Springtime in Central Florida is balmy as a matter of course, but the weekend after President Donald Trump’s indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney was unusually hot, as though the weather itself had caught the rising fever in American politics. “Normally, I’d say sit outside, but it’s like 90° so we’d better stay in here,” says Stormy Daniels, taking a seat in the red-walled living room of the home she and her husband, Barrett Blade, moved into last year. She prefers to keep the location a secret, in general, and for obvious reasons, but the need for discretion is now acute: In the days since Trump announced on social media that he expected to face arrest connected to his hush money payments to Daniels in 2016, she’s been facing a firehose of death threats. “Gonna kill you, gonna kill your family, gonna set fire to your house…” lists off Blade, rolling his eyes as he hands his wife a chilled can of Coke. “Stormy’s tough, she’s pretty good at laughing things off, but it does get to her, of course.”
On this particular day, however, Stormy Daniels is fretting less about Trump fanatics who may or may not be trying to track her down, than she is about a horse. “OK, so the story is complicated but—I’m not going to cry again—but the short version is, this woman I thought was my friend was taking care of Leo for me, and basically she went behind my back and sold herself my horse, my Irish horse, for $1!” Daniels dabs her eyes, willing away tears; then, in a flash, the anger comes, her loose ponytail whipping vigorously as she shakes her head in disbelief. “So, yeah, basically she stole him. This was the horse I was riding when, I mean, back before the election, before all the… When I was ranked eighth in my division,” she says, referring to her lesser-known life in serious three-day eventing, an equestrian competition that combines riding, dressage, and jumping. “You have to understand: That horse, he was all I had left when everything happened. My whole life turned upside-down. I had to move. My marriage ended. But at least I had Leo…”
Daniels averts her gaze, staring out the glass door to the yard, where her new horse, Redemption, is munching fresh hay in his stall. She fusses with the frills on her navy sundress. Collects herself, and turns back. “Let’s talk about something else. I mean, we’re not here to chat about horses, are we?”
Stormy Daniels is ready to talk about Donald Trump. She’s always been ready: As she points out, she’d told lots of people about her 2006 sexual encounter with Trump at a Nevada resort, and well before the real estate developer-turned-reality star announced his run for president. “I mean he’d call me when I was in hair-and-makeup on shoots and I’d put him on speakerphone—lots of people heard him, lots of people knew,” she says. Stormy is not exactly eager to revisit the tale, but she’s canny enough to realize that if she doesn’t speak up, in the wake of the indictment, her silence will be filled by yet more chatter diminishing her as a fame-seeking, gold-digging porn star out to take down one of the world’s most powerful men. “My name is in the news again, so my merch sales are up—it’s natural, but the way it gets talked about is, like, I’m doing a marketing campaign,” she points out with a sigh. “Meanwhile, he’s out there raising millions of dollars for his campaign on the back of this…” She perceives a double standard. It pisses her off. So do the twinned possibilities that legal jeopardy will play to Trump’s political advantage, and her life will be thrown back into turmoil. “We just bought this house,” she says. “I don’t want to have to move again.”
Stormy Daniels is at once central to Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg’s case against Donald Trump, and peripheral to it. The precise charges Bragg’s office is expected to bring against the former president—and current 2024 presidential candidate—are as yet unknown, but based on the witnesses called to appear before the grand jury, it’s almost certain that they stem from the $130,000 paid to Daniels in 2016. “Paying hush money isn’t illegal,” notes Rebecca Roiphe, Professor of Law at New York University and a former prosecutor for the Manhattan D.A. “And there’s a law in New York about falsifying business records, as happened here, but that’s a misdemeanor—unless the fraud is undertaken to commit or conceal another crime. That’s a felony. But we don’t know yet know the nature of the crime.” Daniels doesn’t know, either: She wasn’t called to testify before the grand jury, and the details of how and why her payment was arranged by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen are as murky to her as they are to the general public. “All I really know is, I got a check,” she says. “And then all hell broke loose.”
