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The Time Stormy Daniels Exposed Trump’s Shark Phobia

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and his four years in office contained so much daily weirdness, wackiness, and horror that the human brain couldn’t comprehend it all. As Trump gets close to the White House again, “That Happened brings you the surreal moments you might have forgotten — or blocked from your memory.

As the first criminal case against a former president of the United States, Donald Trump’s hush-money trial is a serious and historic event. But as with just about every Trump story, it’s also darkly hilarious. Trump keeps falling asleep in court, he was forced to listen to random people read their mean tweets about him, and the first witness in this case about paying off a porn star is named Pecker.

But I fear we’re at risk of forgetting the most amusing — and revealing — detail from the story that started it all: Stormy Daniels’s revelation that Trump has an intense shark phobia.

The porn star first described her alleged affair with Trump in a 2011 interview with In Touch. The tabloid held the story when Trump’s then-fixer Michael Cohen threatened to sue, but the interview was published in 2018 after The Wall Street Journal reported on the preelection hush-money payment to Daniels that is at the center of the current trial.

In the interview, Daniels said her relationship with Trump involved mediocre sex, spanking the future president, and watching the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” Here’s how she remembered a 2007 dinner in Trump’s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel:

The strangest thing about that night — this was the best thing ever. You could see the television from the little dining room table and he was watching Shark Week and he was watching a special about the U.S.S. something and it sank and it was like the worst shark attack in history. He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks. He was like, “I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.” He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It’s so strange, I know …

So strange. So we finished dinner and we moved to the sofa so he could get a better view of Shark Week.

Daniels really nailed what makes Trump’s shark phobia so amusing. Most humans are casually afraid of encountering a big animal with lots of sharp teeth; Trump seems obsessed with the very unlikely possibility that he’ll be eaten by a shark.

Trump has a number of phobias that would be weird for a normal person but make sense when you consider that he’s an ultrawealthy famous guy who has a lot of enemies. A bit of germophobia is reasonable when you regularly hold rallies with hundreds of people and your home is a catering venue. Eating fast food because you’re worried about getting poisoned isn’t that crazy if you’re a world leader who has a weird relationship with Vladimir Putin. And even Trump’s concern about “dangerous” fruit, which he admitted in a deposition, is somewhat understandable. I’ve never had to think about protesters hurling “pineapples, tomatoes, bananas, stuff like that” at my head, but I guess Trump’s right that “you can get killed with those things.”

Sharks, however, pose almost no threat to Trump. Only two Americans died in shark attacks last year, and most shark bites involve people surfing or participating in board sports. Trump is not a windsurfer like John Kerry. He’s not even an avid beachgoer like Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In 2016, the New York Times reported that according to a longtime Mar-a-Lago butler, “Mr. Trump rarely appears in bathing trunks … and does not like to swim.” How would Trump even encounter a shark? Does he think they’re going to jump onto the patio at Mar-a-Lago or turn up in a water trap on one of his golf courses?

Yet Trump has repeatedly mentioned his vendetta against sharks for no apparent reason. Two years after Daniels described Trump’s “Shark Week” binge to In Touch — but years before that interview was published — Trump attacked sharks on Twitter, a venue where they couldn’t bite back:

Then, at a rally in Pennsylvania on August 20, 2020, Trump let it be known that he has no interest in using his power to safeguard the animal.

“They were saying the other night: the shark! They were saying, ‘Oh, sharks! We have to protect them,’” Trump recalled. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait.’ They actually want to remove all the seals in order to save the shark. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Don’t you have it the other way around?’ That’s true.”

Trump offered no explanation of who “they” were or where he had heard this, but Discovery’s “Shark Week” had just ended. It’s a safe bet he was referring to something he saw on TV.

As he continued ranting about sharks, Trump inadvertently offered evidence that Daniels was telling the truth about their affair, recounting the same anecdote she had relayed about how he would never contribute to a shark charity.

“I’m not a big fan of sharks, either,” Trump continued. “I don’t know, how many votes am I going to lose? I have people calling me up: ‘Sir, we wanted to — we have a fund to save the shark. It’s called Save the Shark.’ I say, ‘No, thank you. I have other things I can contribute to.’”

Three years later at a campaign event in Iowa, Trump revealed that he’s still having inescapable thoughts of death by shark.

“If I’m sitting down and that boat’s going down and I’m on top of a battery and the water starts flooding in, I’m getting concerned,” Trump explained. “But then I look ten yards to my left and there’s a shark over there. So I have a choice of electrocution or a shark. You know what I’m going to take? Electrocution. I will take electrocution every single time. Do we agree? Yeah, I will take electrocution.”

Why is Trump even thinking about this? I believe my colleague Jonathan Chait got it right when the Daniels interview was finally published: “Trump fears sharks because he’ll believe anything TV tells him.”

Maybe Trump had some childhood run-in with a marine animal that we’re unaware of so now he seeks out “Shark Week” programming in an attempt to face his fears. But it seems more likely that he’s afraid of sharks solely due to a clever marketing campaign from the folks at Discovery. Trump owes his political power to America’s reality-TV obsession, but he’s also a victim.


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