On Sunday, Stormy Daniels, a longtime adult-film actress, appeared on 60 Minutes to share her account of her bygone relationship with President Donald Trump.
The most salacious behavior that she described is of relatively little consequence, even if totally true—it would be completely in character for the man Americans have gotten to know during years of trashy tabloid coverage to (per her account) flirt with a porn actress, compare her to his daughter, brag about a magazine with his face on it, get spanked with it, and cheat on his spouse.
That is who Trump voters knowingly elected, for better or worse.
But members of Congress, who are charged with being a check on the presidency, would err if the most salacious details distracted them so much that they missed the allegations in the interview that most demand further investigation.
The most important portion of the interview begins with the claim that Trump repeatedly suggested that he would work to get Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, a spot on Celebrity Apprentice.
That allegation suggests behavior much like what Harvey Weinstein reportedly perpetrated for years in Hollywood: a powerful man in entertainment using his perch to pursue sex by dangling a gig in front of someone hungry for success in the industry––then using threats after the fact in order to keep her from exposing his behavior. The allegation of a threat is what ought to interest members Congress even more than the possibility that Trump violated campaign-finance laws when his personal attorney tried to pay off Daniels to keep quiet about the president.
Here is the allegation as it appears in the pre-broadcast transcript that 60 Minutes released:
According to Daniels, Mr. Trump called her the following month to say he’d not been able to get her a spot on Celebrity Apprentice. She says they never met again and only had sex in that first meeting in 2006.
In May 2011, Daniels agreed to tell her story to a sister publication of In Touch magazine for $15,000 dollars.
Two former employees of the magazine told us the story never ran because after the magazine called Mr. Trump seeking comment, his attorney Michael Cohen threatened to sue. Daniels says she was never paid, and says a few weeks later, she was threatened by a man who approached her in Las Vegas.
Stephanie Clifford: I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T—taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.” And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.” And then he was gone.
Anderson Cooper: You took it as a direct threat?
I was rattled. I remember going into the workout class. And my hands are shaking so much, I was afraid I was gonna—drop her.
Cooper: Did you ever see that person again?
Clifford: No. But I—if I did, I would know it right away.
Cooper: You’d be able to—you’d be able to recognize that person.
Clifford: 100 percent. Even now, all these years later. If he walked in this door right now, I would instantly know.
If false, Stormy Daniels deserves to be sued over that claim.
If accurate, that constitutes unlawful thuggery of a sort typically associated with mobsters. Of course, one shouldn’t simply believe such a claim. (Cohen’s attorney quickly fired back with a letter stating that “he had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any such person or incident, and does not even believe that any such person exists, or that such incident ever occurred.”) But the presidency is too important and powerful a position simply not to worry about it, especially given the context: Trump has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct, and has bragged about groping women without their permission.
One common-sense way forward is to presume that if Trump did cause Stormy Daniels to be threatened in that manner, she is unlikely to be the only one. This needn’t necessarily be a “he said, she said” situation. As Weinstein showed, a rich, powerful person can use payoffs and nondisclosure agreements to prevent multiple victims of the same misbehavior from knowing about one another.
That’s why members of Congress should ask Donald Trump to publicly vow that he is not using nondisclosure agreements to hide sexual misconduct or threats, and to release anyone with evidence to the contrary from any contractual obligation that they have to keep quiet.
And Congress should consider legislation that would void any nondisclosure agreement that would impose any cost on anyone with information in the public interest about any president from coming forward. I don’t suppose such a bill would pass this Congress. But it would be an honorable plank for a Never Trump Republican or Democratic candidate, and the next Congress might well enable transparency. The tiny class of elites who abuse nondisclosure agreements could use a healthy dose of scrutiny.
If Trump merely slept with Stormy Daniels, that should not end his presidency. If a thug threatened her daughter to keep her quiet on his behalf, and especially if he had a habit of threatening others to keep quiet, he should be removed from office. Earlier this year, the right was indignant about Hollywood’s inexcusable failure to out prominent abusers. What is your representative’s plan to determine whether or not there is a Harvey Weinstein in the White House? If you discover any promising ones, email firstname.lastname@example.org.