the work of others, Putnam deduced that there is such a thing as objective truth that exists outside of human interpretation.
Putnam was, sadly, not around to watch television on the evening of January 30, 2018, when the adult-film actor and director Stormy Daniels appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to field questions about whether or not she engaged in a sexual affair in 2006 with the married man who would later become president of the United States. Daniels, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, allegedly received a payment of $130,000 a month before the 2016 election in return for an agreement that she would not disclose any part of any relationship she might have had with Donald Trump. She has since officially and repeatedly denied that any such affair took place. But in 2011, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, gave a wide-ranging interview to In Touch Weekly in which she offered copious details about sexual encounters with the president, including that he’s reportedly superstitious about his hair and is deathly, aggressively afraid of sharks. On January 19, In Touch published the interview transcript in full.
To recap: In 2006, Stormy Daniels allegedly had a sexual relationship with Donald Trump while he was married to his wife Melania. In 2011, she told a magazine all about said encounters, and passed a polygraph test. Her close friend and her ex-husband corroborated her account and also passed polygraph tests. In 2016, Daniels was allegedly paid by Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer, to deny that she had ever had a sexual relationship with Donald Trump. Michael Cohen released a statement, signed by Daniels, denying that any such payment was made. Ever since then, Daniels has denied that she ever had a sexual relationship with Trump. If she fails to do so, as has been posited on The View by Sunny Hostin, a lawyer unconnected with the case, she could be liable for a monetary fine of as much as a million dollars.
What complicates things further is that Daniels, a hard-working and opportunistic American, is now faced with a moment in which her public profile is shooting through the stratosphere, and she’s shrewd enough to want to take advantage of the possibilities. On January 20, she kicked off a tour of national strip clubs titled “Make America Horny Again,” a caption that alludes to both the president and to their alleged affair. She’s also consented to televised interviews, despite the fact that she’s legally barred (at least allegedly) from discussing any of the particulars of her interactions with Trump, or even the question of whether she’s legally barred from doing so. Earlier this month, Daniels spoke with Inside Edition, where she made silently smiling while questioned into a new art form. On Thursday she’s scheduled to appear on The View, where it’s safe to assume the same performance will ensue.
On Tuesday night, in the aftermath of Trump’s State of the Union address, Daniels sat down with Jimmy Kimmel. Their conversation was muddled further by the fact that, hours before the interview, Daniels had issued a new statement, once again denying that she had ever had a sexual affair with Trump. “Each party to this alleged affair denied its existence in 2006, 20011 (sic), 2016, 2017, and now again in 2018,” the statement read. “I am not denying this affair because I was paid hush money … I am denying this affair because it never happened.”
Kimmel, fairly, was confused by this, and noted that the signature on the new statement didn’t match Daniels’s official signature. “Did you sign this letter that was released today?” he asked her. “I don’t know, did I?” she replied, adding, “That doesn’t look like my signature … I do not know where it came from.”
It was a response of Olympic-level evasion, of dexterous doublespeak, of awe-inspiring slipperiness. On the one hand, Daniels is allegedly obligated to deny (as has been noted in tedious detail already above) that she slept with the president or that she was paid to say she never did so. On the other, her promotional moment hinges on the public interest in whether or not she slept with the president and was paid to say she never did so. She’s a bell in a bell jar, silently ringing. The only questions anyone wants to ask her are the only questions she (reportedly) can’t answer.
The absurdity of her situation was enhanced by Kimmel, wielding a variety of props to try and finagle more revealing responses that might not violate a nondisclosure agreement that, according to Michael Cohen, does not exist. (“If you didn’t have a nondisclosure agreement, you most certainly could say, ‘I don’t have a nondisclosure agreement,’ yes?” Kimmel asked. “You’re so smart, Jimmy,” Daniels cooed in response.) First, Kimmel questioned her about her assertion in the In Touch interview that she could perfectly describe the president’s “junk.” “What is wrong with you?” she responded. Kimmel, by way of a counter, brought out three carrots and asked her to pick one. “Not asking you to say anything about anything, but I got three carrots, here,” he noted. Daniels declined to choose.
Finally, Kimmel brought out puppets. One, dressed to look like Stormy, was supposed to be her puppet representative, a supposed third party who might be liberated to reveal some details that Daniels couldn’t convey. Kimmel engaged the Stormy puppet in a game of Never Have I Ever and asked her a variety of questions. Traditionally, the rules of the game require that persons present drink an amount of alcohol when they’ve participated in an action submitted in the game. (Never have I ever gotten a tattoo, never have I ever had a one-night-stand, never have I ever accidentally set fire to the college library while abusing Adderall.) This time, Kimmel told Daniels to shake her head if she hadn’t done something, and to do nothing if she had—a perfect inversion of logic. Had she shoplifted? The puppet shook its head, no. Had sex with a married man? No response. Had sex with a married man at a golf tournament? No response. Watched Shark Week in a hotel room with the host of a reality show? No response. Had sex with someone who fired Gary Busey on TV? “I actually don’t know the answer to that,” Daniels replied, revealing that she’d never watched The Celebrity Apprentice.
As television interviews go, it was frustrating. Kimmel, despite his most creative efforts, drew nothing more substantial out of Daniels than affirmation by way of complete inactivity. But as a symbol of the current moment, it was revealing. The term fake news has ricocheted around the internet so bombastically during the last two years that it’s virtually lost all meaning; most typically, when employed by President Trump, it’s referring to news that isn’t actually fake, only fake in an alternate reality that Trump has willfully constructed. This behavior, along with Kellyanne Conway’s 2017 reference to “alternative facts,” seems to question the concept of objective truth. Daniels, on talk shows, offering responses that are either nonexistent or oblique at best, is only the latest avatar of antirealism. “I am denying this affair because it never happened,” she claims. But her 2011 interview, her whole promotional tour, her smiling nonanswers—even her puppet—all seem to say that it did.