The person we have to thank for the Michael Cohen plea story — the impresario of the entire stunning production — is Stephanie Clifford, the adult film actor known as Stormy Daniels.
Hers is a quintessentially American story. She’s the outsider, the object of disdain, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the star without the veneer of refinement — and the player in this drama who’s winning because she’s the one telling the truth. In the face of withering personal attacks from men at the highest levels of government, Stormy refused to back down. Because she knew she was right.
It’s no surprise that so many people are rooting for her.
She’s the outsider, the object of disdain, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the star without the veneer of refinement — and the player in this drama who’s winning.
On Tuesday, Cohen admitted to not just tax and bank fraud but campaign finance violations. More than that, President Donald Trump’s longtime consigliere said he committed the campaign-related crimes at the direction of his boss. But Clifford’s lawsuits helped alert prosecutors early on to the facts underlying some of Cohen’s misdeeds, to say nothing of the president’s.
Just before the 2016 presidential election, Cohen arranged for a $130,000 payment to Clifford so that she would not reveal her affair with Trump. At the time of this alleged affair, Trump’s wife Melania had recently given birth to the couple’s son Barron. There were big penalties if Clifford breached the agreement. Yet when news of the deal broke at the beginning of this year, she decided to go on the offensive.
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Her lawyer — Los Angeles litigator Michael Avenatti, who has a chiseled face and a flair for promotion and whose hobby is driving race cars — accused both Michael Cohen and Trump of defamation. He has proved more than a match for Trump at trolling his opponents.
Clifford and Avenatti launched three — count ‘em, three — lawsuits against Cohen and Trump: claiming that the agreement wasn’t valid, that Cohen and Trump had intimidated her into signing it and that they were lying when they denied her tryst with Trump.
Avenatti also launched a massive publicity campaign against Cohen and Trump. You simply could not turn on a TV news show without seeing Avenatti at the table. The campaign got under Cohen’s skin so effectively that he actually went to court to try to get a restraining order to “stop the media circus.” Avenatti, for his part, predicted on TV that Cohen would eventually turn on Trump.
And Avenatti was right: Cohen has definitely turned on Trump, While the Cohen plea’s legal implications for the president aren’t yet clear, the combination of the plea with the conviction on the same afternoon of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was what the Drudge Report called “Trump Hell Hour."
More than that, Cohen’s plea has set loose a wave of support for Clifford, from the high-minded (“you are now part of American history writ large”) to the not-so-much (“you go, girl”). One online image features a cartoon of Snoopy sitting at his typewriter in his familiar author’s posture on his doghouse composing this text: “…And then, America was saved by a Porn Star. THE END.”
Some of the enthusiasm may be due to Avenatti, a lawyer who, for all his shortcomings, is a genuine phenomenon. A ferociously combative litigator, Avenatti has been willing to batter Trump and Cohen using the forums and the language they understand. In the wake of Cohen’s plea, Avenatti gives every indication that he’s going to keep on pursuing his reality-show strategy. (“Buckle up, Buttercup,” he warned Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, on Twitter.)
But it was Clifford who hung on through the unrelenting assaults from Cohen and Giuliani as well as the chief peril of any piece of substantial litigation — the absence of a sure source of money. Indeed, there is evidence that because of her resistance to Cohen and Trump, she was targeted for an unlawful prostitution arrest.
Where does Clifford’s toughness come from? It probably has something to do with the fact that she has spent her career in an occupation that many Americans view with disapproval or even disgust. The moral foundations of this disdain have crumbled; the disapproval and disgust pose no real threat to her. But while it may have made her popular with men like Trump behind closed doors, Clifford’s career as a porn star has made her an outsider publicly. As Giuliani said inJune: “I’m sorry, I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman and as a person and isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.”
Trump presents himself as the owner of gilded bathrooms and — as Giuliani said of Trump’s three wives — “beautiful women, classy woman, women of great substance.”
Clifford gives the lie to this kind of pretension. She may come from another world, one that’s perhaps less delicate in Trump and Giuliani's eyes — but in the end, she had the most substance of them all.
It’s the ultimate American affirmation of the underdog. Or, as #teamstormy tweeted, “How ya like me now?”
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”