What impact does a sex scandal have on the president?

10 november 2017Leestijd: 5 minuten
Bill Clinton had zijn handen vol aan het mediacircus dat losbarstte na zijn affaire - foto: AFP

Last week, I had a chat with two colleagues at the printer down the hall from my office about the recent salacious accounts in the press about the President of the United States with a Playmate of the Year and a porn star.

One colleague said that he feels like it is all a distraction: that we are asked to look at one hand while the other hand is engaging in activities that politicians want to shield from the public.  No doubt, some legislators used the commotion to slip through their personal priorities in the omnibus 1.3 trillion dollar budget, which the president signed into law on the 23rd of March.  However, was my colleague right?  In general, how does a sex scandal play out in Washington and what impact does it have on governing?

My Confession

For the first time in my 51 years, I researched information on a porn star.  I typed ‘Stormy Daniels’ into my search engine.  To give Ms. Daniels credit, she appears to direct more adult movies than she stars in and some of the movies seem to have actual plotlines, with the adult-horror and adult-comedy (are there such genres?) being favorite types.  Nevertheless, the titles in which she stars in include Sex, Lies & Spies, Dancing Dirty, Operation: Desert Stormy and several Bikini Kitchens, where exotic cocktails are made and I imagine consumed in artfully erotic ways.  All told, some 150 pornographic films are connected with Ms. Daniels.

Her recent 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper was the third most watched episode in the 50-year history of the program.  Is she more trustworthy than a sitting president of the United States?  Given ‘The Donald’s’ history, most Americans will find that she is more credible.  One irony that is sure to hit Trump where it hurts, it that Ms. Daniels’ interview on 60 Minutes had 3 million more viewers than his garnered.  However, Trump will be happy that his 19 million viewers surpassed those that watched Karen McDougal’s interview, the Playboy Magazine’s 1998 Playmate of the Year, who is claiming a 10-month affair with Trump.

We have been here before

Perhaps, at what feels like a particularly undignified time in the history of the American presidency, it is useful to point out that scandal of an erotic or salacious nature has rocked the presidency in the past.  We only have to remember a particular blue dress that the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky saved because it had then president Bill Clinton’s semen on it.

I will join many readers of American Dreamers in watching The Last Son about another scandal that rocked America in 1969, when then Senator Ted Kennedy left the scene of a crime in which a young woman drowned.  Of course, there are the many alleged amorous encounters of Ted’s brothers, Bobby and Jack, for example, with Marilyn Monroe.  After Jack’s assassination, Bobby, who had eleven children with his wife Ethel, is reported to have had sexual relations with his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy.

Even George Washington was associated with a sex scandal: in 1776 the Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Gentleman’s Magazine printed ‘The Washerwoman Kate Affair,’ which the general, who was leading the fight against the British in the Revolutionary War, denied.  Although it is likely that this story was a forgery created by the British army to weaken the young American nation’s moral fiber, the levels of madeira (which ‘flowed like water’ at the City Tavern, Washington’s favorite mess hall in Philadelphia) and his dancing were equally scandalous in his day.  For example, at a Valley Forge soiree, General Washington danced with a young woman named Kitty Greene for three hours.

The Cover-up and the lies

While accounts of Washington’s dancing exploits kept presidents off the dance floor for decades, the real crimes committed by U.S. presidents have more to do with their cover-ups than what they got up to in the Oval Office or nearby bedrooms.  Clinton’s cover-up, his declaration that he ‘did not have sexual relations with that woman,’ led the House of Representatives to impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice, after the aforementioned blue dress proved otherwise.

If Ms. Daniels or Ms. McDougal are to have the last laugh, it will most likely involve Trump’s own attempts to cover up his extramarital affairs with them.  Trump is a fan of the payoff coupled with a Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA).  If this does not work, Trump hits the alleger with a huge lawsuit to keep them quiet.  However, this strategy does not appear to be working to foil Ms. Daniels.  Nothing much in the world is left to embarrass her and the 60 Minutes interview shows her to be a fairly steely character.  For various reasons, Trump’s tactics of humiliating his opponents are not working on the porn star and the Playboy bunny.  There is the added twist that the payoff and the NDA in both the Daniels and McDougal cases might violate campaign election laws.

The Distraction

I agree with my colleague that some of the antics going on in the Trump White House are designed to distract.  In particular, the way Trump fired and hired his National Security Advisers (NSA) via tweets feels arranged to divert attention from the McDougal interview.  Certainly, White House aides and John Bolton, the new NSA, were surprised by the timing of the tweets that Trump used to announce his decisions.  We should all be wary of wag-the-dog scenarios that pull at our attention.

And yet, there is a still more worrying aspect to all this scandal: what does it mean when the president himself is distracted by the indignities of his own making?  In 1998, after it emerged that he had sex in the Oval Office, Clinton missed a chance to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.  I remember watching a hastily prepared press conference aired from Martha’s Vineyard, where the Clintons had gone to escape the media circus caused by the Lewinsky affair. A sheepish Clinton addressed the nation, mispronouncing Osama Bin Laden’s name. Although, the Al Qaida network had just killed 224 people and injured over 4,000 in bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the president clearly was not well-informed about the perpetrators and their leader.

It is not our distraction that I worry about.  It is what a preoccupied Trump might do instead of paying attention to his advisers and his intelligence briefs that worries me far more.