April 21, 2024

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

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Stormy Daniels saged the room and shuffled the oracle deck. It was the evening of April 1, and the woman at the center of the legal drama that led to the first criminal indictment of a U.S. president had agreed to ask the guides for help to see more clearly the past, the present, and what she calls “the potential or likely outcome.” Daniels doesn’t claim to be a fortune teller. “Nobody can predict the future,” she said. “We all have free will.” But she can for sure identify fortune’s fool.

She raised her hands and pressed the empty space between her palms. She spoke quietly. “What can you tell Olivia about Donald Trump?”

She waited for a moment. Nothing. “What the fuck?” she said. “That’s weird.” She was having trouble connecting to the realm of the spirits.

She shuffled the deck again. There. Between her palms, the force field of energy swelled. She dealt the cards. As if by magic, the room shifted. My ears began to ring. Tension spread across my forehead. My eyes filled with tears. I looked across the table and met the dealer’s gaze. She was crying too. The cards confirmed what she already knew.


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She looked down. First, she saw the past. “This is the unity card,” she said. “It’s normally a very beautiful card. It means that everything is connected.” But not today. When the card landed on the table, it was upside down. “Reversed, it means everything is coming apart.”

Next, she saw the present. “This is current energy,” she said. She motioned to two cards, each decorated with a cloaked figure. “We have double death.” She paused to explain. “Death is not dead. It is the natural ending of something. Sometimes, when it’s right side up, it can be kind of a good thing.”

This — two death cards, one inverted — was not that.

She read the text that accompanied the cards. “Reverse meaning is ‘Important change is being blocked or delayed but cannot necessarily be stopped. By clinging to old habits or things that were once true, something difficult is about to be forced upon us. We must release these outgrown or outworn ways of thinking to move forward to the next stage. It is important to look to the future, however unknown or frightening, rather than to try to target the past. You must dig deep and stop holding on to the untruths that have been spoon-fed to you. There will be pain in this process but hopefully a step forward into the future.’”

She arched an eyebrow. “Are you surprised?”

Next, she saw the future. “Have you ever watched Harry Potter?” she asked. “This is the Golden Snitch. It is chaos. Fucking chaos. Energetic chaos. This is the outcome. Shit going crazy. Potential for good but needs to be harnessed.” She read again from the book: “‘It is ungrounded energy, and it is not meant to be. Humans need to keep their feet firmly on Earth. If you encounter the Rarr, breathe slowly. Center and ground yourself. Be clear about objectives before chaos ensues.’ This one is terrifying because of who it is. It’s for Trump, but let’s face it: It’s kind of for everybody.” His fate, she believed, would determine ours.

I was bewildered by the wave of emotion that seemed to wash over both of us at once. Why did we cry? “Because it’s real,” she said. “It’s chaos and death and destruction.”

For clarity, she drew one more card.

She inhaled sharply.

“That’s the worst card in the deck,” she said. “The sickle.” The image was a sharp, curved blade. “‘Sudden shock, trauma, wounds.’ Think of a sickle: You slice everything apart.” She shook her head and waved her hand over the cards. “This isn’t good,” she said. “It’s not good.” She was not happy about what she had seen. She did not care to sing a tune of I-told-you-so. That kind of catharsis, she knew, was fleeting. What was left was only incredible sadness and palpable fear. She threw her face into her hands. “To me,” she said, “this is the perfect combination for a riot or civil war.”

Too much has happened too quickly involving too many people crammed into too small a universe. The same stars from reality television are the stars of our politics and our politicians are TV personalities and they all know one another and nobody ever goes away and the character arcs get crossed and tangled and sometimes it’s hard to keep it all straight.

The first Eastern European wife of the future president gave way to the southern actress who became the Dancing With the Stars contestant, as the second Eastern European and third-to-date wife then became the First Lady. The cast of Russians from the Mueller probe gave way to the cast of Ukrainians from the first impeachment. The press secretary competed on Dancing With the Stars, as did the guy in charge of the Department of Energy, who was also a guy from the last Republican primary before the one that nominated the host of The Apprentice. The great villain of the first season of The Apprentice who worked for Al Gore landed in the White House again working for the former Apprentice host and played to type, making secret recordings before getting the ax and releasing a tell-all book. A Celebrity Apprentice contestant became friendly with North Korea’s dictator, which helped pave the way for a summit where the president blew up precedent with Elton John references designed either to prove his madman theory of diplomacy or to provoke a homicidal lunatic into nuclear war. The Playboy model was followed by the porn star, and the porn star was promised a role on The Celebrity Apprentice. The war erupted between the other homicidal dictator and the other TV-star president of another country, who was in fact a central figure in the first impeachment.

