The Wall Street Journal editorializes: “If [President Trump] did order the payments to Ms. Clifford, he exhibited awful political as well as ethical judgment. By October 2016, after the Billy Bush tape had come out, a years-old affair with a porn star would not have shocked voters.” I won’t contest the ethical point, but the Journal is not giving Trump’s political judgment enough credit.
First: The tape had been experienced as a near-death experience by the Trump campaign, and seems to have widened Hillary Clinton’s lead over him by two points in the national polls the week the story hit. (I’m using the RealClearPolitics average in this paragraph.) Only by the very end of October had the polls tightened back to where they were before the tape was released. Based on that experience alone, it would not have been crazy for Trump to worry that a late revelation about Clifford/Daniels would have cost him votes.
Second: When the tape came out, Trump’s supporters had pled in mitigation that he was just talking. The Daniels story would have put his actual conduct at issue, and it would have been conduct following his most recent marriage. At the time there were no stories in wide circulation about adultery that recent. A minor thing, perhaps? But. . .
Third: The election was ultimately decided very narrowly. It would have taken 40,000 voters to switch from Trump to Clinton in the right places — out of 137 million votes cast — to reverse the result. Under the circumstances, I would not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the flapping of any particular butterfly’s wings affected the outcome.
In October 2016, Trump could not have truly known that his candidacy was going to survive the Access Hollywood tape. And even in retrospect, his apparent judgment that he was better off burying the story holds up.