President Donald Trump has adopted a time-honored strategy for coping with allegations that he had an affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels: Ignore them.
The president and his top aides have said nothing publicly about the controversy this week, even as Daniels’ lawyer has engaged in repeated provocations, including revealing that she had an interview with the prime-time news show “60 Minutes”.
Trump hasn’t directly addressed the Daniels saga since the story surfaced earlier this year, instead letting White House staffers and his personal lawyer deny allegations that she was paid hush money before the 2106 election to keep quiet about their affair.
The muted response is unusual for a president who has rarely shied away from a fight. More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. The president has refuted those allegations — often loudly.
“A woman I don’t know and, to the best of my knowledge, never met, is on the FRONT PAGE of the Fake News Washington Post saying I kissed her (for two minutes yet) in the lobby of Trump Tower 12 years ago. Never happened!” Trump tweeted earlier this year in response to a story about allegations that he kissed Rachel Crooks on the mouth in 2006.
During a 2016 rally in Florida, Trump publicly denied that he forcefully kissed a former People Magazine reporter who wrote a first-person story about their 2005 encounter. “Take a look, you take a look. Look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think. I don't think so,” he said.
But when it comes to Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, Trump has kept his thoughts to himself, ignoring a shouted question from a reporter about Daniels on Saturday even after answering a separate question about North Korea.
Some close to Trump said that was the only way forward, worrying that a public comment from the president would only amplify the scandal.
“My advice would be: Don’t give a porn star looking for publicity any attention. Soon her five minutes will be up,” said former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett.
But people close to the president privately wondered whether Trump — who has a long track record of dealing with stories on his sex life published by his hometown New York tabloids — will erupt on Twitter or in another public venue after the “60 Minutes” interview airs and headlines about it dominate cable news.
Meanwhile, White House staffers are largely avoiding the subject altogether. White House officials contacted by POLITICO this week refused to speak about the fallout from the Daniels allegations.
“We’ve addressed this matter extensively and have nothing further to add. I’d direct you to the president’s personal attorney,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in an email. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Daniels claimed in a 2011 In Touch Weekly interview, which the magazine published in full in February, that she had a sexual relationship with Trump beginning in 2006, shortly after he married Melania Trump and around the time their son, Barron, was born.
Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 just days before the 2016 election. Cohen later said the money, paid through an LLC, came out of his own pocket, and he has insisted that he was not reimbursed by the Trump Organization or Trump’s campaign.
Even as Trump beefs up his outside legal team to combat Daniels’ allegations, additional damaging stories are coming to light.
Late Wednesday night, CNN and The Wall Street Journal reported on documents that appeared to tie the effort to silence Daniels to the Trump Organization, despite repeated efforts to distance the president from the $130,000 payment. Arbitration documents filed in Orange County, California, list Trump Organization lawyer Jill Martin as a representative for the LLC, Essential Consultants. Martin has said the Trump Organization was not involved in the issue.
Daniels has hired a lawyer, Michael Avenatti, and has filed a lawsuit against Trump in a bid to nullify a nondisclosure agreement meant to keep her from talking about the alleged affair. Through Avenatti, Daniels offered earlier this week to repay the money in exchange for being let out of the nondisclosure agreement.
Last week, Avenatti tweeted out a picture of him with his client and Anderson Cooper, who had conducted the interview with Daniels for CBS’ “60 Minutes”. No air date has been set, though, as CBS says it is working to verify Daniels’ claims. “The only reason it hasn’t run is that there’s still a lot of journalistic work to do,” CBS News chief David Rhodes said on a panel in Jerusalem this week.
And BuzzFeed is using a separate libel lawsuit filed against them by Cohen in connection with the 2016 dossier on Trump’s links to Russian operatives to potentially allow Daniels to discuss the alleged affair.
The relative quiet from the White House about Daniels is not unusual. Past presidents have sought to ignore scandals in hopes that they would go away — though Bill Clinton’s effort to defuse questions about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky by claiming he didn’t have sex with her ultimately led to his impeachment trial on perjury charges.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hasn’t been asked about Daniels at her televised briefing since last week, when she said that Trump has made “very well clear that none of these allegations are true,” adding, “This case has already been won in arbitration and anything beyond that, I’d refer you to the president’s outside counsel.” Sanders continued: “There was no knowledge of any payments from the president.”
But Trump’s propensity to stretch the truth makes it harder to sustain a denial in public, crisis managers said — especially given the precedent set by the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape recording of Trump bragging in 2006 about groping women.
“There is no crisis management strategy that can be recommended to President Trump on this issue because of his history of lying and denying what everybody knows to be true,” said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House legal adviser.
The public may also have an easier time following a sex scandal than the ins and outs of other scandals facing the administration, including the Russia investigation overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“The public understands a good old-fashioned sex scandal,” said Andrew Gilman, president of the consulting firm CommCore, who has worked with major corporations as they cope with international crises. Gilman added that Trump’s team needs to get its story straight before more revelations come to light.
“At this point, if I’m the White House,” he said, “I’d put everyone in the proverbial war room and say, ‘Who knows what?’ And get all the facts on the table.”
Darren Samuelsohn and Jason Schwartz contributed to this story.