And that is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the far-out shit that went on a fraction of the time, and that’s just the shit we know about.

All the while, the investigations and the lawsuits played out on a plane above our heads, casting light and shadow at odd intervals, moving too slowly and too mysteriously to draw eyeballs most of the time.

Even against this competition, Stormy Daniels sticks out. As of press time, there is perhaps no woman in America more burdened than the porn star and director. To borrow a phrase: Think of it. MAGA she-devil. Resistance heroine. Me Too data point. Witness for high-profile investigators. All because of one night 17 years ago, when she accepted a dinner invitation from a pop-culture curiosity she met at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe.

It was 2006. Daniels was there with Wicked, the company with which she was under contract to write, direct, and star in porn, work that had made her, by the age of 27, the most celebrated and highly paid woman in adult entertainment, in her estimation. The year prior, she had broken through to the mainstream in a new way — with a cameo in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. At the tournament, she was working, passing out water and posing for photos with famous men. She exchanged pleasantries with Trump, and, as she would later tell the story, he paused, clearly intrigued, when he learned she was a director. “That’s very interesting,” she recalled him saying. In a photo from the event, Trump wears a yellow polo shirt and red hat with his Trump golf-club logo.

She was invited to dinner with him by his longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller. She didn’t hide it. She told her boyfriend as well as several friends and work acquaintances also in Lake Tahoe. She declined Schiller’s offer to send a car to retrieve her and bring her to Trump’s hotel. She put on her favorite gold dress and strappy gold heels and walked over. Schiller directed her to enter the penthouse, one of those big suites with its own living and dining room, where she found Trump meandering in black silk pajamas. She was furious, she recalled. She mocked him, comparing him to Hugh Hefner, and told him to change. He obliged. He returned, chastened, in his uniform of dark suit and tie. When he spent too much time bragging about himself and showing off a magazine with his face on the cover, she ordered him to bend over and “drop ’em.” He did. She rolled up the magazine and spanked him with it. It wasn’t sexual, she said. It was purely a battle of egos. She won, she thought. And they talked for hours about her business. He complimented her intellect. He compared her favorably to his eldest daughter, Ivanka, which Daniels insists was not incestuous sounding or creepy. He called her “a woman to be reckoned with.” He thought more people should know this, and, in fact, he had an idea: Daniels should be a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice.

She walked deeper into the suite to the bathroom. Inside, she noted the toiletries: Pert Plus two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, Old Spice, and gold nail clippers. When she emerged, Trump was perched on the edge of the bed, stripped down to a white undershirt, white briefs, and socks. “I had a sense of a vacuum taking all of the air out of the room and me deflating with it,” she later wrote. “I sighed inwardly, keenly aware of two thoughts in that one moment. There was a simple, Oh fuck. Here we go. But there was also a much more complex, sad feeling that none of what he said was true. He didn’t respect me. Everything he said to me was bullshit. And I was mad at myself. How did I miss this? I have been stripping since I was 17. I can read a room. I never caught it.”

She didn’t say “no.” She didn’t say “yes,” either. To me, she said, “When I tried to step around him, he was like, ‘I thought you wanted to be a director. Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes.’ And I knew his bodyguard was outside the door.” She froze. She does not remember getting undressed, though she knows she must have. “It was an out-of-body experience. I was lying down on the bed with him on top of me, naked. I was just there, my head on the pillow. There was no foreplay, and it was one position. Missionary. We kissed and his hard, darting tongue pushed in and out of my mouth. I thought, He’s even a terrible kisser. I lay there as he fumbled his dick into me. I was surprised he didn’t even mention a condom … He wasn’t aggressive, and I know for damn sure I could have outrun him if I tried, but I didn’t.”

Much has been made of Daniels’s description of Trump’s anatomy. “His penis is distinctive in a certain way,” she wrote. “It has a huge mushroom head. Like a toadstool … I am sorry to report that it is not freakishly small. It is smaller than average — below the true average, not the porn average.” She called him “a guy with Yeti pubes and a dick like the mushroom character in Mario Kart.” It was, she said, among the least impressive “two to three minutes” of her life. (Trump denies all of this.)

