But perhaps Avenatti is onto something, thanks to a fundamental fact about private civil litigation against high-profile defendants: Although these suits are primarily about this plaintiff against this defendant, they often have powerful secondary effects that take them into realms usually associated with policy, politics, and even public health and safety. Institutional actors as diverse as the tobacco companies and the Catholic Church might have continued their sheltering and denying ways but for the dogged persistence of private litigants. In the Daniels case (or, more accurately, cases, since there is now also a defamation claim against Trump for accusing Daniels of lying about a threat against her in connection with the alleged affair), the public has so far gotten more information, and more quickly, than anything a sclerotic and polarized Congress has managed to unearth about the supposed Trump-Russia campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation might also run into political shoals, but there’s plenty on the table already, thanks to the Daniels suit. Why?
The answer is that the production of information damaging to powerful political and corporate interests is consistently compromised by government’s inability to hold them to account. When the House Intelligence Committee decides to close up shop on its farcically incomplete investigation, there’s not much that can be done about it (unless and until the majority is voted out of office). And if Trump ultimately decides to light the fuse that leads to the explosion of the Mueller investigation, there’s no guarantee that anyone will fix responsibility on him for doing so. It’s not cynical to say that any possible congressional response—even the Senate’s more credible Russia probe—would be made according to calculations about the direction of the prevailing political winds.