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Laws, Shmaws: Conservatives Contort Selves to Paint Trump as Winner in Manafort-Cohen Cases

It seems like a long, long time ago that conservatives were America’s “law and order” people. Last Tuesday’s revelation that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had flipped and was implicating Trump in hush money payments — along with the multiple guilty verdicts obtained against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — had the brethren talking down The Man and hatching novel legal defenses like so many jailhouse lawyers.

Manafort’s conviction on eight out of eighteen charges of tax fraud, bank fraud, and financial-reporting irregularities in the first jury trial brought by Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller — with a second Manafort trial coming up fast — would seem to be bad enough news for Trump, suggesting as it does that Mueller has plenty in the tank for future prosecutions that could be dangerous for the president. But Cohen’s admission — he stated in court that “a candidate for federal office” (plainly Trump) directed him to pay off adult entertainer Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal, and that he had done so “for the principal purpose of influencing the election” — might be interpreted as evidence of a campaign finance violation.

The Manafort and Cohen reports came within minutes of each other, and some conservatives didn’t take the initial shock well. “SO WHEN ARE THEY GONG AFTER ALL THE PEOPLE WHO LIED ABOUT BENGHAZI ONLINE AT THE DIRECTION OF BARRACK OBAMA TO PREVENT HIS LOSING THE 2012 ELECTION?” raved a nostalgic Sarah Hoyt at Instapundit. “But Democrats also have to ask themselves, do they want President Pence? Because that’s what you get if you manage to get rid of Trump,” wrote her colleague Glenn Reynolds, apparently going straight to the bargaining stage.

“If you get your information from the legacy media,” wrote Liz Shield at PJ Media, “you would think that Cohen put the nail in Trump’s coffin with his guilty plea, ‘admitting’ that the president directed him to pay off some (alleged) blackmailing trollops with campaign money. The #resistance is all worked up now because they think this is actually going to happen. When it doesn’t happen, they are going to be angry and, as we have seen, violent.” Clearly these charges were a secret message from Robert Mueller to unleash antifa riots across America. You won’t read that in legacy media!

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But once the initial shock passed, everyone went to their battle stations: The more scholarly types set about splitting legal hairs (“regardless of what Cohen agreed to in a plea bargain, hush-money payments to mistresses are not really campaign expenditures”), while the dimmer lights told us how great this news was for Donald Trump.

“The press thinks yesterday was a bad day for the President. Actually, it was a good day for the President,” wrote Erick Erickson at the Resurgent. In fact, he continued, it “probably helps Trump in 2020,” because even “to the extent this causes voters to put Democrats in charge of the House, it gives the President some group he can more easily vilify.” Now all Trump has to do is lose both houses of Congress by a veto-proof majority, and he’ll have the Democrats right where he wants them.

At the Washington Examiner, Byron York also found Manafort’s conviction good news for Trump: After all, “Manafort was convicted of shady dealing going back a long way. His behavior had been examined by the Obama Justice Department, which took no action against him. It was only because Manafort hooked up with Trump…that Manafort got caught and his foreign money schemes exposed.” So, from a certain perspective, Manafort is Obama’s fault, and the Trump presidency resulted in his conviction. Also, said York, Manafort’s case had given the public “a glimpse into what Washington influence peddlers have gotten away with for decades” — and isn’t Trump all about draining the swamp?

Various volunteer legal advisers used their media venues to tell the president he could beat the rap. Radio shouter Mark Levin, for example, compared Trump’s payoffs to former sexual partners with hypothetical payoffs to “vendors” or “a disgruntled employee,” which in Levin’s view would be “perfectly legal” — though he didn’t stipulate whether, in these hypothetical situations, Trump had also fucked the vendors or disgruntled employee and was trying to keep that a secret for political purposes. (But from what former Trump doorman Dino Sajudin has been telling the press, we may get to test that scenario soon enough.)

At the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway viewed the events of the week from a moral rather than legal perspective, making them easier to spin. On Manafort’s and Cohen’s tax frauds, Hemingway gently chided, “Nobody likes paying onerous taxes, but the way to fight high taxes is through political means, not by lying to the federal government” — as if Manafort and Cohen were conscientious objectors to IRS regulations rather than tax cheats.

