Imagine the Stormy Daniels Scandal in Any Other Presidency

It’s mind-boggling to think what would have happened had Barack Obama or George W. Bush paid off a porn actress to cover up an alleged affair.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

Certain phrases, uttered in a moment, become part and parcel of a presidency, particularly when they reveal glimpses of the person occupying the office. “The better angels of our nature,” for instance, helped shape Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as much as “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” did Bill Clinton’s.

Which phrases will history associate with Donald Trump? No president before him has offered such direct, unfiltered access to his psyche, or sparked such willful chaos in doing so. Faced with Trump’s enthusiasm for scorched-earth tweets and sound bites, few adversaries can measure up. Stormy Daniels is one of them, and the words Trump has used for her characterize aspects of his presidency better than any others.

The adult-film actor and dancer has plagued the president ever since The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, had paid Daniels $130,000 during the 2016 campaign to not talk publicly about a sexual relationship she claimed to have had with Trump a decade earlier. Various lawsuits, talk-show appearances, and cable interviews featuring Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, ensued. In October 2018, as news broke that Daniels had had her defamation case against Trump thrown out by a judge in California, Trump responded to the news on Twitter, referring directly to Daniels for the first time. “Great,” he wrote, “now I can go after Horseface and her 3rd rate lawyer in the Great State of Texas.”

Such a public pronouncement about a woman by a sitting president was unprecedented, beyond even all the other news-cycle-disrupting, norm-obliterating, protocol-decimating ways in which Trump had delineated his tenure as commander in chief. (Not to mention the historic nature of the scandal itself: It’s mind-boggling to imagine the scandal that would have erupted had Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton paid off a porn actress to cover up an affair that allegedly occurred while his wife was home with their newborn.)

To be clear: Insulting women wasn’t new for Trump. His nicknames for Hillary Clinton alone (“Crooked,” “Lying,” “Heartless”) could title a particularly bitter country song. Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “MS-13 Lover” Nancy Pelosi, and “Low IQ” Maxine Waters have each earned epithets at one point or another. Omarosa Manigault Newman, the reality-show villain whom Trump hired to work for the White House Office of Public Liaison, scored two nicknames after she published a tell-all book about her abbreviated tenure in the West Wing: “Wacky and Deranged Omarosa,” and “that dog.”

“Horseface,” attached to a woman who’d described having sex with the president shortly after his third wife had given birth to their son, came with its own baggage. Misogynistic in a casual, high-school-yearbook kind of way, it spoke volumes about Trump’s id. The nickname crystallized the president’s inability to perceive women as anything other than physical objects to be displayed or discarded. It revealed, again, Trump’s uncontrollable impulse to attack anyone who threatens him, however self-defeating such an attack might be. And it made plain how vulnerable the president is when it comes to his ego—as easily bruised as a petal, or a peach.

Even in the Charybdis-like vortex of the Trump news cycle, l’affaire Stormy Daniels was the scandal that couldn’t quit. That was partly because the president himself stoked it, although whether out of simple fury or the urge to have his sexual exploits be known is anyone’s guess. Hence an odd truth: “Horseface” is an epithet that says more about Trump than anyone he might attach it to.