An interview with an adult film actress who claims to have been paid off by President Donald Trump’s lawyer to keep silent about a 2006 affair ahead of the 2016 election brought “60 Minutes” its best ratings in a decade Sunday, but some critics are questioning the spotlight being shone on Stormy Daniels.
“At this point in time, what value does that story really have?” asked Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media. “I don’t think we’re learning anything new.”
Viewership for the segment topped 22 million, more than the CBS program’s post-election interview with Trump but slightly less than the 24.5 million who tuned in for a 2008 interview with Barack Obama. Media experts are unsurprised by the public interest in the scandalous tale of a president and a porn star.
“Nobody thinks that politics is sexy and finally someone is making politics at least a little sexy,” said Nikki Usher, author of “Making News at The New York Times” and professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, told Anderson Cooper in the hotly-anticipated interview that she had unprotected sex with Trump in 2006. She acknowledged accepting a $130,000 payment from Trump attorney Michael Cohen in October 2016 and signing a nondisclosure agreement.
Clifford, who issued two public statements in January denying that the affair occurred and that she received “hush money,” filed a lawsuit earlier this month to void the nondisclosure agreement. Cohen then alleged in court filings that she may owe $20 million for violating the agreement at least 20 times.
In the latest legal maneuvering, Clifford filed another suit against Cohen Monday accusing him of defamation.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and bureau chief, stressed that Clifford’s story is more than just gossip. It has potential political, moral, and legal implications for the president of the United States that merit media coverage.
“Is she getting too much attention?” he said. “Probably not.”
Though much of the interview rehashed previous reporting, Clifford made a new claim that she was threatened by an unnamed man outside a fitness center in 2011 who told her, “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.”
Clifford did not identify the man, but she said she would recognize him if she saw him again. According to her attorney, Michael Avenatti, that kind of “thuggish behavior” to intimidate and silence a woman is what this story is really about.
Cooper has defended the news value of the segment.
“If Stormy Daniels' story is true that a thug came up to her in a parking lot in Las Vegas in 2011—this is long before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate—I mean, if somebody is using intimidation tactics, physical intimidation tactics, it's probably not the first time they've done it,” he said in an online “60 Minutes Overtime” interview. “So that's a potential story I would imagine people would look at of how this kind of thing happened before?”
Cooper also stressed that “many, many tawdry details” were left out of the story because they were deemed irrelevant.
“For us, it wasn't so much ‘there was an affair,’” he said. “That's not as much the headline. For us, it's everything that has happened since and how we've gotten to this point.”
For example, an election attorney interviewed in the segment alleged that Cohen’s payoff to Daniels could be a violation of campaign finance laws. If true, Cooper suggested lawbreaking by Cohen could give special counsel Robert Mueller leverage over a longtime Trump confidante.
Cohen has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he made the payment to silence a woman who could embarrass Trump weeks before the election independently from the Trump campaign. After “60 Minutes” aired, Cohen’s attorney sent Clifford a cease-and-desist letter claiming that she falsely blamed him for the 2011 threat, although she did not directly link him to that incident in the interview.
The White House declined to directly address the possibility of election law violations by Cohen or the campaign, but Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah did deny the affair itself and assert that the president does not believe Clifford was ever threatened.
“I will say the president has strongly, clearly, and consistently denied the underlying claims and the only person who has been inconsistent has been the one making them,” he said at a press briefing.
Sesno, now director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, said Cooper did an effective job of questioning Clifford and her attorney about her credibility and motives, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether to believe her.
“While I don’t think he was bashing her, he didn’t give her anything resembling a free pass,” he said.
According to Irvine, some media outlets have shown appropriate skepticism about her story, but others are “lapping this up” because it hurts Trump.
“She’s already signed false statements before,” he said. “Why would anybody believe her?”
Irvine dismissed Clifford’s media tour as a “publicity money grab” from a woman who realized she took far too little money for her silence and wants to get out of her deal. The new 2011 threat allegation is particularly suspect to him.
“Who was she back then?” he asked. “No one thought he would really be a presidential candidate then. What would be the purpose of threatening her?”
One factor working against Trump, noted John Carroll, a former journalist and a professor of mass communication at Boston University, is that details of Clifford’s story echo past reports on Trump’s sex life and reflect the playboy image he long cultivated for himself.
“In these kinds of narratives, one of the questions is, does this make sense in terms of what we know about the people involved?” he said. “I think this fits perfectly into many people’s preconception of Donald Trump, both his supporters and his critics.”
A CNN poll released Monday showed 63 percent of Americans believe Trump’s accusers, although only about half believe they should be released from non-disclosure agreements to discuss the affairs.
Much like Hillary Clinton was unable to make the controversy over her email server go away in 2016 in part because it played to voters’ existing doubts about her, Sesno predicted Trump will continue to struggle to put this story behind him.
