It's been several days since the Wall Street Journal first reported that Donald Trump's lawyer, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, arranged a $130,000 payment to a former adult-film star. The story was quickly met with a series of denials.
What it wasn't met with was an around-the-clock, red-siren, screaming-all-caps feeding frenzy. In fact, much of the political world remained focused on other Trump-related controversies, and largely ignored Friday's bombshell in the WSJ.
The New York Times' Michelle Goldberg wrote a great column on this, noting the demise of '90s-era standards about presidents and sex scandals, and the role of conservatives, eager to protect their political ally in the Oval Office, in killing off "the last remaining unspoken rules about presidential sexual ethics."
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that, a month before the 2016 election, Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen arranged a $130,000 payout to the porn star Stephanie Clifford, known by the stage name Stormy Daniels, to stop her from discussing a 2006 dalliance with Trump. The New York Times added new details. The Daily Beast then reported that another porn actress, Jessica Drake, who had accused Trump of offering her $10,000 for sex, signed a nondisclosure agreement barring her from talking about the president.In any other administration, evidence that the president paid hush money to the star of "Good Will Humping" during the election would be a scandal. In this one it has, so far, elicited a collective shrug.
As Goldberg explained, the left doesn't much care about Trump's personal sexual escapades, so long as his relationships were consensual. The right, suddenly discovering the value of moral relativism, appears to care even less because of conservatives' marriage of convenience with Trump.
Indeed, the right made this bargain before the president was even elected. Conservatives knew precisely what they were getting by forging a partnership with a secular, thrice-married, casino-owning adulterer. They didn't hesitate before the election and they see no value in looking back now.
And perhaps that's a good thing. Maybe the political world has forged a new consensus about presidents and their private lives. Perhaps the American mainstream can separate with clear eyes the difference between a bad spouse and a politician, which is as it should be.
But can we still talk about that $130,000?
Not including the many women who accused Trump of sexual improprieties, we know of three women from the adult-entertainment industry who are alleged to have had sexual encounters with Trump. Stormy Daniels reportedly received $130,000 and signed a non-disclosure agreement; former Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal sold the exclusive rights to her story to a Trump ally who buried the controversy; and Jessica Drake also signed a non-disclosure agreement.
What we don't know are the sources of the alleged payments. If, for example, Trump used campaign funds, it would likely be the basis for a serious legal controversy.
What's more, we learned quite a while ago that Trump used his charitable foundation as something of a piggy bank, using its resources to make illegal campaign contributions and make various legal problems go away. If he used foundation money to buy anyone's silence, that too would raise awkward legal questions.
It may be a sign of cultural maturity that an alleged presidential sex scandal received widespread yawns, but that doesn't change the fact that there are substantive questions surrounding this story that deserve answers.