Caught With His Pants Down

What if the president just told the truth about Stormy Daniels?

Daniels—as possibly you’ve heard—is the porn star who claims to have had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump in 2006 and been paid $130,000 in hush money by Trump’s lawyer shortly before the 2016 election.

While Daniels maintained her silence through the campaign and the first year of Trump’s presidency, she has been singing like a canary as of late, divulging enough details about their Lake Tahoe tryst to keep comedy writers busy for months and provoking a rare silence from the perpetually pugilistic commander-in-chief.  Curiously, Trump hasn’t tweeted a single word about this story since it first broke on January 12.

Naturally, the president’s press secretary and legal team have disputed Daniels’s account on Trump’s behalf, claiming the alleged affair didn’t occur, while admitting the $130,000 payment—and an accompanying nondisclosure agreement—did.  The two parties have been suing each other ever since.

Legal maneuverings aside, deep down, every American knows Stormy Daniels is telling the truth.  First, because presidential candidates tend not to pay beautiful women six figures for sex they did not have.  Second, because the particulars of Daniels’s chronicle bear striking similarities to those of Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who has asserted a yearlong affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels’s.

Finally—and, by far, most importantly—we believe Trump had sex with a porn star one year into his third marriage because that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.  There is nothing we have gleaned from his character—or his public statements—that is inconsistent with anything Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last Sunday night, and in other interviews.  For his entire adult life—from “best sex I’ve ever had” to “grab ’em by the pussy”—Trump has proudly branded himself a boorish horndog of the highest order, and we have no reason to believe he has reformed himself since becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

So why not say so?  If you’re Trump, why go through the charade of pretending Daniels is part of some nefarious conspiracy—or is simply a lone wolf liar—when the truth is so much easier—and so much cheaper—to come by?  With Robert Mueller on the march and all the usual chaos enveloping the West Wing on a daily basis, is Stormy Daniels really a battle worth fighting—and, presumably, losing?

It was almost exactly 20 years ago when another skirt-chasing president stood in front of a phalanx of TV cameras and categorically denied accusations of a sexual dalliance with a White House intern.  Seven months—and several million dollars in legal fees—later, Bill Clinton reappeared in a prime time address to admit that, in fact, he’d been lying the whole time and Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth.  Whoops.

What prodded Clinton’s belated confession, you’ll recall, was not a sudden attack of conscience or a pang of moral responsibility as leader of the free world.  Rather, it was a grand jury deposition and a stained blue dress—two factors he was too arrogant to anticipate but which eventually proved a near-existential threat to his presidency.  He’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar with no good options for getting it out, and in the meantime, the entire country had to endure a full year of pointless political melodrama—complete with a special prosecutor—culminating in an equally pointless impeachment from which both Clinton and his antagonists emerged thoroughly embarrassed and without anything positive to show for it.

And all rooted in a single presidential lie that didn’t need to be told in the first place.

Is this the future Donald Trump wants for himself?  Does he believe he can improvise his way through this crisis as he has with every crisis that has come before?  Has he convinced himself that by telling a bald-faced lie with enough frequency, he can bend reality to his will and carry a hefty minority of the public along with him, up to and including re-election in 2020?

Perhaps he has, and perhaps he can.  Certainly Trump has proved more adept at conning his way up the success ladder than any political figure of our time.

And yet the world of depositions—where “truthful exaggeration” is called “perjury”—is different from the world of electoral politics, as Bill Clinton so salaciously discovered in 1998.  Trump, who has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits, presumably understands this distinction and, for all his supposed mental depreciation, possesses the wherewithal to find an escape hatch before this particular legal squabble reaches the point of no return.

Here’s a scenario for you:  Trump calls a press conference sometime in the near future and says to the American public, “It’s true that I had sexual relations with Stormy Daniels in 2006, and that my attorney paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.  I’d like to apologize to Melania for breaking the bonds of our marriage, and to the public for setting a poor example for our children.  I will try to be a better man and a better husband in the future, and will not waste the public’s time with petty litigation with Ms. Daniels, to whom I also apologize and wish all the best in her future endeavors.  I hope the American people can forgive me, and that we can now move on to the important business of making America great again.”

Does Donald Trump have it in him to make such a statement and mean it?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Petty Crimes and Misdemeanors

Now that most of America’s grown-ups seem to have realized that impeaching President Obama would be an exceedingly stupid idea, we can more clearly reflect on the 40-year anniversary of when hounding the commander-in-chief from office made absolute perfect sense.

It was indeed on August 9, 1974 that President Richard Nixon ever-so-reluctantly bode farewell to the American public, following some two-plus years of high-level shenanigans all piled under the heading of “Watergate.”

The whole saga, from the break-in to the resignation, has been rehashed so many times in the last four decades—in books, films, TV programs, newspaper articles and the ever-expanding collection of Oval Office tape recordings—that it has become increasingly impossible to wrench any new or interesting insights from one of the more embarrassing episodes in U.S. politics.  We have acquired new facts, but no new truths.

