Political News

Interview on alleged affair tests Trump's vow of silence

Posted March 22, 2018 8:32 p.m. EDT
Updated March 23, 2018 7:50 a.m. EDT

— The question now is whether President Donald Trump can hold his tongue -- or his tweets -- amid a gathering storm of televised allegations and court gambits about his sexual conduct.

Stunning comments in an exclusive CNN interview by former Playboy model Karen McDougal on Thursday put the unusual seeming vow of silence Trump has observed about a trio of civil cases to which he is linked to its most critical test -- and raised the issue of how he will respond.

McDougal's interview with Anderson Cooper ratcheted up already intense personal and legal pressure on Trump, and his position will only get more uncomfortable with a blockbuster CBS "60 Minutes" interview with adult film star Stormy Daniels on Sunday.

A campaign of media appearances and legal moves by the two women, and a third, former "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos, leaves Trump in the unaccustomed position of watching mutely as his image is tarnished on television.

The President and White House aides have denied the allegations by all three of the women.

But normally, Trump would leap on Twitter or use a public event to castigate anyone who took a shot at him. After all, he's feuded with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Meryl Streep and Colin Kaepernick to Joe Biden, who took to the airwaves to rebuke him.

Despite vowing to sue all the women who had accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct once the 2016 election was over, Trump has done no such thing, leaving his lawyers fighting a rearguard action against a wave of accusations in court.

Trump's natural inclination to return fire to any slight or accusation broadcast on cable news was sorely tested by the content of Thursday's interview.

McDougal told Cooper that she and Trump had had sex "many dozens" of times, that he upset her by offering money after the first time they were intimate and that they met many times over a 10-month period more than a decade ago.

She also said she had been in love with Trump, and saw a loving side of the former reality star in private that was at odds with his tough public image.

McDougal is suing American Media Inc., the company she said quashed her story about the alleged affair in a tabloid maneuver known as "catch and kill."

The company previously told CNN in a statement that McDougal "has been free to respond to press inquiries about her relationship with President Trump since 2016" and that American Media had not "silenced" her.

But McDougal told Cooper that she wanted her life rights to her story back because she did not benefit from promises for a series of columns and a modeling contract in the company's magazines. She also said she had initially been attracted to selling her story for financial reasons.

"I feel like the contract is illegal, I feel like ... I was lied to (by) everybody involved in this deal," McDougal told Cooper, denying that she had wanted to damage Trump and saying she is a Republican who voted for him in 2016.

"I want to share my truth because everyone else is talking about my truth. I need to share my story. ... I've never talked, since the day it happened. I have refused to speak publicly, privately even. My friends know, my family know, but nobody else knows. I wanted to keep it quiet. But now that it's out, I need to control it."

Risks of Trump's deepening legal woes

The thickening legal morass around the President involving the three sex-related lawsuits threatens to deepen his legal exposure and add to the incessant chaos that whirls around the White House. While it is unclear whether the various suits have merit, if they are allowed to go forward they could eventually force the President to provide depositions. Given his demonstrated tendency not to always tell the truth he would potentially risk perjuring himself under oath, thereby taking a case from the civil to the criminal realm.

And, legal experts say, the answers to questions raised in a deposition could open fresh avenues for legal inquiry and potential vulnerabilities for Trump.

The personal scandals now raging around the President come at a moment when sources say he is furious that the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller is edging closer and closer to his family, including their financial histories, and the Oval Office.

Tensions over the Russia investigation are likely to significantly escalate next month, when fired FBI Director James Comey embarks on a book tour, after warning the President that when he tells his story the American people will be able to judge "who is honorable and who is not."

Then there is the potential personal impact on the President of the flurry of explicit, embarrassing stories dominating news coverage, as well as the risk that they could strain his marriage. CNN contacted first lady Melania Trump's office for comment about the interview but there was no immediate response.

Getting tough on Mueller

While the President has skipped past multiple scandals and dramas that would have felled a normal politician and his most loyal supporters have remained faithful to him, it's possible the personal scandals could have an impact on some voters in a midterm election year.

Trump's silence on the cases surrounding his alleged sexual conduct contrasts with the newly aggressive strategy he's rolling out against Mueller, amid turmoil in his legal team and the resignation of his top lawyer handling that matter, John Dowd, on Thursday.

After months of avoiding direct attacks on Mueller, Trump targeted the special counsel in a tweetstorm last weekend and signed up an aggressive new lawyer, Joseph diGenova, to join his team.

It's unclear how Trump's proactive strategy on the Mueller front will play out. But it is likely in his best interests not to indulge any temptation to engage with McDougal, Daniels or another woman who has claimed that he behaved inappropriately toward her, Zervos.

That's because his instinct to attack has already significantly exacerbated his legal exposure on the Zervos case -- on which the statue of limitations had passed. Trump's claims that his accusers were liars allowed the Zervos legal team to resuscitate her allegations in a defamation suit.

Further interventions by Trump could play into the hands of accusers and their lawyers who are are turning up the heat on the President with legal moves and media appearances.

Daniels, who is trying to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement preventing her speaking about an alleged affair with the former real estate tycoon more than a decade ago, has taken to taunting Trump on Twitter.

And her lawyer is warning that her case is one issue that the President -- who has taken steps to assert control over his legal strategy on the Mueller probe and on his administration with a string of personnel moves -- cannot control.

"The President may be able to fire Mueller, but he can't fire me and he can't fire my client," Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Daniels, told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday.