Stormy Daniels is playing Donald Trump at his own game.
The adult movie star, who claims she had an affair with Trump and was paid $130,000 to stay quiet before the election by the President’s lawyer, has drawn the White House into a politically damaging sexual melodrama.
Daniels turned her case from a side show muffled by multiple controversies battering the administration into a West Wing headache using methods that Trump, the high priest of self publicity, would recognize.
Building buzz with the garish theatrics of a reality show protagonist and offering suggestive interviews that hinted at hidden bombshells, Daniels then weaponized the courts to target a foe who has no desire to fight.
That’s how White House press secretary Sarah Sanders found herself sparring Wednesday with reporters demanding to know if her boss was trying to silence the porn star after an alleged liaison a decade ago.
Her answers only prolonged the drama and exacerbated its political toll. Trump was furious with Sanders over her responses on Wednesday, a source close to the White House told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
“Sarah gave the Stormy Daniels storyline steroids yesterday,” the source said.
Among the questions left hanging on Thursday morning: Did Trump’s team try to stop a damaging scandal emerge just before the 2016 election? Did Trump know about the payment himself? Is the President still involved in what Daniels’ lawyer says is an ongoing attempt to intimidate her?
If the mess isn’t cleared up soon, it could ding Trump’s already compromised image ahead of midterm elections that are crucial to his political fate.
There is so far no evidence of wrongdoing by the President and he has denied the alleged affair.
But as details emerge of a covert litigation battle between Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen and Daniels’ representatives, Trump, already fuming at a special counsel probe, could find himself in yet more legal peril.
New lines of inquiry
Uncharacteristically, Sanders did not simply deflect questions about the case to one of Trump’s lawyers Wednesday, a skill she’s largely perfected.
Instead, she inadvertently opened new lines of inquiry by startling journalists by offering fresh information.
“This case has already been won in arbitration,” she said, before belatedly directing further questions to “outside counsel.”
Her explanation was more unequivocal than the facts suggest.
The breakthrough that Cohen’s own lawyer secured on his behalf was merely a temporary restraining order against Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, rather than a conclusive victory.
When Sanders was asked whether the President knew about the payment to Daniels before the election, she replied “not that I am aware of,” a statement that fell well short of a full denial and only raised more questions.
She also maintained that the “American people were aware of this, voted for the President.”
That was not true since although voters did know about Trump’s alleged affairs and allegations of harassment against him, the story about Daniels only broke in January when it was reported in The Wall Street Journal.
The upshot of the briefing – more ammunition to keep the story churning.
While Sanders undeniably had a distasteful duty, two sources close to the White House told CNN’s Jim Acosta that they were surprised how Sanders handled the issue.
“It was sloppy,” one said. The other source pointed out, “they acknowledged something people didn’t notice in paperwork yesterday.”
In effect, Sanders broke the news that Cohen last week won an order from an arbitrator to temporarily stop Daniels talking about the alleged affair.
Cohen who told the Journal in January that he had “facilitated” the payment, argued that Daniels had breached the non-disclosure agreement she signed weeks before the 2016 election.
But in a suit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles, Daniels contended the contract was invalid because it was never signed by Trump.
The Daniels lawsuit also contends that Cohen initiated a “bogus arbitration” hearing against her without notifying her beforehand.
A copy of the restraining order against Daniels obtained by CNN confirms that the judge made a “one-party” ruling that did not require her to be notified – raising questions about the tactics used by Cohen, if not their legality.
Wherever the truth lies in this legal imbroglio, the fact that it is being talked about at all spells bad news for the White House.
Beyond the embarrassment for Trump, and potentially his wife Melania, it also will force Republican lawmakers to answer questions on the issue at a time when their relationship with the President is under fresh strain.
A slippery legal and political slope
The longer the episode lingers, the most likely it will become an issue for Trump and the GOP in the midterms.
While Trump’s legendary base is always unmoved by his scandals, he is potentially vulnerable among independent voters and more traditional Republicans who voted for him in 2016.
The case will worry Republican strategists, who have watched the President’s fortunes tumble among a key sector of the electorate – women.
Trump carried white women voters over Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016, but trails potential 2020 Democratic re-election foes by double figures among the same demographic, according to a recent CNN/SSRS poll.
Trump won 61% of white women without a college degree in 2016, according to exit polls; but his approval rating among them dipped to 48% in the full year 2017 average of Gallup polling. Among college-educated white women, he fell from 44% in 2016 to an ominous 32% average approval rating last year, according to CNN political columnist Ronald Brownstein.
Female voters are tipped for a key role in suburban districts that could swing the House to Democrats in November.
And politics may not be Trump’s only concern.
Down the road, any effort to compel Trump’s testimony in the case could open new peril for a President who shades the truth and is causing his lawyers sleepless nights about his desire to testify to special counsel Robert Mueller.
After all, lying under oath in a case that originated from an extramarital relationship is what got President Bill Clinton impeached.