Pinch-hitting for Sarah Huckabee Sanders at today’s briefing is Raj Shah, who was the subject of a piece in New York magazine last month because of some emails he allegedly sent during Campaign 2016. He started that year as a Jeb Bush staffer and, if New York is to be believed, never quite lost his bitterness towards Trump as the campaign wore on. On the day the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped, he supposedly emailed a friend, “I’m kinda enjoying this, some justice. I honestly don’t think it’s the worst thing he’s done but he somehow got passes for the other acts.” He added, “Trump is a deplorable.”
And now here he is, point man for POTUS on the closest thing to a sex scandal the White House has seen in nearly 20 years. Congratulations, Raj!
I have to believe he and Sanders badly wanted to duck all Stormy-related questions by referring them to Michael Cohen but were told by the boss himself to go out there and deny them. They don’t know what Daniels and her lawyer have on Trump, after all. Better to keep the White House’s fingerprints completely off the matter rather than (further) damage the institution’s credibility by insisting that nothing happened between her and POTUS when there may be hard evidence to the contrary soon to emerge. Oh well:
White House on allegations that Stormy Daniels was threatened: "The president doesn't believe any of the claims that Ms. Daniels made last night in the interview are accurate." pic.twitter.com/flKEXMp9go
— Axios (@axios) March 26, 2018
Shah did make a good point today, one which Anderson Cooper raised with Daniels’s lawyer in the “60 Minutes” interview. How can you believe her story of an affair when she’s signed multiple statements saying that there was no affair? Even Michael Avenatti allowed that that calls her credibility into question. Daniels said she signed the statements because she was afraid Michael Cohen would make her “life hell in many different ways” if she didn’t, but if that’s true, why talk now? She was afraid of Cohen before she wasn’t?
Reminding viewers of Daniels’s credibility problem was Shah’s smartest moment. This was his stupidest:
Asked about Stormy Daniels and whether a payment was made that violated federal law, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said that "the White House didn’t engage in any wrongdoing” https://t.co/NxYQjBwyUa pic.twitter.com/yVz93Ro2bR
— CNN (@CNN) March 26, 2018
Why would he concede, even rhetorically, that the campaign might have anything useful to say about all of this? That’s Trump’s biggest legal vulnerability in all of this:
The key point in the prosecution of John Edwards for alleged campaign-finance violations a few years ago was whether the money paid to his mistress was a “campaign contribution,” i.e. whether it was designed to influence the election by silencing someone who could have done him major political damage by speaking. Edwards was acquitted because his team argued that the payment was made to spare Mrs. Edwards’s feelings, not because of the election. As such, it wasn’t a campaign contribution and therefore there was no crime in failing to report it.
Trump’s and Cohen’s problem is that Daniels got her hush money just two weeks before the election, at a moment when Trump was taking intense heat for his history with women, even though Cohen had known for five years at that point that Daniels was willing to talk about her alleged relationship with Trump per her 2011 interview with In Touch. As Avenatti said on “60 Minutes,” it’s preposterous to think the payment wasn’t intended to influence the election when Cohen did nothing for years and then coincidentally sprung into action two weeks before Election Day. If a jury agrees then that’s an unreported campaign contribution, which is a crime. Point being, the last thing Shah should be conceding, even hypothetically in response to a question, is that the campaign has anything to say about this. Dump it all on Cohen.
At the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson argues that none of this is really about silencing Daniels at this point. Even if Trump and Cohen sue and win damages from her, that’s a pyrrhic victory. The point of the NDA was to keep her quiet and it’s failed miserably, and no amount of money is going to make it worth their while to keep this story in the news by suing her. So why are they still suing her? Better yet, why is she still suing them to get out of an agreement she’s already violated? Michaelson:
This dispute isn’t about the affair: it’s about those pictures or texts. As viewers of Daniels’ 60 Minutes interview surely noticed, the only question Daniels refused to answer was about whether she’s got more evidence of the affair. Avenatti suggested the answer is yes: he tweeted a photo of a DVD inside a safe.
If Daniels has retained copies of pictures or texts, then she is in clear violation of the central parts of the confidentiality agreement. Not only does the agreement explicitly forbid her from keeping copies of images or texts, it actually defines them as Trump’s – oh, sorry, David Dennison’s – personal, copyrighted property…
Unless, of course, the agreement is null and void.
Intriguing, although if she’s willing to violate the contract by blabbing on “60 Minutes” at the risk of owing him millions, presumably she’s also willing to publish whatever’s on that DVD and owe him millions more. But this is why it’s incredibly foolish for the White House to go all-in on Trump’s credibility against Daniels instead of referring everything to Michael Cohen and refusing to discuss it. If Daniels has photos of them together or audio files of Trump’s voicemails to her, it’s going to put Sanders, Shah, and the rest of the communications team in the impossible position of explaining away real evidence of a relationship after insisting that she made everything up. And that could go on for days or weeks as Daniels’s lawyer leaks information. Avenatti’s enjoying twisting the knife so much, he’s trolling the president on his Twitter account:
Since this is what really matters (LOL), the ratings for my client's @stormydaniels appearance on @60minutes last night CRUSHED (BY MILLIONS) any Apprentice show in the last ten years as well as Mr. Trump's Nov 2016 appearance. #priorities https://t.co/JYVODdZKUH
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) March 26, 2018
He may be holding back whatever’s on the DVD — if anything’s on the DVD — purely to give Cohen and the White House time to issue more denials before he blows them up. This is as much a PR war now as a legal battle, if not more so. Why would Shah participate knowing the risks, unless his foolhardy boss insisted he do so?
Incidentally, I don’t think the public interest that drove those “60 Minutes” ratings is chiefly about sex, and it’s certainly not about the possibility that Trump or Cohen broke campaign-finance laws. It’s about the spectacle of watching “Teflon Don” get outfoxed for once, disarmed of his usual weapons. Trump’s two basic strategies when faced with scandal are (1) deny, deny, deny and (2) counterpunch, as ferociously as necessary. He can’t counterpunch this time, though, as he doesn’t want to drive more attention to Daniels’s claims by swinging back at her on his Twitter account. And he can’t deny too strenuously in case there really is hard evidence of an affair. Curiosity about Stormygate derives not from it being a “major” scandal (it isn’t) but from the mere fact that the guy who ran roughshod over a field of Republican politicians and then blasted through the Clinton machine has momentarily been put back on his heels by a porn star and her snickering attorney. King Troll is getting out-trolled for once.