The parallels between President Trump and President Clinton – and their extramarital entanglements – are well-documented.
Neither has ever pretended to be a choir boy. Both had reputations as womanizers before they were elected president, but many of their voters either didn’t care or looked the other way. The women involved seemed to be bit players in the dramas that engulfed the powerful men they had attracted. They were tagged as bimbos, gold-diggers, liars, or naive. Women who claimed unwanted advances, or outright assault, were disbelieved or worse.
How times have changed. Adult-film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom claim affairs with Mr. Trump in 2006, refuse to be shamed or silenced.
Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern whose affair with Mr. Clinton nearly led to his downfall 20 years ago, says she now understands that she too can own her truth.
And even as Ms. Daniels rejects the #MeToo label for herself, the rise of the female empowerment movement embodied in that hashtag has come to the fore in the presidential arena. For Ms. Daniels, whose line of work is shunned by much of society, it manifested in her brazen interview with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” Sunday night.
“She owns what she is,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “She says, ‘I’m not just an adult film star, I direct them. I’m one of the most successful women in this field.’ She kind of claims it, which means you can’t slut shame her.”
Some observers have opined that Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, has nothing to lose. But in fact, the financial stakes are high. She is suing to get out of a nondisclosure agreement that she signed on the eve of the 2016 presidential election: her silence on the affair in exchange for $130,000 (a payment that may be a violation of election law). Daniels claims the agreement is null and void, as Trump didn’t sign it. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, says she faces $1 million in damages for each violation of the agreement, now totaling upward of $20 million. The case is being litigated.
Ms. McDougal, the former Playboy model whose interview with Mr. Cooper aired on CNN last Thursday, is also suing to get out of a nondisclosure agreement. Hers is part of a larger deal with the company that owns the National Enquirer, whose publisher is a friend of Trump’s, that included exclusive rights to her story. The article was never published, in a practice called “catch and kill.”
Trump representatives have denied both the affair with McDougal and the encounter with Daniels. But the two televised interviews have allowed viewers to see these women speak, and to draw their own conclusions.
In the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape, numerous women have also stepped forward to accuse Trump of unwanted sexual contact and harassment, which Trump denies. One, former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, last week beat back an effort by Trump’s lawyers to block legal action in a defamation suit she filed in New York.
All the alleged sexual misbehavior by Trump took place before he became president, while Clinton’s most famous case took place during his presidency. It was Clinton’s lying under oath about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that led in part to his impeachment.
But the more important distinction is the context in which these cases have played out in cultural discourse – and in the approaches of the women themselves. Twenty years ago, when it was revealed that Clinton had had a long-term affair with Lewinsky, the 20-something intern was publicly shamed and ostracized. And she suffered mightily for it, facing a diagnosis several years ago of post-traumatic stress disorder, she writes in the March issue of Vanity Fair.
Lewinsky has also come to understand that the relationship she long saw as consensual wasn’t really – and that she, too, can be a voice in the #MeToo chorus.
“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” she writes. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
Lewinsky also speaks of how painfully alone she felt back in 1998, and how, despite the cyberbullying rampant today, social media can also be a force for good.
“Virtually anyone can share her or his #MeToo story and be instantly welcomed into a tribe,” she writes.
One of the arresting moments of Daniels’s “60 Minutes” interview was her rejection of the #MeToo label in her one encounter with Trump – despite her description of giving in to sex with the future president against her wishes.
Daniels agreed that people were trying to use her for their own purposes. But, she continued, “I’ve never said I was a victim. I think trying to use me to further someone else’s agenda does horrible damage to people who are true victims.”
Yet Daniels used the language of countless sexual-assault victims who blame themselves for putting themselves in a compromising position: “I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone,” she said. “You deserve this,” she added, speaking of herself. Still, she also described behavior toward Trump in the hotel room that most people would find extremely forward.
Daniels left much unsaid in the interview, including evidence that Trump knew about the hush agreement. Her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, told CNN Monday that new evidence is likely to be revealed during the next weeks and months ahead.
The aggressive public relations approach by Daniels and Mr. Avenatti has all the markings of a Trump-ian “slow reveal” that keeps the media on the edge of their seats. To some, Daniels is outdoing Trump at his own game: Be brash, be aggressive, use all the leverage you have. On Monday, Daniels announced plans to sue Mr. Cohen for defamation.
“Her whole thing is, she’s not going to be bullied by this president,” says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
Daniels may have a big payday in mind; for weeks, she has been storming the country, making paid appearances at clubs. But if nothing else, and regardless of what one thinks of her line of work, she has been fearless and unapologetic.
McDougal, too, in a softer way, says she’s trying to reclaim her life. “I had to stand up for myself,” she said in the CNN interview, as she described what she called a “real relationship” with Trump lasting into 2007, despite his marriage to Melania and the recent birth of their son.
The Zervos case may in fact be the most consequential, as it is already proceeding in court – and brings echoes of the sexual harassment suit filed against Clinton 20 years ago. Then, as now, the argument that a sitting president can’t be sued in a civil case for nonofficial actions was rejected. Ms. Zervos claims that Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007; she sued for defamation last year after he called her a liar.
Perhaps all these cases featuring the businessman-turned-TV-star-turned-president are so exotic as to be unrelatable to most women. But they are being fought at a time of rising female empowerment – with implications for Trump himself and the midterm elections in November, when a record number of women are running for office. And that is no coincidence.