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White House

Waiting for the Smoking Gun

Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels ((Reuters/Eduardo Munoz))

During the last year or two thousand years of the Obama administration (it felt long), I used to complain a lot about the way liberals and the press talked about Hillary’s email scandal and her off-book server. Some new revelation would come out, and they’d all say, “There’s no smoking gun.” And then, because there was no smoking gun, they’d pretend that this meant she was in the clear of any wrongdoing.

As I said, over and over at the time, there were at least two problems with this. First, the “smoking gun standard” – like getting “caught red-handed” – is the highest form of evidence short of a confession. It essentially means total, dispositive proof of the misdeed. Well, as most cops and prosecutors will tell you, this is actually very rare. Often prosecutors take cases to court without any smoking guns at all. Forget “often.” Most of the time that’s what happens. When prosecutors have you dead to rights, you usually cop a plea. I bring this up because saying, “There’s no smoking gun!” is not synonymous with, “She’s innocent!” It’s not even a stand-in for reasonable doubt.

Then there’s the second problem: There was a smoking gun! It was her server, sitting there all smoky. Almost everyone acknowledged it was wrong for her to set up a private, unsecured server to park classified information on. They just didn’t want to think the unthinkable that this act alone disqualified Clinton from running for president. So they kept demanding even more damning evidence of something worse while allegedly “withholding judgment.”

Sorry to rehash all of that. I bring it up because I feel like there’s a similar dynamic at play with the Stormy Daniels story. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t believe the story is true. You won’t find a lot of Trump boosters who say it’s true, but you can tell they think it when they start crying, “Hypocrisy!” or, ““Whatabout Clinton!?” (Someone needs to explain to these guys that if you made a big deal about Democratic sexual impropriety and don’t about Republican sexual impropriety, you’re just as hypocritical as the liberals who didn’t make a big deal about Democrats’ misbehavior but do about Republicans’.)

Meanwhile, every mainstream journalist thinks the story is true. Maybe they don’t buy Stormy’s stated motives or her story about being threatened, but they believe the basics. And why wouldn’t they? She signed an NDA, not a Do Not Make Up An Affair That Didn’t Happen Agreement (DNMUAATDHA).

I am sure beyond all doubt that many in the press want to “weaponize” this to hurt Trump. But they really don’t know how to do that. So there’s a strong incentive to pretend like we need more evidence.

Also, I don’t think many liberals or conservatives are comfortable thinking through what they should think about this story. Surely liberals don’t think extramarital affairs a decade ago – no matter how sleazy – are grounds for impeachment or in some material way disqualifying. Pro-Trump conservatives don’t want to do the hard work of coming up with some lame explanation for why this was okay or none of our business, not when that would involve so much cognitive dissonance. And the press itself, which loves and hates this story, doesn’t want it to go away but also doesn’t want it to be simply a prurient sh**show without a conclusion. Even conservative Trump critics have reasons to ignore the story. The hard Never Trump types want the President’s undoing to be for Profound Threats to Democracy, not something tawdry. For mere Trump skeptics, avoiding seeming like you pile-on at every opportunity has some appeal.

All of these factors create a burning need for a smoking gun again. For those who want to “take down” Trump, the infidelity isn’t enough; they literally need something more. For those who want to defend Trump, the lack of a smoking gun is vital because it permits withholding judgment. For the journalists who want to keep this story alive, the quest for a smoking gun of some kind is essential and self-justifying. For the journalists ashamed of investing in something so lurid, a smoking gun could give their investment new credibility and legitimacy.

What would the smoking gun be? It depends. For some it would be proof of a threat. For others, ironclad proof the tryst took place or (shudder) pictures. And for yet others, they don’t want to define the smoking gun, they just want to be able to say there isn’t one and so therefore we should all withhold judgment and give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

It all feels so familiar.


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