Stormy Daniels was already notorious when news of her liaison with Donald Trump hit the news in January 2018, right after his inauguration. But it was a niche notoriety: When she met Trump for the first time at a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada, she was arguably the most successful porn actress in the world—a status attested to by her multiple AVN awards, the adult film industry’s Oscars, and the cameo she had just shot in Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin. She wasn’t a household name, as she is now, and at the time, Daniels was keen to bridge the chasm between porn stardom and a mainstream career in entertainment—indeed, she remains so, with plans to write and direct a feature film—and Trump dangled just such an opportunity, teasing the possibility that she could appear on his hit series The Celebrity Apprentice. He invited her to have dinner the night of the tournament—his wife, Melania, was at home with their then-infant son Barron—and Daniels arrived at his hotel room with the expectation that they’d be dining downstairs, in one of the resort’s restaurants. Trump answered the door in his pajamas; she smacked him on the ass with a magazine, and told him to get dressed. “People made that out like I was flirting,” Daniels recalls. “I wasn’t. It was like, what are you doing? Put your clothes on.”
Daniels has told this story many times. These days, she’s hyper-focused on correcting some common misconceptions about her tale—like, what she means by “hotel room.” “People think ‘hotel room’ and they think, you walk in and there’s the bed,” she notes. “It wasn’t like that. His room was like a giant apartment—it had a formal dining room! So it didn’t seem completely insane for me to hang out there, or for him to suggest we order up food…. I never got the sense he was trying to seduce me. He’d put on his suit, and we were just talking, he was asking me questions about my work. Good questions.” Daniels interrupts herself with a bark of laughter. “He was smart! Not, like, Einstein, but—like, he spoke in whole sentences.” For a moment, Daniels seems to disappear into her recollection, as if trying to connect the man, Donald Trump, who chatted with her that night, to the larger-than-life figure who has turned American politics on its head. “Sometimes I see him on TV and I’m like—what happened? Who even is that guy?” She goggles her eyes for effect. “I’m as confused by his hold over people as everyone else.”
What happened next in that hotel room is, in part, a blank. It’s also the oh-so-brief chapter of the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump saga that Daniels has been mulling over since she did her first round of media appearances in 2018. Back then, she seemed happy to joke about Trump’s appendage—mushroom-like, in her estimation—and his average-ness as a lover, and to brush off any intimation that she’d been victimized, that she was another #MeToo case study. As she told Amy Chozick, who profiled her in the August 2018 issue of Vogue, her status as a Resistance poster girl rankled; it made for an uneasy fit with her offscreen lifestyle, as a registered Republican living in Texas, among friends who liked horses, and unregulated capitalism, and guns. Moreover, she says now, she felt she was disrespected by many of her would-be allies—one sticking point, Daniels notes, was the use of her legal name, Stephanie Clifford. “It was like, ‘she’s not a porn star,’ she’s a woman, say her name!” She throws up her hands, for emphasis. “My name is Stormy Daniels! And I am a porn star! What annoyed me was that they didn’t say, and she’s a porn-writer/director, too.”
But Daniels’ feelings about the past have been complicated by the way she’s considered that memory-blank in the hotel room. “So at one point after we’d been chatting for a couple hours, I got up to use the bathroom,” she recalls. “And then I come out, and—it’s like, there’s 90 seconds that don’t exist. I don’t know what happened. I’m standing there, in the doorway, and all of a sudden he’s there in his underwear, doing the world’s worst Burt Reynolds impression, and—that’s the thing I don’t understand, I don’t understand how I got from the doorway to being underneath him in the bed.” She pauses, takes stock. “I remember thinking—his bodyguard is right outside that door; what happens if I hit him? Is that bodyguard going to come in here and hurt me? I remember him saying, ‘do you want to go back to the trailer park?’” She pauses again. “I never said I lived in a trailer park; I didn’t. I said we were poor…”
“But I don’t remember taking off my shoes,” she goes on. “And that’s what gets me. Because they were these gold shoes, with buckles—kind of a pain in the ass to put on and take off, you know? And I know I took them off because I had to put them back on again. And I remember that, putting them on. And it being a thing, because I wanted to leave. Afterwards. I know I didn’t say no,” she adds. “But I also know I didn’t say yes. I wasn’t threatened… I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
There are probably a lot of women who can identify with Stormy Daniels’ 90-second-blank. The fuse that shorts in your head when you’re forced to make a choice when there’s no good choice to make. The way you paper over the void with jokes, with defiance, with some kind of after-the-fact justification that gives the experiences narrative cohesion—and yourself a sense of agency. These are exactly the issues raised by #MeToo, in its initial post-Weinstein incarnation: Issues of power and consent. Watching the 2019 drama Bombshell made Daniels realize the ways she’d been caught in that matrix, she says. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.” As a stripper and porn actress, she had perhaps figured she understood the rules of the game, when it comes to the transactional value of female sexuality; as she told Chozick, her first big professional investment in herself was breast augmentation, implants that repaid their cost many times over in strip club tips. Bombshell made her see that, in her interaction with Trump, the game was rigged.