“They’re too compelling, they resonate too much, they plug in too much with the narrative…,” he said. “It’s not as if this is a discordant element that doesn’t make sense.”
Other women have come forward over the last two years alleging affairs or sexual misconduct by Trump, but none had the media staying power Clifford has demonstrated since reports of Cohen’s payment to her emerged in January.
“Sex sells,” said Scott Talan, a former reporter who teaches public and strategic communication at American University, “especially when it involves the U.S. president and also when it’s unprecedented allegations we have from a porn star. Usually, affairs of presidents are not with porn stars.”
This particular porn star and her attorney effectively built up anticipation and suspense for weeks in advance of Sunday’s interview.
“This is somebody who’s been in entertainment herself,” Usher said. “She and her team understand how to get attention from the news media.”
In her desire for media attention and her openness about the fact that this scandal has benefited her professional career, Sesno said Clifford is the first accuser operating on the same plane as Trump.
“In some ways, he’s met his media match with her because she is as shameless in the media attention she seeks and as overt in the advantage she believes it will deliver as he is,” he said.
Technically I didn't sleep with the POTUS 12 years ago. There was no sleeping (hehe) and he was just a goofy reality TV star. But I digress...People DO care that he lied about it, had me bullied, broke laws to cover it up, etc. And PS...I am NOT going anywhere. xoxoxo https://t.co/Js9sEnanIk— Stormy Daniels (@StormyDaniels) March 20, 2018
Conservative media critics have questioned the apparent embrace of Clifford by outlets that they feel downplayed or ignored salacious stories involving President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
According to the conservative Media Research Center, women alleging consensual and nonconsensual encounters with Clinton both before and during his presidency were barely mentioned on broadcast news when they first went public. The group also compiled harshly negative comments made by journalists at the time about the women, their credibility, and the significance of their claims.
“I have to profess complete confusion over this entire case, why this is even a case,” Deborah Mathis of Gannett said of Paula Jones in 1997. “If any man, I don’t care who he is, invites me to a room and pulls his pants down and asks me to do something, he’s going to have a decided limp from that day on and I go on with my life.”
Earlier this month, CNN devoted 41 minutes of coverage to Clifford’s performance at a Florida strip club. Conversely, liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated that Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” has devoted only four minutes of coverage to the Stormy Daniels storm over the last 10 weeks.
Carroll acknowledged that Clifford is getting a different kind of attention than Clinton’s accusers, but that is partly a function of this story coming forth in a very different media environment.
“I think it’s a different world from the world of Bill Clinton and his peccadilloes,” he said. “The presence of social media makes a significant difference in what’s happening.”
He added that the #MeToo movement has elevated interest in any sexual relationship that involves an imbalance of power.
Irvine agreed that the internet and social media can magnify and extend a scandal, but he also suggested the press tried to mitigate political damage for Clinton in a way they will not for Trump.
“There are very few if any members of the liberal press who have got a lot of admiration for President Trump so this is just another story where they can go after him,” he said.
If the press or public assumes the worst of Trump, Talan said he has himself to blame for that.
“This is something where Trump may have created this animus with others where nobody gives him the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Sesno observed that Clinton’s sexual activities did ultimately receive extensive media attention, particularly the “complete feeding frenzy” over Monica Lewinsky.
“Stories of sex, love, money, lust go into an orbit all their own,” he said. “Whether it’s John Edwards or Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, welcome to the world where private lives collide with public scrutiny. This story will continue to resonate, and it will resonate because you’ve got the most intimate behavior in a collision with public behavior expectations and standards.”
One test of how newsworthy the “60 Minutes” interview was will be what kind of reporting it generates going forward. Cooper suggested the possibility of similar threats against others is one area ripe for journalistic follow-up, and Shah was pressed repeatedly at Monday’s White House briefing to respond to parts of the interview.
“We’ve heard about this for weeks so there was no bombshell per say, but this is not done,” Talan said. “It’s going to have ripple effects.”
He expects more women may come forward to make accusations against Trump, but in the absence of indisputable evidence or court proceedings that place key witnesses under oath, he doubts the president will be losing sleep over it.
“In the end, we’re going to need more of a smoking gun,” he said.
Note: (a) not all of our evidence will be mentioned/displayed tonight – that would be foolish; (b) we are not sure what CBS will include but we know a lot from the full interview will have to be cut bc of the time allowed; (c) tonight is not the end – it’s the beginning. #basta— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) March 25, 2018
Avenatti has teased concrete evidence to come, but he and Clifford refused to disclose specifics on “60 Minutes.” A friend of Daniels hinted on CNN Monday that she may still have the dress she wore the night of her encounter with Trump.
“The other shoes to drop is part of the interesting orchestration of this,” Carroll said. “I think Stormy Daniels had a really bad lawyer in 2016 when she made this deal. She’s got a really smart lawyer now, so I think that whole statement by him about this being the beginning, not the end is something to take seriously.”