Hemingway then redirected her readers’ attention to what she apparently thinks is the real problem: a lack of faith in the justice system, caused by the prosecution of Republicans. “A big problem for federal prosecutors,” she claimed, “is that public trust in their application of the rule of law is low because of how they handle political cases.” Hemingway cited no metric for measuring the “public trust” of prosecutors, which is probably wise, considering how high Robert Mueller’s poll numbers are right now.

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As for Trump paying off co-adulterers, Hemingway allowed that “adultery is wrong” and “spouses are called to live a sexually pure and decent life in what they say and do.” She no doubt hopes Trump has learned a valuable lesson, or at least will say that he has at the next fundamentalist group hug.

At Reason, Clark Nelly predicted that “Trump will emerge from the Michael Cohen kerfuffle more powerful, more energized, and more electable than he was going in,” because “given how complex and abstruse campaign finance laws are, can any candidates be 100 percent confident they committed zero violations?” Surely Joe Sixpack will be able to relate to this legal dilemma.

At American Greatness, Roger Kimball did a J’Accuse over the grave injustice done Manafort and Cohen. “Like a cat toying with an injured mouse, the modern major prosecutor keeps batting his prey about till he stops moving altogether,” he wrote. “For wretched power-drunk commissars like Robert Mueller, the process, because of the punishment, is all the fun. They enjoy tormenting people.” Watch for the day Kimball says anything so sympathetic about a victim of overzealous prosecution who is not a rich, white fixer for Republicans; when it comes, commission a skating rink in Hell.

It got to the point where NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch was telling people with a straight face that prosecutors were “trying to Al Capone the president,” referring to the gangster’s famous conviction for tax evasion rather than for greater crimes the feds couldn’t make stick. She got a lot of ribbing for that (“Some other resonances between Trump and Al Capone”), but, from the point of view of Trump supporters, it makes sense: It was always obvious that, one way or the other, the criminally connected Trump would wind up in legal trouble as president; the only question is whether he can get off. As more Trump associates flip, his fans seem to think raising the noise-to-signal ratio will help — perhaps by raising the specter of a popular “revolt,” as Rudy Giuliani tried to do. But if they want to convince normal people that their leader should be above the law, they’re going to have to come up with more compelling material.

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9-11 Cover Boy No More: Giuliani Transitions to Total Trumpkin

It has been suggested that the long list of formerly semi-respectable Republicans who have debased themselves before loutish grifter Donald Trump, as well as the current crop of Republican candidates who ape his style, show that Trump has corrupted the Party. While there is much to recommend this theory, it misses the significant fact that many, perhaps most — oh, hell, all — key members of the Party, and the conservative movement for which it serves as host body, actually came pre-ruined.

Proof of this can be seen in the recent antics of former “America’s mayor” and current Trump mouthpiece Rudy Giuliani, and the weird, embarrassed reaction of conservatives to his behavior.

The media-proclaimed hero of 9-11 cut quite a swath last week, first revealing in an interview with Trump courtier Sean Hannity that the president had refunded hapless Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for the hush money he’d provided to Trump’s alleged mistress Stormy Daniels, which revelation was highly suggestive of illegalities. Debate ensued as to what Giuliani was thinking. Trump, without disavowing Giuliani’s assertion, claimed he would “get his facts straight.” Then Giuliani ran out and said a bunch of other crazy shit.

It may shock younger readers to learn the pop-eyed goblin on their TV had been, less than a dozen years earlier, the Republican frontrunner for the presidency of the United States. Giuliani was then lauded for presiding as mayor over the beginning of New York’s crime-rate drop — a drop that began before he took office, has persisted long after his tenure, despite abandonment of his most notoriously draconian techniques — and for keeping his shit together during 9-11; but eventually Republicans remembered that as mayor he had been a gun-grabber and noticed that he sounded less sincere in denouncing abortion than propriety demanded, and also that he was a bit creepy, whereupon his candidacy collapsed.

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Giuliani then devoted himself to self-enrichment, appearing only at intervals to pimp other Republicans — but never more enthusiastically, indeed orgasmically, as when Trump, his former drag-act partner, became the GOP nominee. He has spoken for Trump since, his most noteworthy appearance being one in which he appeared to hint that Wikileaks had tipped the Trump campaign to their Hillary e-mails payload — that is, until he blindsided Hannity with the payoff story.

