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In the eye of the storm

While he seeks to make peace abroad, Donald Trump is facing a hurricane at home. Philip Delves Broughton reports on the porn star who could bring down a president

If it's not the announcement of face-to-face talks with Kim Jong-un, it's a trade war. If not the resignation of the President's chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, it's another peek into the snowballing investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia.

In the historical sweep of things, what Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels did or didn't do in various golf clubs and hotel suites between 2006 and 2007 might seem irrelevant.

Trump, at the time, was a mere property developer and emerging television star on The Apprentice. His wife of just a year, Melania, had recently given birth to their son, Barron. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was an established adult-entertainment actress and director.

According to Clifford, they met at a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada, talked a lot about the television business, had sex a few times in Trump's various hotel suites and went their separate ways. Trump, Clifford says, called her "honeybunch".

In 2011, Clifford gave an interview to In Touch magazine describing the alleged affair. In it, she said of the first time she slept with Trump: "I do remember while we were having sex, I was like, 'Please don't try to pay me'. And then I remember thinking, 'But I bet if he did, it would be a lot'."

At the time, the story and the characters were not considered newsworthy. The interview gathered dust. That all changed a few years later when Trump ran for the presidency.

During his campaign, 19 women came forward alleging he had done everything from groping them, grabbing them, touching them and kissing them to suggesting they lie down on the bed to "watch some telly-telly".

He denied all the allegations, but was then caught on tape telling the host of television show Access Hollywood that he forced himself on women because, as a rich and famous man, he could.

Trump's legal team set to work buttoning up anyone else who might reveal more about the candidate's past.

In October 2016, one month before the election, Trump's personal lawyer approached Clifford and offered her $130,000 to stay quiet.

The lawyer, Michael Cohen, claims he paid Clifford out of his own money and was never reimbursed by Trump, or his company.

As reporters dug in, it emerged that Clifford wasn't the only one being paid for her silence.

Shortly before the election, The Wall Street Journal reported, American Media Inc - publisher of the tabloid National Enquirer - paid Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, $150,000 for the story of her alleged affair with Trump. The CEO of American Media, Inc, David Pecker, is a close friend of Trump, and the story never ran.

The pattern that seemed to be emerging was that Trump had his associates pay off potential troublemakers, keeping any deals at arm's length. Voters, though, didn't seem to care.

In the election, around 40% of all women and 52% of white women voted for Trump. The hashtag #MeToo had yet to gather serious steam. And somewhere in an Arizona sex-addiction clinic, Harvey Weinstein is doubtless still pondering, "Why me, not him?".

The other saving grace for Trump may have been his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Attacking Trump too aggressively for his sex life and attitudes towards women would have reopened a whole slew of stories and allegations involving her husband, Bill. A year on and the public mood has changed.

Back when he was campaigning, Trump could show off his jet, his gold-plated lifestyle, the glamorous women in his circle and know that, while the liberals of New York and California might sneer, his audiences admired these gaudy symbols of his success. Even an adulterous affair with a porn star, he might have assumed, would earn him respect, rather than contempt.

But, today, the alleged affair and the pay-off fit a darker narrative. This is no longer just another tale of Donald behaving like Jack the Lad. This is a story of a President laying himself open to blackmail.

If his lawyer was ready to pay $130,000 to silence one woman, what else might Trump be hiding? What else might the Russians have on him?

The women who voted for Trump are drifting away. His failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act disappointed many of them, as did his support for the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls some 40 years ago.

Polls taken in the past month show Trump's approval rating among white women has fallen by 10 percentage points.

Among the blue-collar women in rust-belt states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, his approval has fallen by 20 points. Some 79% of women without degrees view sexual harassment of women at work as a real problem.

Clifford is proving a worthy adversary.

As with Trump, it is hard to divine her true motives. Liberals are setting her up as a truth-seeker determined to expose the love rat in the White House and say her piece about his coercion and bullying of women.

But, then, a few weeks ago, she began a tour of American strip clubs, in which she appears dressed in red, white and blue and dances to the Lenny Kravitz song American Woman.

What we do know is that she has filed a lawsuit alleging that the original non-disclosure agreement was worthless. It was forced out of her and drafted using pseudonyms. She was "Peggy Peterson" and Trump was "David Dennison".

But Trump never signed it as himself, or as Dennison. Cohen had then further invalidated it by discussing its terms in public when the existence of the deal was first reported.

This week, it was revealed that Cohen tried to muzzle Clifford again by securing an arbitration decision to keep the non-disclosure agreement in force.

Clifford's lawyer says that arbitration decision is worthless as the underlying non-disclosure agreement is worthless.

While the lawyers go back and forth, what is apparent is that the President has little to gain from trying to keep Clifford silent.

However embarrassing her revelations may be, they are unlikely to do more damage than a botched cover-up (If Trump used campaign money to silence Clifford and failed to disclose the payment, that would be a violation of federal campaign laws).

You might think that, with scandals at his door, key staff abandoning the White House and such whipsawing policy, Trump's numbers would have cratered. Yet, despite the fall-off among women, Trump's broader approval ratings have remained solid, at around 40%, for around nine months.

In the past couple of weeks, some polls have given him some of the highest ratings of his presidency. A combination of the tax cut and his support for arming teachers in schools seems to have stirred his support.

The 15 percentage point difference between those who approve, 40%, and disapprove, 55%, of his performance is three points better than Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon during Watergate and Barack Obama during the great recession that followed the financial crisis.

With the stock market booming and Americans feeling richer than they have in more than a decade, Trump seems to have room for a scandal (or five).

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