Through the months that followed, Daniels and Trump kept in contact. He called often. She visited his office in Trump Tower and attended one of his pageants. When they were next alone, at his bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel, he made her watch “Shark Week.” He interrupted it to answer a call from Hillary Clinton, who was then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. (Asked about this call in 2018, Clinton did not respond.) When they hung up, Daniels said, he announced, “I love her!” Trump and Daniels never slept together again, even though, she said, he wanted to and he used The Celebrity Apprentice as “bait” to keep her interested. They would need to rig the competition, he told her, which he was eager to do to keep her on the show; he would provide her with details of the challenges ahead of time, and together they would hatch a plan for her success.

The role (and the plot to cheat) never materialized, and soon Daniels stopped taking his calls. She moved on with her life. “It’s easy to move on from bad sex with a billionaire,” as she put it. Only when she came across his face on television did she recall their odd relationship. “I had sex with that,” she said. She felt bad about it, but mostly she felt nothing about it at all. It was simply not the most important thing or even an important thing about her.

Not until 2011 did it come up again. Daniels says she received a call from In Touch Weekly, which was considering publishing her story. In her book, she recounts contacting a publicist named Gina Rodriguez who said she believed the tabloid had been informed by Daniels’s ex-husband, Mike Moz. Rodriguez laid out a case for cooperating: If she refused to talk, Daniels would be putting herself in a lose-lose situation. Not only would the secret be out, but it would be on her ex’s terms and likely for his financial benefit. However, if she worked with the magazine, she could exert some control and she would get paid. She recalled Rodriguez asking her, “‘Do you really want to hand him 15 grand?’” Daniels submitted to an interview and to a subsequent lie-detector test, which she passed.

It was around this time that Daniels says she was first threatened. In a parking lot in Las Vegas, retrieving her baby daughter from her car seat on their way to a Mommy and Me class, a man came up behind her. “Beautiful little girl you got there,” he said. She figured he was lost. She was going to offer to help him find where he was going. Instead, he said, “It’d really be a shame if something happened to her mom.” He was staring at the child. “Forget the story. Leave Mr. Trump alone.” She would have no choice but to oblige. In Touch went dark.

A few months later, the story cropped up again. Someone had told a gossip blog, The Dirty, about the relationship. Daniels isn’t sure who that someone was, though she has theories. The blog attributed the source to a “friend.” Rodriguez introduced Daniels to a lawyer, Keith Davidson, who she said could help. Within a few hours, the item had been taken offline. Daniels didn’t know who Davidson was, nor that his “specialty was brokering sex tapes and the like.” She was just grateful to avoid “humiliation.” She didn’t want the world — especially not her then-husband, Glen — to know about what had happened in Tahoe or in the months that followed. And for a little while longer, at least, it seemed no one would. “I let it go,” she said, “content to let Donald Trump recede into the past.”

The past caught up with her again in 2016. The closer Trump got to the White House, the more Daniels feared for her life. Going public, she came to believe, would protect her and her family. At least if something tragic happened — a single-car crash, an “overdose,” a gas-leak explosion — there would be a record of her accusations. There would be cause for suspicion. Without that, it would be much easier for a woman perceived as a potential optics problem for a potential president to just up and disappear.

Daniels made plans to tell her story on Good Morning America. She was on set directing a film when Rodriguez called to say she had to see her and it was urgent. When she arrived, accompanied by Davidson, Daniels was offered paperwork: The Trump campaign was prepared to pay her $130,000 to remain silent. The world has interpreted the fact of the so-called hush-money agreement through Trump’s perspective. He was the one with something obvious to lose. He was the one on his way to the presidency, already hobbled by then by the Access Hollywood tape and a rolling series of allegations of sexual harassment and assault. But the deal was not just financially advantageous for Daniels. It was exactly what she had always wanted: to protect herself, protect her daughter, and shield her husband, who struggled with his mental health, from the truth. “I felt like this was a ‘win,’” she would later write. “I got to stay in my home with my daughter and do the work that I love. I won’t be defined by Donald fucking Trump, and I won’t be branded a gold digger. And they can’t murder me. And I don’t have to tell Glen!” Davidson presented Daniels with the NDA, which she signed on the spot. The payment — around $80,000, once Davidson and Rodriguez had taken their share — was wired to Daniels ten days before the 2016 election.