Some Trumpkins tried at first to spin this as Good News for the usual reasons. “The media and the left are going berserk over this interview,” wrote Liz Sheld of PJ Media. “So if you think Trump watched last night and saw lunacy, you have it wrong. He saw the wartime consigliere he wants. /END,” tweeted Commentary editor John Podhoretz. (Then Podhoretz jumped back to add, “One more tweet: Rudy is not acting as Trump’s lawyer,” an analysis not generally shared but possibly retained by Trump fans as a sophistic defense for some future crime.)

Some high-profile Trump fans were nonplussed. National Review’s normally tenacious Trumpkin Andrew McCarthy confessed confusion at Trump going “hammer and tongs” at “small stuff” like Stormy Daniels when he should be relentlessly attacking special counsel Robert Mueller. McCarthy suggested Trump didn’t want to admit guilt, not because he wasn’t guilty — come on, we’re all grownups here — but because “the rules of the game are that Democrats get away with murder while Republicans get murdered,” so Trump had to fear receiving “the Dinesh D’Souza treatment” — that is, actual if modest punishment for campaign finance violations. (The idea of Trump in a run-down halfway house is, I must admit, piquant.)

Eventually Giuliani released a gnomic three-point statement apparently meant to reflect his fact-straightening. “Giuliani clarifies statements on Stormy payment, Comey firing,” Fox News dutifully reported; an equally sympathetic New York Post called him a “legal newbie.” But the former mayor was treated like a crackpot by most other sources — including not only liberal outlets like ThinkProgress (“Giuliani tries to fix disastrous interview tour, continues to make things worse”) but also conservative ones like Canada’s National Post (“Rudy Giuliani confounds and contradicts…bewildering display”).

Giuliani went on making strange assertions in a variety of forums: telling Judge Jeanine Pirro that, while “not an expert on the facts” in the matters he’d been sent on TV to discuss, he could nonetheless assert “there’s no way this was a campaign finance violation of any kind”; telling George Stephanopoulos that Trump might have paid off other sex partners, and could very well just blow off any Mueller subpoena with a Fifth Amendment plea; and telling a group of Iranian exiles that Trump would renege on the Iran treaty (Giuliani “pantomimed spitting on a piece of paper meant to represent the 2015 nuclear accord, drawing raucous cheers,” reported Bloomberg News).

Some conservatives tried to laugh all this off while offering vague defenses which, they made clear, ought not be taken too seriously lest they explode with the next Rudy appearance.

“New theory: Rudy’s a Democratic plant,” chortled Hot Air’s Allahpundit before shrugging, “What else is he supposed to say when asked if other women were paid off?” — “no” apparently not being an option. “If you’re Rudy,” Allahpundit went on, “there’s no one you can trust to tell you the honest truth about other payoffs. Trump would deny it no matter what, even to his own lawyers.” Apparently not working for a client who constantly hangs you out to dry with falsehoods isn’t an option either.

Some true Trumpkins stood fast. At The Federalist, David Marcus argued that “Rudy Giuliani Knows Exactly What He’s Doing” because as “a bare-knuckles brawler in the rings of both politics and litigation,” Giuliani was “laying down a marker,” demanding of Mueller: “Show your cards. Put up or shut up.”

How was this bare-knuckled hand of cards supposed to force Mueller’s hand? Apart from an assertion that “most Americans would like to see his cards,” a matter unproven and in any case probably of little importance to the stalwart special counsel, Marcus proffered only further macho signifiers as evidence. For example, he portrayed Giuliani butchly asking Mueller “what do you got?” — adding, “it is asked with a New York swagger” — because Giuliani knows Mueller has “bubkis.” Giuliani always “played offense,” Marcus continued, and has “chosen his own ground to fight on and winked at his opponents and detractors, begging them to take the first shot. Come at me is his mantra.” Perhaps the real strategy is to cover Trump’s tracks with a carpet of testosterone.

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The saddest of the lot — and by that I mean funniest — were NeverTrumpers who somehow had the impression Giuliani was better than this and had unexpectedly betrayed their trust.

“To be a prelapsarian conservative in America today — as that creed was understood before 2016 — means getting used to heartbreak,” lamented neocon Max Boot at the Washington Post. Boot paid tribute to the “conservatives that I have admired and respected” who also “failed the Trump test” — intoning “Paul D. Ryan, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Bill Bennett, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker” as a lone bell rang in the distance — and told any readers who had not already fled gagging about how Rudy Saved New York from the days of “no radio” car signs, and that “if New Yorkers are being driven out [now], it’s due to high real-estate prices, not urban decay,” which Boot probably considers a twofer.

