Stormy Daniels is starring in the most salacious scandal of Donald Trump’s drama-rich presidency. But most Democrats in Congress are intent to look away.
The calculation among Democratic leaders is clear: Beating the Daniels drum could backfire, putting the focus on their response instead of the president’s alleged affair with a porn star and the $130,000 payment from Trump’s lawyer to keep her quiet.
But as Daniels determined not to go quietly — giving an interview to “60 Minutes” set to air this weekend and offering to repay the so-called “hush money” — a few Democrats are breaking from the pack. They say Congress has a duty to get to the bottom of the sordid episode.
And if some Trump critics see a double standard in the approach many Democrats are applying to Daniels, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Pelosi acknowledged last week that “you can be sure” if any Democrat were so closely linked to a sex scandal with potential campaign finance violations, “the Republicans would be very involved in it.”
Of course, Republicans are even less eager to conduct oversight of the Daniels scandal than the president’s opponents. So Democrats are left largely as bystanders to an unfolding story that has all the classic ingredients of a career-ending implosion — for any other politician but Trump.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted in an interview that in addition to the possible Federal Election Commission violation at issue in the Daniels payment, the $130,000 may have been subject to the gift tax “given that what you have is a very significant transfer of funds.”
“So I think there’s a kind of general interest in Congress in making sure that big, fancy people are actually following the laws that everybody else has to follow,” Whitehouse said.
Asked whether he thought other Democrats were avoiding the topic, he added: “I don’t want to speak for colleagues, but I think a lot of people are just put off by the sordid nature of the whole thing.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, illustrated that point perfectly. “Why are you interested in that?” she asked a reporter in response to a question about Daniels.
Asked again whether she was interested in the scandal, she replied: “Not particularly.”
One senior Democratic aide summed up leadership‘s strategy for the Daniels storm. “First rule of Trump: Let Trump be Trump,” the aide said on Monday. “Never get in the way of the president and his porn star.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also ducked a question about Daniels last week, telling reporters at a news conference about infrastructure that "we want to stick to" that issue.
Some Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, however, are engaging despite Pelosi’s hands-off stand. They issued a lengthy letter last week to Trump’s lawyers seeking information about the president’s potential involvement in paying off Daniels as well as his ties to Karen McDougal, a Playboy Playmate who claims to have had an affair with Trump more than a decade ago.
Before the election, McDougal received $150,000 from the National Enquirer, whose chairman is a friend of Trump, for the rights to her story, which the magazine never published.
“We can assure you we have no interest in Mr. Trump’s personal relationships in and of themselves,” the Democrats wrote in the 16-page missive. “However … we believe we have an obligation to inquire regarding such matters to the extent they raise questions relating to possible violations of law.”
The payment to Daniels opens the door to “potential violations of federal campaign finance and income tax laws, legal ethics and other laws” and future efforts to “extort or otherwise influence” the president, they wrote.
If the payments to the two women were made with the intention of influencing the election in Trump’s favor, they could be considered “unlawful unreported in-kind” contributions to Trump’s campaign, the Democrats argued.
A House Democratic aide, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, insisted there was no daylight between Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members about how to respond to the Daniels payment. Two senior House Democrats who signed onto the letter — New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the party's top Judiciary Committee member, and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic Women’s Working Group — declined to be interviewed on the matter.
One Democrat on the Senate Judiciary panel echoed that narrow interest in a deeper congressional investigation of "the payment, and what the purpose was."
"I think we need to consider whether or not the campaign finance laws cover it, and if not, whether they should," Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in an interview Monday. "Because quite clearly it seems like it was designed to assist the campaign."
But most other Democrats demurred on whether Congress has any role in digging into the Daniels affair, suggesting they're aligned with their leaders' move to let Trump and his lawyers dominate news coverage of the controversy. Several referred to the FEC and the legal challenge filed by the actress, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, seeking to nullify her nondisclosure agreement as the proper forums for the matter to play out.
The Daniels dispute is "probably going to be sorted out in the courts," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. "We need to have a fully functioning FEC with all of the people in place and doing aggressive enforcement, but I don't really see that there's a place for us right now."
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), another member of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that lawmakers stay focused primarily on Russian election meddling probes that have gotten thrown off course by partisan wrangling.
"I think the Mueller investigation is wide-ranging, and who knows if there's some sort of other web that surrounds what happened with Stormy Daniels," Hirono said in an interview. "But we're not in a place where we can even investigate the primary thing that we were wanting to investigate."