New Revelations Raise Worrisome Question: Is Trump Personally Vulnerable to Blackmail?

Posted: Feb 20, 2018 10:35 AM

An unpleasant question and a leftover from last week, raised by a number of recent developments.  You've likely heard that a former porn star who "performed" under the name Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 through Trump's longtime attorney prior to the 2016 election to hush up her claim that she'd had an affair with Trump -- whose wife, Melania, was pregnant at the time.  The president's lawyer admits 'facilitating' the payment with his own personal funds, offering a weak explanation for why the six-figure transfer doesn't prove anything.  Even if it wasn't a violation of election law, everyone understand how it looks and what it suggests.  It seems as though we may be hearing a lot more from Ms. 'Daniels,' in the near future, by the way.   Now we're learning more about another adult entertainer, this time a former Playboy Playmate.  Via Ronan Farrow, the journalist (disclosure: we are friends) whose work helped take down Harvey Weinstein:

Trump and McDougal began an affair, which McDougal later memorialized in an eight-page, handwritten document provided to The New Yorker by John Crawford, a friend of McDougal’s. When I showed McDougal the document, she expressed surprise that I had obtained it but confirmed that the handwriting was her own...The interactions that McDougal outlines in the document share striking similarities with the stories of other women who claim to have had sexual relationships with Trump, or who have accused him of propositioning them for sex or sexually harassing them. McDougal describes their affair as entirely consensual. But her account provides a detailed look at how Trump and his allies used clandestine hotel-room meetings, payoffs, and complex legal agreements to keep affairs—sometimes multiple affairs he carried out simultaneously—out of the press...

Trump and McDougal began talking frequently on the phone, and soon had what McDougal described as their first date: dinner in a private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. McDougal wrote that Trump impressed her. “I was so nervous! I was into his intelligence + charm. Such a polite man,” she wrote. “We talked for a couple hours – then, it was “ON”! We got naked + had sex.” As McDougal was getting dressed to leave, Trump did something that surprised her. “He offered me money,” she wrote. “I looked at him (+ felt sad) + said, ‘No thanks - I’m not ‘that girl.’ I slept w/you because I like you - NOT for money’ - He told me ‘you are special.’” Afterward, McDougal wrote, she “went to see him every time he was in LA (which was a lot).” Trump, she said, always stayed in the same bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and ordered the same meal—steak and mashed potatoes—and never drank. McDougal’s account is consistent with other descriptions of Trump’s behavior.

As Allahpundit points out, McDougal's allegation first emerged in the Wall Street Journal just before the election, but Farrow's reporting adds sordid and specific detail.  And the Journal's reporting was focused on how Trump's pals at the National Enquirer paid six figures to obtain McDougal's story, then made sure it never saw the light of day -- a practice described in the piece as "catch and kill."  Having made her money, McDougal was barred from speaking publicly about the subject with anyone else, so this arrangement amounted to an expensive gag order, paid for by a pro-Trump publication that typically traffics in exposures of real or alleged celebrity scandals.  The practical effects of both Michael Cohen's maneuvering and the Enquirer's machinations are the same: People or entities close to Trump forking over piles of cash to attempt to silence women alleging extramarital affairs with the now-president, each of whom has offered remarkably similar accounts about their alleged experiences (with some details lining up with separate allegations of unwanted advances and touching by Trump).  

In any case, the reason the president's extracurricular activities are newly relevant now -- it's worth reminding everyone that the personal conduct of the president was of heavy concern to Republicans during the 1990's -- is that one of the issues investigators examine while vetting individuals for security clearances is susceptibility to blackmail.  The president is the president, of course, so his access to nearly all intelligence and sensitive information is virtually guaranteed by virtue of the position with which he's been entrusted by voters -- nevertheless, security clearances have been a significant source of trouble for this administration.  The porn star and centerfold side dramas may be having an impact on Trump's marriage, but is there reason to be concerned that his infidelity and other habits make the leader of the free world vulnerable to national security-compromising extortion?  Lefty writer Jonathan Chait doesn't think that's much of a leap:

We have no idea if the wildest and most memorable allegation Christopher Steele picked up in his investigation of Donald Trump — that the future president is vulnerable to Russian blackmail related to his paying Russian prostitutes in 2013 — is true. There are two common grounds for skepticism. One is that Trump, who is known both for his affairs and for grabbing women, would pay for sex. The second is that a man so happily associated with infidelity and vice could be blackmailed at all. We now know neither of these objections holds water... All in all, the odds are disconcertingly high that Russia, or somebody, has blackmail leverage over the president of the United States.

Actually, one of the biggest grounds for skepticism about the totally unsubstantiated "golden shower" tale from the unconfirmed, Democrat-funded anti-Trump dossier is that the president is famously a germophone. Still, a common dismissal of Trump-as-blackmail-target concerns is that the man is incapable of shame, and thus invulnerable to such threats. After all, he's bragged about his sexual exploits, including cheating, on the record. But both the Stormy Daniels matter and Farrow's reporting directly contradict the premise of that defense. AP summarizes: "People like to joke that Trump is extortion-proof since he has no reputation left to defend. People already believe the worst about him and his fans believe all negative coverage is fake news, so he has no incentive to buy anyone’s silence." 

But the record demonstrates that's not the case; "Trump’s own cronies, Michael Cohen and the Enquirer, have “facilitated” payments to his alleged mistresses in order to keep them quiet, and Trump himself has denied the affairs whenever he’s asked. If he can be squeezed for valuable consideration in exchange for dirt this slight, how else might he be squeezed by foreign powers that have no doubt done their homework on secret scandals waiting to be exposed?" Based on what we know thus far, that's not a frivolous concern. Conservative voters may be willing to dish out endless "mulligans," but the worry is what hostile actors may be able or willing to exploit, in light of Trump's apparent history of covering up personal misconduct.