Donald Trump for years has faced criminal investigations on multiple fronts, ranging from alleged presidential election interference to purported financial crimes and recent scrutiny over his storage of government secrets.
In the end, though, what got a grand jury to vote to indict him Thursday wasn’t election interference, spurious bookkeeping, unsecured federal documents, or even that his supporters staged the deadly January 6 Capitol attack after he was voted out of office and told them to “fight like hell”. It was the porn star and director known to fans as Stormy Daniels.
As told by Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Gregory Clifford, she was raised by a neglectful mother in Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge. Horses were her main interest and hobby. But she supported herself financially by working in strip clubs, starting in high school.
And she eventually began appearing in and directing pornographic films, using a pseudonym drawn from the name Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Six gave to his daughter – Storm – and her preference for Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
The self-described “little girl back in Baton Rouge just trying to survive” later met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, California, where she was hired to greet competitors between tees. She has claimed Trump had a bodyguard invite her to dinner, that they later had sex in his hotel room despite his being married to eventual first lady Melania Trump, and that they stayed in touch for a while because he offered her a role on his reality show, The Apprentice.
Yet as Trump ran successfully for president in 2016, his relationship with Daniels evolved drastically.
Daniels was negotiating a deal to go on television during the presidential campaign and discuss the purported sexual encounter with Trump when she received what prosecutors say was a $130,000 payment to hush up. Trump’s then lawyer, Micahel Cohen, made the payoff.
While Trump has denied having sex with Daniels and has contended the payment had nothing whatsoever to do with the election that he won, prosecutors persuaded a grand jury to charge that his method of repaying Cohen – in $35,000 monthly increments – was illegal after an investigation aimed at determining whether he violated state campaign finance laws or falsified business records. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges relating to this payment.
In addition to Daniels, Cohen said he arranged a hush-money payment to another woman at Trump’s bidding.
Daniels recently met with Manhattan prosecutors and answered their questions about the payment from the former president. Her attorney, Clark Brewster, said in a 15 March tweet: “Stormy responded to questions and has agreed to make herself available as a witness, or for further inquiry if needed.”
While news of the payout emerged years ago, its potential to land Trump in legal hot water remained unclear. Daniels initially retained Michael Avenatti as an attorney, and he quickly secured his position as a media darling and adamant media foe of Trump, who has declared himself as a candidate in the 2024 presidential race.
Avenatti breathlessly insisted on the media circuit that Trump’s alleged affair could force his resignation. But what ultimately got Trump out of office was his defeat to Joe Biden in 2020.
Avenatti and Daniels’s relationship ultimately soured, and he was eventually prosecuted for federal crimes – including the siphoning of a $300,000 book advance for her book. Avenatti is facing 14 years behind bars after being convicted of the advance theft, as well as cheating his law clients.
The legal ramifications of this payout appeared to resurface after former Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance launched a criminal investigation into Trump. Mark Pomerantz, who was helming the investigation but quit in early 2022 over a purported disagreement over the case with Vance’s Manhattan DA replacement, Alvin Bragg, said in a book that he saw the payoff as a possible money-laundering offense.
“If Clifford had gotten money by threatening to tell the world that she had slept with Donald Trump,” Pomerantz wrote, “that sounded like extortion to me.
“And if it was extortion, then maybe the hush money she received could be regarded as criminal proceeds, so action taken to conceal Trump’s identity as the source of the money was chargeable as money laundering.”
Twitter users purporting to be supporters of Trump verbally lashed out at Daniels after news that she had spoken with Manhattan prosecutors, trying to publicly insult her about her acting career and about how the former president “hit that” – a vulgar phrase meaning that she was a sexual conquest of his.
Daniels responded to one user by saying: “‘Hit’ is very generous. I’d say more like a pathetic thump but [whatever].’”
To another who mockingly asked her how she wasn’t financially broke, she replied, “Considering that I own horses, it’s a miracle,” punctuating the tweet with an emoji of a laughing face.
Brewster, Daniels’s attorney, told TMZ in statements published on 21 March that his client had also received some threatening messages sent privately to her social media accounts, and as a result she had beefed up her private security.
On Thursday, Daniels replied “thank you” to a tweet from Brewster which said Trump’s indictment was “no cause for joy”.
“The hard work and conscientiousness of the grand jurors must be respected,” Brewster’s tweet said. “Now let truth and justice prevail.”
Trump, for his part, issued a statement Thursday saying “this is political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history”.
Daniels’s role in the newly instituted criminal case against Trump is not the first time she has bedeviled a high-profile Republican politician.
About three years after Daniels’s purported sexual encounter with Trump, a New Orleans college student who later worked as a Democratic political operative launched a campaign that got her to consider running against David Vitter, then an incumbent Republican US senator from Louisiana who was seeking re-election.
An investigator for Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt at the time had just exposed calls by Vitter to an escort service despite his being married and his public trumpeting of traditional family values. The resulting movement dubbed Draft Stormy prompted Daniels to tour Louisiana and – as she said – listen to voters’ thoughts on issues that were important to them.
Yet Daniels ultimately didn’t run. Vitter won re-election but ultimately left office after losing Louisiana’s gubernatorial election in 2015.
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