On Sunday night at Nowhere Bar, the 60 Minutes watchers were transfixed — not by Stormy Daniels, but by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has eyes as blue as glacial ice and a chin that could slice fine cheese. The rugged attorney’s popularity was not necessarily a surprise — Nowhere is an epicenter of gay arts and culture in the East Village — but by the end of the hour Stormy had drummed up plenty of affection of her own, the love partly fueled by her namesake cocktail, a Dark & Stormy–like mix of Jack Daniel’s and ginger beer.
In the subterranean crimson environs of Nowhere — with its advertisements for trans-masculine pool night and RuPaul viewing parties — the biggest frustration was CBS’s spillover of college basketball into the 60 Minutes hour, March Madness infringing on march madness. The room filled slowly between six and seven, with fashionable young men and a few of their female companions, and the general mood was one of eager anticipation. There was to be a dance party afterward, with all DJ proceeds benefiting the Sex Workers Project, which provides legal aid to sex workers and victims of human trafficking. The group Rise and Resist was also taking the opportunity to sell “Impeach” hats.
“I take seriously the idea that this president thinks the wealthy are above the law,” said Emily, 36. “And also, this is really entertaining.”
Her friend Mike, 39, in a purple tee and salt-and-pepper stubble, sipping on a Stormy Daniels, added: “To oppose Trump, you just have to have no shame at all.”
When Anderson Cooper came on, to the familiar tick-tick-tick of the venerable news show’s theme, there was a purr of appreciation. Cooper seemed far less comfortable facing a self-possessed porn star in an ill-fitting button-down shirt than he does standing handsomely in disaster zones — I felt a twinge of regret that the great Lesley Stahl hadn’t been summoned to this task — but Stormy managed a few great lines, despite him.
Describing her brief courtship with the Donald, Daniels said she was unimpressed by his legendary self-regard. “Like, I was, ‘Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?’ ” Stormy said she told Trump, during their getting-to-know-you dinner. “I don’t think anyone’s ever spoken to him like that, especially, you know, a young woman who looked like me.”
At that, the bar erupted into cheers, and her narrative of spanking Trump with a magazine bearing his own face was greeted with similar enthusiasm. It seemed clear that Stormy was putting a new face to sex work for America: a spiky, thoughtful, unabashed one, demanding to be the subject, not the object, of her narrative. A thrum of pained recognition played over the faces of the few women in the crowd when Daniels described her initial encounter with Trump:
“I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe, it was sort of, I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone, and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’ ”
It was all very 2018: very Cat Person, very Babe.net’s Aziz Ansari exposé, very of the moment, one in which so many women have come to terms with the sexual encounters they have had in which their own enthusiasm never surfaced, because it was never required. And this was a sex worker speaking — a figure to whom subjectivity and desire is rarely attributed in American culture, and this, in and of itself, seemed like a quietly radical moment.
When Daniels revealed that, in 2011, a thug had threatened her as she toted her new baby to a workout class — explicitly citing Trump’s name — an uncharacteristic hush fell over the raucous, queer crowd.
As in Stormy’s striptease act, which I wrote about for this publication, little about her initial sexual encounter with Trump was left to the imagination — but what was omitted was the crucial element: Did she have documentation? She was coy about it in the interview, to groans from the gathered barflies, even as her wit, and her genuine grievance with the powerful men she had challenged, came vividly to the surface.
But overall, Cooper seemed more bent on challenging Daniels’s credibility than Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s, despite the undoubted seediness and general strangeness of the latter’s actions. The infamous $130,000 payment was discussed at length, as was the oddity of Cohen’s personal provision of the funds. A helpful campaign-finance expert explained, with a straight face, that it was not standard practice for attorneys to pay six figures in hush money on behalf of their clients, let alone, as the White House’s story goes, without any coordination between attorney and client. The serious underpinning of the Stormy Daniels affair, the segment’s framing seemed to indicate, was about potential campaign-finance violations; the sex itself, the subsequent silencing, was ancillary.
Frustrating as this was, I floated, for a time, on a vodka-and-pineapple-juice sea, into the joyous, dancing crowd — and then out again into the frigid New York night. I stopped by Papaya Dog to have a snack sanctioned by Stormy, who had suggested “tacos and mini corn dogs” as viewing-night refreshments. (I had to make do with a regular-sized corn dog, as tiny ones weren’t readily available.)
It was only when I got home, and started reading the takes male pundits had put forth blithely into the world, that I started wanting to stab someone in the eye with a sharpened pigeon femur.
The requisite reaction for the self-identified enlightened individual, it seemed, was ennui. Oh, a woman is being sued in federal court for $20 million by a sitting president for speaking about an affair he claims never happened? Ho-hum. La-di-da.
“To be clear, I’m not particularly *interested* in any aspects of the Stormy Daniels story,” tweeted Matt Yglesias of Vox, as if prurience were an indulgence of the unintelligent. The story, he continued, is about “serious violations of campaign finance law!”
“Everybody who’s interested in the Stormy Daniels story is interested in it for the sex/gossip,” opined Nate Silver, who would presumably prefer we all focused on statehouse gerrymandering in Idaho.
“Buzz kill warning….just read entire 60 minutes transcript. Kinda non-plussed by it all. Feel like there are no surprises, nothing new here. Think I will watch basketball,” wrote Michael Smerconish, right-leaning radio commentator on SiriusXM.
After reading tweet after tweet, I began to feel I was levitating out of my body, borne up on an electric surge of pure feminist rage. What had they watched? What had they seen? Were they really incapable of imagining a world in which not everyone had read Stormy Daniels’s 2011 In Touch interview (or, more likely, a summary of it in the Washington Post)? In a year ushered in by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, had they learned nothing about the abusive, coercive power of the NDA? Were they really “meh” about a sixty-year-old man comparing a twenty-seven-year-old female sex partner to his own daughter — a claim echoed by another sex worker–turned-mistress on CNN last week? Were they really so blasé about a president’s emissaries issuing mobster threats to babies?
If these pundits were to be heeded, the cult of unshockability — the pose of permanent, dry unsurprise — had reached such a parodic nadir that one was not permitted to react with feeling to a smart, witty woman risking bankruptcy to speak out about being physically threatened and legally intimidated by a president and his cronies. That would be gauche.
At the end of the day, this scandal — like so many Trump scandals — is about the abuse of power. A man who was an intimate of Roy Cohn and who dealt extensively in concrete in the 1980s might be expected to have a more-than-glancing familiarity with mob intimidation tactics; that he might have used them on a woman he’d had sex with is still shocking. That he is suing her in federal court (again, to suppress an affair he claims never happened) is abusive in another way entirely. A rich man’s resources are his power; a woman’s words are hers, and as Nowhere’s event description put it, “Stormy Daniels is outmaneuvering what’s-his-name at every turn.”
The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.