“What really hurts is that I’ve seen stories since, that are like, identical to mine, and I think—if I’d come forward earlier, could I have kept that stuff from happening?” And by extension—could she have somehow stopped the Trump presidential train before it ever got on the tracks?
Daniels is not a Trump supporter, needless to say. Her neighbors are. The rural area where she and Blade live is in the heart of Florida Trump country: Trump flags fly over numerous houses; billboards along the nearby highway advertise not just fireworks and fast food but also a machine gun shooting range and a law firm “fighting woke corporations.” Maybe, in the wake of the Manhattan indictment—and potential additional charges related to the 2020 election, purloined classified documents, and January 6th—Trump country will become DeSantis country. Daniels isn’t psyched about that prospect. “Hell no!” she replies, when asked if she’s a supporter of Florida’s culture warring governor. “I’m not pushing for anyone. I mean—the thing about me is, I was never that political. I wish I could just talk about horses.”
If Trump does face additional charges, maybe the Manhattan case—and Stormy Daniels—will fade into the background of the national discourse. She’d prefer that, she says; count Stormy Daniels among the U.S. citizens who rather wish that the first-ever indictment of a former president had been on loftier charges than ones relating to a hush money payment. “For my own sake, I’d like vindication, I’d like him to get what’s coming for once,” she says. “But that’s about me, and there’s other stuff that’s more like, about the country…”
Daniels may be underestimating the significance of the legal drama she set in motion. “This case is about a lack of respect for limits,” points out Professor Roiphe. “Nondisclosure agreements get signed all the time; there are ways to do these things, within the law, whatever you think about the ethics of NDAs. If this case winds up turning on how the Trump campaign was funded—well, we have laws about that for a reason, and other politicians work within them. There are limits that others respect,” Roiphe continues, “and the story of Trump, and the Trump presidency, is about a person who looks at those limits as obstacles to maneuver around. He thinks the rules don’t really apply to him. But they do.”
There’s another way the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump saga can be viewed as key, in that it’s quintessential of the man himself: As a businessman, as a politician, and as a would-be lover, if you want to call it that, he fancies himself a dealmaker; he implied to Stormy Daniels that he was offering her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…and then, like the laborers and lawyers and lenders who say he’s stiffed them over the years, reneged when his end of the bargain came due. Maybe that’s how certain Trump voters feel about his un-built wall, too.
“I do get it, in some ways—his appeal, at least early on,” Daniels says. “Coming out rough-around-the-edges, saying things other politicians just won’t say—I get how people could look at him and feel like, that guy is closer to me and my life and how I think than other people who run for office. I get that desire people have, for a person who ‘gets’ them. But what I can’t understand is how those people have stuck with him, after everything; they ought to be able to see who he is now.”
“It’s a mystery,” inserts Blade, returning to the living room to remind Daniels that they have a friend’s toddler’s birthday party to attend. She visibly blossoms in his presence; sparky in talking Trump, like a focused tennis player parrying shots, Daniels eases into her everyday self when the conversation turns to her life now. The house that she and Blade are in the midst of renovating. Their work together—Blade, a former adult film star, is Daniels’ longtime cameraman, shooting many of the films she’s directed. The hay that needs to be purchased for Redemption. Give or take a few tattoos, the couple come off like typical non-city-dwelling Americans, Sunday football on TV as they negotiate the day’s logistics. One feels that the “real” Stormy Daniels has emerged as she and Blade recount the tale—a better one than the Trump tale—of their love affair: They met at a concert when Daniels was 19 and Blade a touring musician; didn’t keep in touch, then ran into each other a few years later on a porn set, where it turned out Blade was going to be Daniels’ first-ever male co-star; became friends, watching each other wend through other relationships; and finally, Blade breaking down and confessing his love. “I was like, yeah man, I love you too,” Daniels recalls with a laugh. “I figured he meant, as friends…” They wed 24 years to the day after they met.
“It just goes to show, you really never know how things are going to turn out,” Daniels says. “My life is so crazy—at this point, I wouldn’t even be surprised if I wind up president one day.”