It does not require an especially active imagination to believe Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels had an extra-marital relationship, and that the president's denials probably aren't true. But the sexual aspect of the controversy has always struck me as the least interesting aspect of the controversy.
Trump is, after all, a thrice-married admitted adulterer. Claims that he cheated on his current wife, and not just his first two wives, may be very easy to believe, but they're also easy to overlook as a private matter, better left to the president, his family, and his conscience.
What I find vastly more important are allegations of criminal wrongdoing, efforts to silence women, and the extent to which Trump's private misdeeds may have left him vulnerable as president.
As you've probably heard, the adult-film actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, spoke to CBS News' "60 Minutes" in an interview that aired last night, and among the revelations were claims of an intimidating threat she received after agreeing to tell her story in 2011.
"I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. Taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, getting all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, 'Leave Trump alone. Forget the story,'" Daniels said, according to a transcript of the interview."And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, 'That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom.' And then he was gone," she added.Daniels said that she interpreted the event as direct threat and that she was "rattled."
Daniels added that she believes she'd still recognize the man now.
What's more, this isn't the only potential crime associated with the story. As we've discussed before, when Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money shortly before the 2016 presidential election, it may have been an in-kind contribution that ran afoul of federal election laws.
The "60 Minutes" segment featured a notable exchange between Anderson Cooper and Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
POTTER: The payment of the money just creates an enormous legal mess for I think Trump, for Cohen, and anyone else who was involved in this in the campaign.COOPER: Are you saying that can be seen as a contribution to benefit a campaign?POTTER: I am. it's a $130,000 in kind contribution by Cohen to the Trump campaign, which is about $126,500 above what he's allowed to give. And if he does this on behalf of his client, the candidate, that is a coordinated, illegal, in-kind contribution by Cohen for the purpose of influencing the election, of benefiting the candidate by keeping this secret.
Prosecutions in cases like these aren't common, though Potter pointed to the indictment against former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as proof that it does happen -- and the former FEC chair added that the case against Team Trump is probably stronger. (Remember, the case against Edwards was ultimately unsuccessful.)
So where does this leave us? First, the portrait that emerges is one of the president's alleged mistresses claiming she's faced threats, intimidation, and bullying.
Second, there's the question of the larger effort to silence the woman at the center of the scandal. Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, told CBS, "This is about the cover-up. This is about the extent that Mr. Cohen and the president have gone to intimidate this woman, to silence her, to threaten her, and to put her under their thumb. It is thuggish behavior from people in power. And it has no place in American democracy."
Third, there are the related questions that still need to be answered. How many other women are there who may have had extra-marital relationships with the president? How many of them were paid off? Who, exactly, knows about the women and could they use this knowledge as leverage over Trump now?
And what does the president, who's said literally nothing of late about Stormy Daniels, intend to do about the controversy as it intensifies? The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the president is beginning to express concern about the political impact of the story -- he apparently told an associate the matter is a "hoax," which appears to be a word Trump uses a little too often -- while the Wall Street Journal added that the president has weighed whether to follow advisers' guidance and remain silent about the allegations.
So far, Trump hasn't tweeted about the story since the "60 Minutes" report ran, but the morning is young.