But with his latest outrageous statements, mourned Boot, Giuliani had damaged his legacy: “One can only imagine,” he asks, “what Mayor Giuliani would have said if someone had called the cops ‘stormtroopers’ — the epithet that he has now applied to his former law-enforcement colleagues who are investigating the president’s personal lawyer.”

Depends — would there have been a career advantage in agreeing with it? If not, no; if so, yes. It’s not hard to figure this stuff out unless you’re sentimental, or in on the con.

While Boot was wetting the Post with his tears, elsewhere at that paper Giuliani was telling reporters he and other members of the administration “all feel pretty good that we’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda…. Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do.”

I believe he means this — not in the sense that people were actually assured everything is fine at the White House, but in the sense that he and Trump had demonstrated that it didn’t matter what Trump had done, nor what anyone thought about it. And so Rudy goes into the history books — assuming, perhaps optimistically, that we’re still going to have them.

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What Men Don’t Get About Stormy Daniels

On Sunday night at Nowhere Bar, the 60 Minutes watchers were transfixed — not by Stormy Daniels, but by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has eyes as blue as glacial ice and a chin that could slice fine cheese. The rugged attorney’s popularity was not necessarily a surprise — Nowhere is an epicenter of gay arts and culture in the East Village — but by the end of the hour Stormy had drummed up plenty of affection of her own, the love partly fueled by her namesake cocktail, a Dark & Stormy–like mix of Jack Daniel’s and ginger beer.

In the subterranean crimson environs of Nowhere — with its advertisements for trans-masculine pool night and RuPaul viewing parties — the biggest frustration was CBS’s spillover of college basketball into the 60 Minutes hour, March Madness infringing on march madness. The room filled slowly between six and seven, with fashionable young men and a few of their female companions, and the general mood was one of eager anticipation. There was to be a dance party afterward, with all DJ proceeds benefiting the Sex Workers Project, which provides legal aid to sex workers and victims of human trafficking. The group Rise and Resist was also taking the opportunity to sell “Impeach” hats. 

“I take seriously the idea that this president thinks the wealthy are above the law,” said Emily, 36. “And also, this is really entertaining.”

Her friend Mike, 39, in a purple tee and salt-and-pepper stubble, sipping on a Stormy Daniels, added: “To oppose Trump, you just have to have no shame at all.”

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When Anderson Cooper came on, to the familiar tick-tick-tick of the venerable news show’s theme, there was a purr of appreciation. Cooper seemed far less comfortable facing a self-possessed porn star in an ill-fitting button-down shirt than he does standing handsomely in disaster zones — I felt a twinge of regret that the great Lesley Stahl hadn’t been summoned to this task — but Stormy managed a few great lines, despite him.

Describing her brief courtship with the Donald, Daniels said she was unimpressed by his legendary self-regard. “Like, I was, ‘Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?’ ” Stormy said she told Trump, during their getting-to-know-you dinner. “I don’t think anyone’s ever spoken to him like that, especially, you know, a young woman who looked like me.”

At that, the bar erupted into cheers, and her narrative of spanking Trump with a magazine bearing his own face was greeted with similar enthusiasm. It seemed clear that Stormy was putting a new face to sex work for America: a spiky, thoughtful, unabashed one, demanding to be the subject, not the object, of her narrative. A thrum of pained recognition played over the faces of the few women in the crowd when Daniels described her initial encounter with Trump:

“I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. 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.’ ”

It was all very 2018: very Cat Person, very Babe.net’s Aziz Ansari exposé, very of the moment, one in which so many women have come to terms with the sexual encounters they have had in which their own enthusiasm never surfaced, because it was never required. And this was a sex worker speaking — a figure to whom subjectivity and desire is rarely attributed in American culture, and this, in and of itself, seemed like a quietly radical moment.

When Daniels revealed that, in 2011, a thug had threatened her as she toted her new baby to a workout class — explicitly citing Trump’s name — an uncharacteristic hush fell over the raucous, queer crowd.

As in Stormy’s striptease act, which I wrote about for this publication, little about her initial sexual encounter with Trump was left to the imagination — but what was omitted was the crucial element: Did she have documentation? She was coy about it in the interview, to groans from the gathered barflies, even as her wit, and her genuine grievance with the powerful men she had challenged, came vividly to the surface.

