If there has been a single, unbroken theme spanning President Donald Trump’s 14 months in office, it’s been his inability to stay quiet, even when silence would seem to serve him best.
And yet, for more than two months, Trump has meticulously avoided personally addressing his alleged 2006 affair – and his lawyer’s role in covering it up before the 2016 election – with adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
The streak is not unprecedented. On the advice of attorneys, Trump refrained – for about a year – from dropping special counsel Robert Mueller’s name into his Twitter current. And like so many of his predecessors, he embraces certain metrics, like a booming stock market, until their fates reverse, and the index levels. For the President, that’s about as rigorous as the messaging gets.
Which is all the more reason Trump, in keeping buttoned up about Daniels, is turning political pundits sideways. What does it mean?, we can’t help but wonder – then ask, and ask again, before gathering together at bar stools and in green rooms to debate with each other. The stats suggest a gap between interest, of which there is demonstrably plenty, and caring: Trump’s poll numbers are bad but up a bit in the latest CNN survey.
The fact is that, as far as Trump’s behavior goes, there is no clear cut answer. Implications, though, we’ve drawn a few.
Michael Avenatti, Daniels’ lawyer, appears keenly aware that this – the guessing – is a good thing for him and his client. He’s doing his job, working himself to the bone to keep the story in the headlines. (No mean feat in the Trump era.) A strangely magnetic television presence, shape-shifting seamlessly between the solicitous and aggrieved, one gets the sense, in part because he’s pushed it, that Avenatti is playing with a bottomless deck.
Trump’s political enemies and critics burble wishfully over Daniels’ lawyer’s tactics and stagecraft. Finally, someone with the wits to pin down the President! And what’s on those discs Avenatti tweeted as a warning ahead of the 60 Minutes interview, anyway? (Something crazy and nothing at all are running at even money for now.) It feels like a page out of Trump’s playbook; remember when he teased tapes of his conversations with James Comey? In a different time, in another life, Avenatti would have made a formidable “Apprentice” candidate.
Good faith entry into this story, for commentators and viewers alike, is a two-step process. First, one should be sure that the subject matter is, when considered against whatever else is bubbling up in the news, a worthy priority. (And even then, it’s probably best taken in doses.)
From there, it’s on to step No. 2: the particulars.
The accusation, made by Daniels during her 60 Minutes appearance, that she was physically threatened years ago as she considered telling her story, is undeniably relevant. As are the set of circumstances that led Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, to pay Daniels $130,000 in hush money, drawn from his own purse, days out from the 2016 election.
Because Trump’s unusual quiet predated Sunday night’s accusation of a violent threat against Daniels, the payment would seem to be the thing. (Again, everyone has a theory.) Cohen’s story is simple, yet riddled with preposterous details. Perhaps Trump is concerned that engaging publicly would open new avenues of inquiry, like bringing Avenatti’s desire to depose him closer to reality?
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked why, given her frequent description of Trump as a counter-puncher, he’s pulling them now?
“I didn’t say he punches back on every single topic,” she responded. “If he did, he would probably be addressing a lot of the stories that most of you write every single minute of every single day. He also has a country to run, and he’s doing a great job with that.”
Again, this beggars belief. Or suggests we’re only an extended period of “executive time” away from that long-awaited rejoinder. A day later, she again refused to say whether Trump knew about Cohen’s largesse.
“Look, the President has denied the allegations. We’ve spoken about this issue extensively and I don’t have anything else to beyond that,” she said. “Anything beyond that I would refer you to the outside counsel.”
Denied them? Yes, through intermediaries – not with his own mouth, or phone, to the American public.
History tells us that Trump will eventually shake loose the current constraints. The real question, then, is where he takes the drama next. And that – the mystery, the waiting – is the meta-narrative prevailing over all the rest. Even when the President is quiet, there is sound and fury in his wake.