The President and the Porn Star: A Story’s Slow Rise Above the Din

WASHINGTON — If a porn-tinged hush payment falls in a news din already torqued to maximum volume, does it make a sound?

It seems to be getting there, despite North Korean intervention. And this much is becoming clear: There is no hiding from the tale of the president and the porn star.

“Porn actress,” Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist, amended. “People go straight to ‘porn star.’ I like to see a few awards before you use that moniker.”

Stephanie Clifford has more than a few of those, actually (although an internet search for the particulars is not recommended). She also has leverage. Less clear, at this point, is how much — and how much President Trump will be made to answer for it.

Comeuppance is a complicated subject in this presidency. Here is a leader who crowds out scandal with more scandal, who tends to insist that the buck stops elsewhere, who boasted of sexual assault on tape and got to the White House anyway. It is not quite that nothing sticks to Mr. Trump; it is that so much sticks that nothing stays visible for very long.

For nearly two months, since The Wall Street Journal first revealed an October 2016 payment to Ms. Clifford (known on screen as Stormy Daniels), the story had subsisted on the margins of national consciousness — a consequence, it seemed, of both the daily Trumpian overload and a wide-scale confusion over what, exactly, the whole affair amounted to. Was it tragedy or farce? Serious or sideshow? Was it all of them, leaving us paralyzed by the choice?

“You almost could float two irreconcilable theories: It’s either too outrageous to be covered, or there’s just too much else that’s important,” said Nancy Gibbs, the former editor in chief of Time magazine, leaning toward the second option. Either way, she noted, the episode had not blossomed into a mega-scandal.

The facts are these: Ms. Clifford was paid $130,000 just before the 2016 election in what she calls a “hush agreement” to conceal a sexual relationship that began in 2006. The White House has denied the affair. Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, has acknowledged making the payment himself. Last week, Mr. Cohen secretly obtained a restraining order to prevent Ms. Clifford, who claimed that the agreement had been breached, from speaking publicly about Mr. Trump.

 

 

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