But overall, Cooper seemed more bent on challenging Daniels’s credibility than Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s, despite the undoubted seediness and general strangeness of the latter’s actions. The infamous $130,000 payment was discussed at length, as was the oddity of Cohen’s personal provision of the funds. A helpful campaign-finance expert explained, with a straight face, that it was not standard practice for attorneys to pay six figures in hush money on behalf of their clients, let alone, as the White House’s story goes, without any coordination between attorney and client. The serious underpinning of the Stormy Daniels affair, the segment’s framing seemed to indicate, was about potential campaign-finance violations; the sex itself, the subsequent silencing, was ancillary.

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Frustrating as this was, I floated, for a time, on a vodka-and-pineapple-juice sea, into the joyous, dancing crowd — and then out again into the frigid New York night. I stopped by Papaya Dog to have a snack sanctioned by Stormy, who had suggested “tacos and mini corn dogs” as viewing-night refreshments. (I had to make do with a regular-sized corn dog, as tiny ones weren’t readily available.)

It was only when I got home, and started reading the takes male pundits had put forth blithely into the world, that I started wanting to stab someone in the eye with a sharpened pigeon femur.

The requisite reaction for the self-identified enlightened individual, it seemed, was ennui. Oh, a woman is being sued in federal court for $20 million by a sitting president for speaking about an affair he claims never happened? Ho-hum. La-di-da.

To be clear, I’m not particularly *interested* in any aspects of the Stormy Daniels story,” tweeted Matt Yglesias of Vox, as if prurience were an indulgence of the unintelligent. The story, he continued, is about “serious violations of campaign finance law!”

“Everybody who’s interested in the Stormy Daniels story is interested in it for the sex/gossip,” opined Nate Silver, who would presumably prefer we all focused on statehouse gerrymandering in Idaho.

“Buzz kill warning….just read entire 60 minutes transcript. Kinda non-plussed by it all. Feel like there are no surprises, nothing new here. Think I will watch basketball,” wrote Michael Smerconish, right-leaning radio commentator on SiriusXM.

After reading tweet after tweet, I began to feel I was levitating out of my body, borne up on an electric surge of pure feminist rage. What had they watched? What had they seen? Were they really incapable of imagining a world in which not everyone had read Stormy Daniels’s 2011 In Touch interview (or, more likely, a summary of it in the Washington Post)? In a year ushered in by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, had they learned nothing about the abusive, coercive power of the NDA? Were they really “meh” about a sixty-year-old man comparing a twenty-seven-year-old female sex partner to his own daughter — a claim echoed by another sex worker–turned-mistress on CNN last week? Were they really so blasé about a president’s emissaries issuing mobster threats to babies?

If these pundits were to be heeded, the cult of unshockability — the pose of permanent, dry unsurprise — had reached such a parodic nadir that one was not permitted to react with feeling to a smart, witty woman risking bankruptcy to speak out about being physically threatened and legally intimidated by a president and his cronies. That would be gauche.

At the end of the day, this scandal — like so many Trump scandals — is about the abuse of power. A man who was an intimate of Roy Cohn and who dealt extensively in concrete in the 1980s might be expected to have a more-than-glancing familiarity with mob intimidation tactics; that he might have used them on a woman he’d had sex with is still shocking. That he is suing her in federal court (again, to suppress an affair he claims never happened) is abusive in another way entirely. A rich man’s resources are his power; a woman’s words are hers, and as Nowhere’s event description put it, “Stormy Daniels is outmaneuvering what’s-his-name at every turn.”

 

The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.

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Court Ruling Could Open Floodgates on Trump Assault Claims

In a State Supreme Court hearing last December, over a defamation lawsuit against Donald Trump filed by a former Apprentice contestant who claims he assaulted her, the president’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz insisted of his motion to dismiss, “The motion today has nothing to do with putting anyone above the law.”

Justice Jennifer Schecter, it turns out, has no intention of giving the president special treatment. “No one is above the law,” she wrote in a decision, released Tuesday, to allow Summer Zervos’s lawsuit to move forward. In a filing just days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Zervos accused the former reality-TV host of “us[ing] his national and international bully pulpit to make false factual statements to denigrate and verbally attack Ms. Zervos and the other women who publicly reported his sexual assaults in October 2016.”

