Stormy Daniels’s testimony paints a dark picture of Trump’s view of sex and power | Moira Donegan

Stormy Daniels’s testimony paints a dark picture of Trump’s view of sex and power | Moira Donegan
Stormy Daniels’s testimony paints a dark picture of Trump’s view of sex and power | Moira Donegan

he seems to have understood it as a business deal. That’s what Stormy Daniels – the former porn star whose account of a sexual encounter with Donald Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006 is at the center of his criminal hush-money trial – told Anderson Cooper in 2018. When Trump summoned Daniels to his hotel room in Lake Tahoe, I have suggested that she might come on her television show, Celebrity Apprentice. Then I demanded sex.

In the law this is called quid pro quo – this for that – an arrangement in which work is offered in exchange for sex. It’s illegal: sex cannot be a condition of employment, or a prerequisite for being considered for a job, under laws that are designed to punish sexual harassment and make workplaces accessible and tolerable for women. But Trump has long had a casual relationship to the law.

Daniels has described the sex that followed as a grim affair, performed out of a begrudging sense of obligation. “I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into,” she told Cooper of coming out of the bathroom to find Trump lying on his bed, in his underwear. “And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe – it was sort of – I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone. And I just heard the voice in my head, ‘Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

On the stand at Trump’s criminal hush-money trial in New York on Tuesday, she described the same moment, saying, “The room spun in slow motion. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what did I misread to get here?’” Trump told her that she reminded him of her daughter. He did not use a condom.

For a while after that, Trump kept calling Daniels, asking to see her again. When he called, he would again mention the prospect of her appearing on The Apprentice. They met one more time, a year later, in a hotel room where Trump was watching Shark Week. He tried to initiate sex again, and Daniels refused. Later, she got a call informing her that she would not be cast on his show.

The hush-money trial that has been proceeding chaotically in New York over the past four weeks is broadly considered to be the weakest of the four criminal cases proceeding against Trump – and, perhaps not incidentally, it is also the only one that will be tried before he again stands for election this November. Before Tuesday, the testimonies were dense with proceduralism, talking about attorney accounting practices and editorial meetings at tabloids. This was all meant to explain to the jury – and to the voters following along at home – the nature of Trump’s “catch-and-kill” scheme with the National Enquirer, an arrangement in which the tabloid purchased the rights to unflattering stories about Trump – like Daniels’s – and then hid them from public view, silencing the relevant parties with NDAs.

But the focus on technicalities can obscure the gendered nature of the arrangement: at the center of the allegations is an elaborate, multi-party scheme to prevent women from speaking in public about their experiences with Trump – to stop what they know from becoming what the voters know, and to keep their stories of Trump’s conduct toward them hidden.

An anxiety about women’s speech – about what they might say about men, and how their words might confront or embarrass – animates much of our popular discourses around sexual misconduct, due process and the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior. But it is rare that the mechanisms used to silence women are made so visible, or rendered so explicit in their relation to electoral politics. Trump’s fixers, after all, had reason to be especially worried about the stories of women like Stormy Daniels. At the time that the deal at issue in the case was finalized, in October 2016, the Access Hollywood tape had been released, in which Trump brought up about grabbing women by their genitals. More than two dozen women have since accused him of sexual misconduct; there are likely others that we don’t know about.

Daniels has repeatedly said that she did not refuse sex with Trump, and that she does not consider herself a victim. She has also said that the encounter was marked by what on Tuesday she called a “power imbalance,” and that she did not feel she had full freedom to decline it. She has always described the encounter as distant and unwanted; she has talked about being afraid of Trump in the aftermath.

Conversations over sexual misconduct frequently become conversations over semantics, in which debates about what counts as rape or assault or harassment stand in for the unasked question about what is a decent, respectful and humane way to treat women. But we need not litigate a definition of Daniels’s encounter, or place it into a different category than she does, to say that what Trump did to her in that encounter was marked by a profound sense of sexual entitlement, and by false promises and gestures toward Bribery that makes it clear he knew that Daniels did not desire him. That such encounters are usually not called rape does not mean that they do not index a gendered form of exploitation, the leveraging of a man’s money and position for access to an unwilling woman’s body.

What followed, too, was a gendered form of exploitation: a conspiracy to secure her silence. Trump’s attorneys will argue that paying a woman in order to get her to sign an NDA is not illegal; even the prosecution is arguing that the criminality is not in seeking Daniels’s silence, but in trying to cover up the arrangement afterwards.

But legality is not the only standard of morality, and it should disturb us all, as believers in free expression, open inquiry and an informed public, that a group of powerful people went to such extensive and allegedly felonious lengths to prevent women from telling the truth about what men did to them. Daniels is the first woman to take the stand in the hush-money trial. That’s partly because the people who arranged the catch and kill scheme were all men.

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