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The Stormy Daniels swirl of trouble for President Trump: How bad is it?

The Stormy Daniels swirl of trouble for President Trump: How bad is it?
Stormy Daniels in 2007. (Matt Sayles / Associated Press)

President Trump is rarely at a loss for words, but Stormy Daniels has left him virtually mute as she and her hard-charging lawyer filed a lawsuit and kicked up a storm of publicity over Trump's alleged extramarital affair with the porn actress.

It's a rare turn of roles for a president for whom almost nothing is off limits for personal commentary.

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It's also a public-relations coup for Daniels and her Newport Beach lawyer, Michael Avenatti.

In national television interviews over the last 10 days, Avenatti has taunted Trump, saying the president had to know that Daniels was paid $130,000 just before the 2016 election to cover up her alleged affair with him. Avenatti has also mocked Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for saying he used his own money to pay Daniels.

"I think from a PR perspective, this is a disaster for Mr. Cohen and the president," Avenatti said Tuesday. "And it's not going to get better. It's only going to get worse."

In a brief phone conversation, Cohen said questions should be submitted by email. He did not respond to an email.

Avenatti acknowledged that driving the media narrative was a crucial aspect of his legal work for Daniels, who sued Trump last week in an attempt to void her agreement to not talk about her relationship with Trump.

"I think you need to have someone that's a good chess player, and at the same time, that isn't afraid to get into a street fight and to take a punch," Avenatti said.

Or, as Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Harland Braun put it: "He's just fighting fire with fire."

Bill Cunningham, a New York politics veteran who has watched Trump's career closely, said Avenatti "might be problematic for the Trump folks, because they're not used to that."

"They're used to dominating the press," he said.

On Wednesday evening, Avenatti set the agenda again. He released documents showing the Trump Organization was more deeply involved in legal moves to silence Daniels than was previously known. He appeared on CNN in prime time to rebuke the president.

Daniels' lawsuit threatens to expose details of Trump's sex life and the methods he used as a rich Manhattan celebrity to buy the silence of people who might bring him bad publicity.

The suit has put Trump in a bind. Anything he says about Daniels would intensify media scrutiny of a scandal that has no political upside for the president. For him to talk about her would run the risk of breaking the hush-money deal that she signed 11 days before the 2016 election, freeing her to tell her story with no constraints.

In interviews with "Inside Edition" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in January, Daniels declined to answer questions about Trump. It's not yet clear whether she remained as coy in a "60 Minutes" interview with Anderson Cooper that has not yet aired.

Avenatti, however, has been stating openly that Daniels had sex with Trump after they met at a Lake Tahoe golf tournament in 2006. Daniels provided graphic details in a 2011 interview with In Touch magazine, which was not published until the Wall Street Journal revealed the $130,000 payment in January.

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Whether the aggressive media strategy will free Daniels from the nondisclosure agreement is far from certain. She argues the deal is invalid because Trump did not sign it.

If nothing else, the case has vaulted Daniels into the top ranks of American porn stars. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is performing at strip clubs nationwide on a "Make America Horny Again" tour.

"What she really wants is publicity," said George Arzt, a New York public relations guru. "And she's getting it."

Daniels, 38, acknowledged in a CNN interview that the Trump scandal is making her money.

"If someone came up to you and said, 'Hey, you know that job you've been doing forever — how about next week I pay you quadruple?' Show me one person who is going to say no," she said.

Avenatti denied her primary motive was money.

"When she is able to speak to the American people, they are going to find her statements and her version of events to be very credible," he said.

The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in Los Angeles, could affect Trump's legal exposure in campaign finance complaints filed by Common Cause, a nonpartisan ethics group. The payment to Daniels was aimed at influencing the election and thus Trump should have disclosed it in a campaign spending report, Common Cause alleges.

History suggests the Federal Election Commission, which could fine the Trump campaign for any violations, will ignore one of the complaints.

"You can't go wrong betting on FEC inaction," said Adav Noti, a former FEC lawyer who now oversees litigation for the Campaign Legal Center, another nonpartisan ethics watchdog. "But this situation is significantly unusual that I don't think anyone can say with certainty that it will deadlock."

But a second complaint that Common Cause filed with the Justice Department could result in a criminal prosecution if people involved in Trump's campaign knew they were required to disclose the hush money as an election expense and willfully failed to do so, Noti said.

The circumstances are similar to what led to the indictment of former Sen. John Edwards on charges of using campaign money to hide his pregnant mistress from voters while running for president. The case ended in an acquittal on one charge and a mistrial on five others.

Noti suggested that the Trump case could be stronger if prosecutors bring charges, because the payment to Daniels was made just 11 days before the 2016 election.

"The fact that the settlement came so close to the election really strongly suggests that it was intended to protect the candidate for electoral purposes, which means that it was a contribution and should have been reported," he said.

Cohen has denied the payment was meant to sway the election.

Twitter: @finneganLAT

UPDATES:

4:25 p.m., March 15: The article was updated with Avenatti talking about documents showing the Trump Organization's new role in legal maneuvers against Daniels.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m. on March 13.

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