However the lawsuit is ultimately resolved, allowing lawyers to depose Trump over sexual assault allegations could provide reams of previously undisclosed information about our dear leader’s pre-presidential affairs.

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In December, Kasowitz argued before Justice Schecter that a state court has no jurisdiction over a sitting president — and also that Trump’s denigration of Zervos and other women who accused his client of sexual assault during the 2016 election constituted protected political speech under the First Amendment. In her ruling, Justice Schecter dismissed both arguments, writing that the president has “no immunity,” and citing the 1997 United States Supreme Court ruling that allowed Paula Jones to sue then-president Bill Clinton. She also noted that, contra Kasowitz, permitting Zervos’s suit to go forward would not curtail the president’s official duties.

Zervos is now one member of an unlikely troika of bombshells — in both senses of the word — who just may be the president’s undoing. She’s joined by Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, the porn actor-director who is suing Trump to get out of a “hush agreement” she signed in October 2016: In exchange for $130,000, Clifford says, she agreed to keep quiet about an affair she had with Trump in 2006, shortly after his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son.

And now, a former Playboy model named Karen McDougal who also claims to have had an affair with Trump is launching her own legal challenge to a similar agreement she signed in 2016. McDougal is suing the National Enquirer’s parent company, whose chief executive is a buddy of Trump’s, and which paid the model $150,000 to keep quiet about her relationship with the president.

The goal of all three lawsuits seems clear: to get Trump’s dirty dealings out of the shadows and into the light, for all the world to see. Justice Schecter’s decision means Zervos’s lawyers — who include Gloria Allred — can subpoena documents, and it opens the door for other women who have accused Trump of sexual assault to testify. On Sunday, 60 Minutes plans to air a previously taped interview between Clifford and Anderson Cooper — an interview the president’s lawyers have tried to block the show from airing. Yesterday, it was announced that Cooper would also interview McDougal, on CNN on Thursday night. Whatever happens next, these women aren’t going anywhere, and they’re not shutting up.

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Stormy, With a Chance of MAGA

It’s after midnight on a Thursday in the heart of Long Island, and I’m staring at a prominent pair of pebbled pink nipples that might have been seen by the president of the United States.

At Gossip NY strip club — or “place for gentlemen,” as the purple neon sign outside would have it — you can smoke indoors, something I haven’t done in New York in years. Everywhere there are fat, stubby cigars, and fat, stubby men smoking them. The light is dim; the air is thick; the room is filled with journalists and sex workers, the former group mingling uneasily with the latter, and all of us have been waiting for hours for Stormy Daniels to appear.  

At 38, Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, has more than just an allegation of a hushed-up affair to her name: She has 419 credits on Imdb, including 78 as a director, and a legion of fans that predate her alleged involvement with one Donald John Trump. Nonetheless, it is the latter — the profound incongruity of arriving at a strip-mall strip club in order to potentially better understand the occupant of the Oval Office — that has drawn a mild scrum of press, and some genuine Long Islanders, to these pulsating purple environs. Upon entry, two separate signs implore us to make tipping and Thursdays great again, respectively. 

For several hours prior to Stormy’s performance, the ratio of journalists to strippers is nearly one to one; with the exception of me and a Dutch journalist named Karlijn who arrives with her hair in a severe bun, they are all male — the New York Post, the Daily News, Bild, the U.K.’s IndependentNewsday. Occasionally men sitting on the black leather couches that line the periphery of the room’s main space get lap dances. I wonder if any of them are my erstwhile professional colleagues, like the anonymized “member of the news media” in the New York Times’ story on the launch of Stormy’s tour who assented to “all right — one.” I feel even more like an overgrown potato with a bad wig than usual. Only one woman was quoted in the Washington Post’s write-up of the same event — a woman in the audience who said it was “demeaning” that the first lady had posed naked. On stage at Gossip, a dancer comes out in a black half-skirt, then sheds it to reveal a plum-sized bruise on her pale thigh.

 The one unqualified good thing you can say about tonight’s event, which instantly strikes me as one kind of nadir of American absurdity, is that it has nothing to do with school shootings. There are no dead children involved whatsoever. Which, frankly, makes it an acceptable, even excellent, departure from the news all week, with its ghoulish, Swiftian proposals to give teachers guns. Since 2015, all of us have been required to measure and remeasure what we consider to be grotesque, the full anatomy of the term, its gorgonic depths. On the scale from armed educators to the gilded profiteering of Mar-a-Lago, an affair with a porn star barely rates; this is less seedy underbelly, more bared midriff. I get a $16 drink and settle in to wait.

