As the prospect of an indictment grows, the Manhattan district attorney’s office invited Donald Trump to testify this week before a grand jury. Not surprisingly, the former president and his attorneys have declined the offer. NBC News reported:
Former president Donald Trump will not appear before the Manhattan grand jury probing a hush-money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump attorney Joe Tacopina told NBC News on Monday. Trump’s legal team met with the former president in Florida over the weekend. Following the discussions, the president decided not to sit for a meeting with the grand jury in New York.
This does not mean, however, that Team Trump is choosing total silence as prosecutors in local New York weigh whether to charge the Republican. On the contrary, the former president and his defense lawyers have added a provocative new word to their talking points.
On Thursday night, after The New York Times reported that prosecutors were “nearing an indictment of the former president,” the Republican’s spokesperson issued a statement that said, among other things, “President Trump was the victim of extortion then, just as he is now.” Around the same time, Trump published a seven-part series of missives on his social media platform, pushing a similar line.
“I did absolutely nothing wrong, I never had an affair with Stormy Daniels, nor would I have wanted to have an affair with Stormy Daniels,” he wrote, adding, “I relied on counsel in order to resolve this Extortion of me.”
Much of this was familiar. In fact, in recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that he did not actually have an extramarital affair with the porn star. The question of whether those denials are credible is of possible interest, but what strikes me as more important is why he has pushed the denials with such vigor.
Common sense might suggest that Trump is denying the relationship because he’s still married to his third wife, who probably wouldn’t be pleased if he admitted to an affair. But in the context of the hush money scandal, it seems likely that there’s more to it, because of the circumstances surrounding the controversy: If Trump didn’t have an affair with Daniels, why in the world would he pay her $130,000 to keep quiet?
And that’s where the new “extortion” talking point comes into play.
Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane.
As regular readers might recall, the scandal broke in earnest back in early 2018, when The Wall Street Journal reported on Michael Cohen buying Daniels’ silence. Pressed for answers, Trump told reporters on the record in April 2018 that he knew nothing about the payment.
When his denial proved to be false, the then-president changed his story, effectively conceding that he did know about the payment, but insisting at the time that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.” (Trump also claimed that Cohen’s crimes “were not criminal,” though I still don’t know what that was supposed to mean.)
A Washington Post report explained in December 2018: “The evolving strategy on the hush-money allegations is textbook Trump: Tell one version of events until it falls apart, then tell a new version, and so on — until the danger passes.”
But as the danger refuses to pass, the former president and his team are now telling another version of events: Trump was “extorted.”
In other words, we’re now supposed to discard the Republican’s earlier claims and instead believe a new version of events. At the height of the 2016 campaign, the new story goes, a prominent actress in the adult film industry let the GOP presidential campaign know that she intended to tell the public about an alleged affair.
Trump could’ve alerted law enforcement and/or the public. But according to this new version of events, the then-candidate — who famously bragged that he never paid settlements, preferring to fight — instead directed his fixer to quietly make an illegal payoff.
He did so, we’re now supposed to believe, not because Daniels was telling the truth about an affair, but because Trump was willing to pay off the porn star who was extorting him with a bogus claim about a nonexistent affair.
All of which leaves me a bit confused. If Trump were “the victim of extortion,” why are we just now hearing about this new defense? Why not say something sooner? The payoff was in 2016; the story reached the public in 2018; and it took the former president until 2023 to make this rather specific claim, never having made it before?
Some skepticism is probably in order.