But of course we continue yapping about it all the same, the Nixon era remaining the most potent of narcotics for political junkies—perhaps because it contains so much junk.

Watergate deeded the baby boom generation a whole dictionary of political clichés—uttered today without a smidgen of hesitation—and the event itself has become a cliché.  Having nothing fresh to teach us, but apparently incapable of dislodging itself from the country’s collective subconscious, the drama that crippled and ultimately destroyed the Nixon presidency and forever poisoned the public’s relationship with its leaders has, rather amazingly, evolved into a nagging bore.

The dirty little secret—the fact that our wall-to-wall nostalgia-fests tend to obscure—is that Watergate was not the worst crime ever committed by an American president.  Not by a long shot.  Alongside other executive malfeasance down the years, Watergate might not have been nothing, but it was a fairly minor transgression when you consider all things.  It is not worth the extraordinary attention it still garners, and the numbing effects of constantly reliving it do not make matters any better.

I’m not just talking about the break-in itself—namely, the bungled attempt by Team Nixon to get a leg up on the Democrats in anticipation of the 1972 election.  (Against George McGovern, Nixon won the contest by a score of 49 states to one.)  Most people agree that, while sleazy and illegal, the burglary was a silly little farce that hardly threatened the integrity of the republic or constituted a grave beach of White House power.

Considered in today’s environment, where everyone is secretly recording everyone else and everybody knows it, the Watergate scheme seems positively quaint.

Indeed, in the usual narrative, the whole point about the adage, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” is that the Nixon administration’s single-minded obsession with suppressing any and all incriminating evidence about the burglary was, itself, the raison d’être for punishing Nixon in the first place.  Had Nixon simply allowed the investigation to take its course, some heads would still have rolled, but Nixon’s would have not, and the country would have moved on.

The real offense, as it were, was thinking that because he was president, he could control the dissemination of facts and avoid being held to account.

It was the principle of the thing, as high school principals like to say.  It’s not that President Nixon and his underlings did anything major.  Rather, it’s that they went to such elaborate lengths to evade responsibility for something minor.  In other words, they demonstrated that they were inherently untrustworthy.

In this way, we could establish that, in practice, there are two forms of presidential crimes:  actual crimes and suggestive crimes.

The former are those that directly and plainly harm the republic.  Historically, these would include the Harding administration’s exchange of no-bid contracts for bribes with oil companies, or the Reagan administration’s exchange of money and hostages for weapons with Iran.

The latter, meanwhile, are the indiscretions that are not inherently destructive, but which indicate that far worse shenanigans are on the way.  Or at least that they bloody well might be, and you’d be well-advised to prevent them while you still can.

To wit:  When President Bill Clinton was found to have committed perjury regarding whether Monica Lewinsky was more than a mere pizza delivery girl, no serious person asserted that an affair between the president and an intern was, itself, a cause for serious concern as to the well-being of the United States.

No, the refrain was always something along the lines of, “If Clinton will lie under oath about an affair, then what won’t he lie about?”  Clinton’s brush with impeachment was, in effect, an indictment of his character more than his actions.

The question with Clinton—and also with Nixon—is this:  If the act itself is not an impeachable offense, then why is lying about the act any worse?  We might agree that dishonesty is inherently bad—and that perjury is inherently very bad, indeed—but let us not suggest for a moment that all lies are created equal, or that all abuses of executive power are equally harmful to the country or the office.

Does this mean Richard Nixon should not have been subject to articles of impeachment?  Not in the least.  The bases for impeachment are deliberately broad, and Nixon’s actions regarding Watergate all-but-demanded the three charges he faced—namely, “obstruction of justice,” “abuse of power” and “contempt of Congress.”  We can argue about whether the rules are just, but Nixon most certainly broke them.

What I would argue, however, is that the Watergate affair is far overrated in our collective consciousness of the last half-century in American history.  As with the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks, we have come to regard the investigation and its findings as a “loss of national innocence,” whatever that means.

What Watergate really did was confirm a few things that we already knew but apparently were not prepared to admit out loud.

Power corrupts.  Richard Nixon was a paranoid scoundrel who surrounded himself with other paranoid scoundrels.  Ambitious men, once in power, will go to extraordinary lengths to stay in power.  Follow the money.

Were any of these things actually revelations in 1974, or were they merely the end of a happy self-delusion on the part of the entire country?  Albeit with four decades for us to think it over, the answer today would seem to be self-evident.

More to the point, so long as the darker side of government is, and has always been, a simple fact of life, what exactly was so tragic and violent about being made aware of it once and for all?  Isn’t it in our best interests to know what our elected officials are up to, rather than remaining ignorant and assuming everything will turn out fine?

Indeed, Watergate may well have been one of the best things ever to happen to us.