Here are some people I talk to while waiting for Stormy Daniels, our pneumatic American Godot.

There’s Regina, a statuesque 26-year-old dancer from Moscow. We speak in Russian; her English isn’t great, as she arrived in America less than a year ago. She has never heard of Stormy Daniels. 

Ana, who arrived from Portugal five days ago, and whose braces, so incongruous here, hurt my heart. I wonder how she got here, to this squat gray place between a Popeyes and a Bank of America. Her shoulders are bare.

Natalie and Evelyn, two “model-servers” in scraps of lace, who told me they heard about Stormy last week, when their bosses emailed them the Wall Street Journal article that first broke the story. “I think it’s pretty cool,” Evelyn says.

There’s a father-son duo here, who decline to give their names, but to my untrained eye, the son looks like a teenager. The son says he is here because of “inexperience,” and his father buys him a lap dance, out in the main room and not in the curtained-off VIP lounge in the back. The father looks on proudly while his son cups a stripper’s butt, and they leave before Stormy arrives.

John, 56, won’t give his last name. He has a broad, soft build, a Key Club membership to Gossip, and is sitting in one of the cushy armchairs abutting the stage; gold chains adorn his neck and wrists, and the top buttons of his shirt are open, showing a swathe of wisp-haired chest. He is a big Trump supporter, and he “can’t wait” for Stormy, although he says her alleged affair with Trump might be “fake news.”

“I met Melania and was awed by her beauty,” he says. “But maybe she was pregnant with — what’s the kid’s name? — when he cheated. We’ll see when Stormy comes out if it was worth it for the Donald.”

At least one journalist is very drunk. I am only mildly drunk and consider this a win. A security guard the size of an industrial refrigerator briefly impounds my phone after I try to snap a covert photo and I am bereft. The strippers onstage are doing aerial pole-top acrobatics in heels, and a man with an enormous broom is sweeping dollars offstage in their wake.

At last, it’s midnight, and I await my tardy, brazen Cinderella. Sixteen minutes later, an announcer booms that the next guest has a “unique perspective on the president of the United States.” Then Stormy Daniels herself struts onstage — there is no other verb for it — in a cape and dirndl, to “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, from 1966.

“What full lips you have/They’re sure to lure someone bad,” Sam sings. The cape, and then the dirndl, are shed in turn. More accoutrements emerge: a black leather bustier, then a nifty red sparkly bra-and-panty set. Stormy’s breasts emerge, a duo with plenty of stage presence and extensive experience in showbiz. She can, it turns out, twitch them on command, and, apparently, juggle them.

At this point, Stormy leans over and seems to absorb an audience member into the capacious gap between her cleavage, then releases him. She douses her mostly nude self in lotion, and the place suddenly smells oddly maternal and soothing. A gray army blanket that looks rather dismal and barrackish is laid on the slick stage, and she writhes on it, patting her crotch repeatedly, as if it needs to be soothed. A man showers her in dollar bills, and they adhere to her moistened skin, adorning her body like a capitalist quilt. I would like to be an Allen Ginsberg type and use these seamy surroundings to take the pulse of my country, but everything is too obvious to be a metaphor.

The whole routine is less than ten minutes long, and at least three of the dances are set to Whitesnake. She retreats to a backstage I can only imagine. A dancer named Eva, of Russian extraction, tells me she thinks the routine was dated and unimpressive. I do not feel knowledgeable enough to agree, but none of the songs came from this millennium.  

When I approach Stormy in a corner of the main room — amid an absolutely overwhelming knot of a dozen or so photographers and skinny journalists and tipsy members of the general public — she is a consummate professional, with cheekbones that could slice prosciutto. I ask her, “Did you have sex with Donald Trump?” No, she responds, but coquettishly, after a dangling pause. We take one selfie with flash and one without.

And then it’s done, and we can go. What have I learned? My eardrums throb. I have spoken to a woman who might have had sex with a president, and I have seen her dance. Her next stop is North Hollywood; further down the line, Shreveport, Louisiana; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Detroit. I wonder who else will come to smell a kind of abstract proximity to power, as well as a significant amount of lotion. I step out at last into the cold, foggy night, into Donald J. Trump’s America, and mine.

 

The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.