Stormy Daniels lit a Camel and took a sip of Coca-Cola. She was sitting on the back patio of her house in the countryside, in a southern state she’d prefer not to disclose, a sanctuary with stables for her two horses, where she’d always wanted to live and where her peace — and her life — were now under constant existential threat. She had anticipated that Trump’s indictment would bring with it a kind of catharsis. But when the news broke, “I was just numb,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It just doesn’t feel like anything. It doesn’t feel like a victory.” Daniels being Daniels, she landed on this description: “It was like having sex for hours and not having an orgasm. Like if I put on lingerie. I lit the candles. We put the restraints on the bed. We put down a tarp, fresh batteries, and everything. I shaved. I got a wax. And I didn’t come. That’s what this feels like.”

The Friday after the indictment, I traveled from Washington to meet Daniels here. As I drove through the countryside, Piers Morgan announced that she had abruptly postponed their own interview citing threats to her safety. She wouldn’t respond to texts. I spent the evening wandering aimlessly through the nearby farmlands waiting for her to answer. The next day, she still wasn’t answering, so I just showed up, very much aware that in this part of America, you can shoot people who do that and get away with it. At the end of her driveway, I found Barrett Blade, her current husband, whom she married in 2022, checking the mail. Daniels was not doing well and would not be entertaining visitors, he said. Who could blame her?

She surfaced a little while later. I needed to give her an hour, she said, and to agree not to judge her for her appearance. She had been crying. On the patio, Daniels told me this had all been much harder and much more emotional than she’d expected. Earlier that day, she saw Blade cry for the first time in the two decades they’ve known each other, with the exception of the tears he shed watching rom-coms.

“I didn’t ask for this, but I can’t imagine anybody else could have handled it,” she said, “because I’m barely handling it.”

We were talking about how different it is this time around. When she first became a character in this great national political drama, shit got crazy fast. It didn’t matter that she was a registered Republican or that, despite the revelations in her stories about the Republican nominee, she was one of the only people expressing much nuance about his deeply unusual personality. I mentioned that, post-insurrection, the vibe at political events of all kinds just felt different — dicier and more dangerous. I’d been grabbed by a man at a school-board meeting in Virginia, the first time I’d ever had someone physically intimidate or touch me in the course of my reporting. She’d felt the shift too. It wasn’t that she hadn’t received threats and all manner of dark and horrific missives before. It was that now there seemed to be no boundaries. People didn’t even bother to make sock-puppet accounts to tell her how and when and where they wished or they wanted or they planned to harm her. They used their real names, their real photos. A religious fervor seemed to animate the trolls. She compared them to “suicide bombers.” They believed hating her was a righteous act.

“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. My personal opinion is that you’re insane if you think he’s the best choice, but I’m not endorsing a political candidate,” she said. She was struck anew by how bizarre and sad it all was. This willful ignorance of the facts. It didn’t matter how credibly or how often or how loudly she corrected false claims. She was never paid for sex. She did not violate her NDA. She was not a Democratic plant or an activist. She did not say she felt this way or that way or wanted this or that outcome. She had receipts. And nobody who did not want to care, who was not predisposed to believe and support her already, paid any attention at all. It did not matter.

Few people know what this is like. And the few who do stick together. Kathy Griffin, Mary Trump, and E. Jean Carroll have all remained in close contact, sharing an understanding of this particular type of traumatic chaos. “I would say ‘strange bedfellows,’ but I don’t want to,” Mary Trump joked. “It’s like the weirdest incarnation of Charlie’s Angels ever.” She admires Daniels for her strength in the face of these strangest of circumstances: “It’s not just that she’s handled it well, but she’s handled it very intelligently. You can’t tear down a woman who has no fucks to give about this. She’s so self-aware and so comfortable in her own skin, and they are the opposite. They have no self-awareness, and everything bothers them. It’s quite a wonderful, amusing contrast.”

“She has never exaggerated. She’s going through new horrible shit all the time and triumphing,” Griffin said. “I think there is a part of her that thought this stuff was over, but they’ll continue to torture her. Daniels is someone that they kind of pick on just when they feel like it.”

“When you become that person that’s unfortunately so infamous politically and then you throw in one of the most famous faces in the world …” Griffin said. “I don’t know how she’s not in a nut bin.” Griffin being Griffin, she came up with this description: “She’s like a porno Dorothy Parker, and I want to be at that roundtable! It’s me, Mary, E. Jean, and Daniels and probably her husband and a fluffer.”

