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Trump faces trouble if he tries to keep porn star Stormy Daniels silent, legal experts say

Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, poses for pictures at the end of her striptease show in Gossip Gentleman club in Long Island, New York, U.S., February 23, 2018.
Eduardo Munoz | Reuters
Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, poses for pictures at the end of her striptease show in Gossip Gentleman club in Long Island, New York, U.S., February 23, 2018.

The salacious details of Stormy Daniels' alleged affair with Donald Trump more than a decade ago have seeped out to the public but the porn-star-turned-household-name has been barred from telling the story herself.

That might soon change, according to legal experts, despite a temporary restraining order the president's legal team won last week against Daniels, who is fighting in court to tell her story about their alleged tryst.

The legal document, referred to as a "hush agreement," she signed weeks before the 2016 presidential election that keeps her from dishing on her relationship with Trump paints the president in a corner, said Imre Szalai, a national expert on arbitration law with the Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans.

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Trump and his legal team can try to keep Daniels silent through arbitration — and his legal team, so far, has indicated that's the preferred course. But the move essentially would force the president to admit his role as a party to an agreement that paid Daniels to stay quiet.

That could get him in hot water with the Federal Election Commission, which would likely view it as a violation of campaign finance law, Szalai wrote on his Outsourcing Justice blog.

But if Trump decides not to contest Daniels' ability to go public, she could immediately spill her story, adding further embarrassment to a president who's been accused of sex harassmentby several women and was caught on a Hollywood Access tape boasting about grabbing women sexually.

Or Trump and his legal team can try to keep Daniels silent by taking the issue to arbitration, a move that essentially force the president to admit his role as a party to an agreement that paid Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

"If the hush payment violated election law, then this lawsuit and the procedural dilemmas concerning the enforcement of the arbitration agreement have placed Trump in a Catch-22 situation if he or the company seeks to compel arbitration," Szalai wrote.

And that could put Trump in even more legal peril because it might draw the interest of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating any links between the Trump campaign and Russians who sought to influence the 2016 presidential election, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.

"This is well within Mueller's wheelhouse," Turley said. "Mueller could seek answers about the payment."

Amanda Werner, a lawyer who tracks arbitration issues for the progressive group Public Justice, said non-disclosure agreements such as the one Trump entered into with Daniels are "pretty standard" methods of buying people's silence to prevent public embarrassment.

"Unfortunately, arbitration is able to generally ensure that people can't tell the truth and can't talk to the media," Werner said. "But in this case, it's just really hard to enforce without further incriminating the president. He's kind of stuck in a tough situation here but I think it's hopefully going to help the truth come out."

News of the secret restraining order emerged Wednesday after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters an arbitration proceeding against Daniels "was won in the president's favor."

On Tuesday, Daniels filed a lawsuit, claiming that a $130,000 settlement she reached with Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen to keep quiet about the alleged relationship was no longer valid because Trump had not signed the document. The lawsuit marked the first time Daniels had openly admitted to having a "hush" agreement.

In the suit, Daniels claimed she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. Cohen and Daniels signed the agreement to secure her silence on Oct. 28, 2016, just days before the presidential election.

Despite the confidentiality agreement, Daniels' team has managed to say a great deal about the alleged affair. In a round of television interviews Wednesday, Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti insisted that the president must have known about the $130,000 payment to Daniels when it was made in October 2016.

"The suggestion that you would have an experienced, educated attorney like Mr. Cohen who would run off, half-cocked without any knowledge of his client, that he would negotiate and draft a detailed agreement that included his client as a party, that he would engage in weeks of negotiation, that he would reach agreement, that he would then send $130,000 in connection with that agreement, that he would then later institute an arbitration proceeding without knowledge of his client, all of this to those of us that practice under the law as attorneys, it's ludicrous," Avenatti said on CNN.

Daniels is scheduled to appear this weekend at the Solid Gold strip club in South Florida which is promoting the event as Daniels' first public appearance since filing a lawsuit against Trump.

"Stormy no longer wishes to remain silent , and SOLID GOLD proudly supports her right to speak," according to the club's Facebook page.