She went on: “History will see her not just as an adult-film actress first but as a warrior, too. She’s a real cog in the wheel of his attempt to climb to fascism. This sucker wants to be a dictator, and Stormy Daniels is one of the only people who can take action and say, ‘Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.’ There will be dolls. I would give my daughter a Stormy doll in a heartbeat.”

Speaking of dolls, I first met Daniels in 2018, a few months after the story of her relationship with the president and the campaign-season hush-money payment was published by The Wall Street Journal. She was living in an old church in New Orleans, about an hour from where she grew up in Baton Rouge in poverty and neglect, and where she had first found freedom on the back of a horse. That church was haunted, she told me now. And the spirits that roamed its halls stuck with her. They followed her wherever she went. New spirits visited her all the time. Sometimes, she said, it felt like The Walking Dead. About this, she was curious. In her new home, she had made them an altar. Across the room, on a small highchair in the corner, was Susan, a doll possessed, she said, by the spirit of a child from the 1700s, a friend of another child who had died of cancer. Before Daniels read the cards, she handed me the doll. Its eyes startled me. Blue and alive. As we processed her reading, she nodded over to the corner. “Susan’s crying, too,” she said.

Outside the courthouse on the morning of April 4, with Daniels’s reading in mind, I tiptoed up to the crowd. I braced for mobs. I looked for signs of her prophecy. But the scene was controlled, the fights mostly contained. “This is Indictmentchella,” one guy, a frat-bro type, remarked. “Two genders!” one woman yelled. “Two brain cells!” a man yelled back. They faced off like this for a few minutes. Bystanders laughed. A guy walked around with a sign: VIRGINS 4 TRUMP.

In the indictment, prosecutors allege the defendant “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.” The “scheme” the defendant “orchestrated” related to the practice of “catch and kill,” or purchasing damaging stories in order to suppress their publication. “At the Defendant’s request, a lawyer who then worked for the Trump Organization as Special Counsel to Defendant (Lawyer A), covertly paid $130,000 to an adult film actress shortly before the election to prevent her from publicizing a sexual encounter with the Defendant.” The payment was processed through a shell company. “This payment was illegal,” prosecutors said, “and Lawyer A has since pleaded guilty to making an illegal campaign contribution and served time in prison. Further, false entries were made in New York business records to effectuate this payment, separate and apart from the New York business records used to conceal the payment.”

Reached for comment, Lawyer A, Michael Cohen — who in the years since has been reborn as a central Trump critic and sometime hero to the resistance — told me, “While Stormy’s name will forever be attached to this historic indictment, the 34 felony counts against Trump are of his own doing, and, if convicted, it is he who will be held accountable.”

Inside, Trump was diminished. Flanked by lawyers. Out of control, formally and finally, likely not for the last time. He spoke few words. He entered his plea: “Not guilty.”

For now, no one knows better than Daniels how this might conclude. On cable and elsewhere, pundits and so-called experts are drawing on the same slim fractions of fractions of facts. The cards seem as good a guess as anyone has to offer.

Two nights after the arraignment, I woke suddenly in my hotel room in a familiar panic. It was 4:30 a.m. In my unconscious mind, I had been in a place that looked like Daniels’s neighborhood. Maybe a little more suburban. Beautiful. Green. It was dark, and I wandered along a path. There were two men who made me nervous. I didn’t like the look of them. Their eyes followed me to a house. I fixated on the gate and the doors and the windows. The latches and bolts worked, but nothing would lock. Then the neighborhood changed. It was busy now. A rooftop restaurant. A deck. There was a man on the street below, and he walked with anger. Fast and purposeful. I knew the man was walking in anger to a television studio. I knew he had a gun. I had to stop him, but how could I? I was on a small jet over the water. Flying lower and lower as it reached the coast. Everyone would die because of me. I felt Daniels’s presence. She was in trouble too. The plane hit the beach. My heart leaped into my throat. Then, nothing. Everything, it turned out, was fine.

Daniels had said Susan might decide to talk to me, to come and find me. I’ll admit I waited to hear. I wanted to believe. Don’t you? Yet another burden on the woman Piers Morgan (who did finally get the interview) called the most famous on earth.

“I used to be very adamant that I’m not a victim,” Daniels told me. “But I kind of am at this point.”


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