One by one, the patrons lurched to the stage’s edge, summoned by the siren song of stale arena rock and toplessness – a sea of large men with small bills and slight smiles, plainly convinced that America has been plenty great for some time now.
It was a special kind of Saturday, and the cover charge showed: $20 at the door, double the usual, though far less than the reported executive rate.
“Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered,” said Jay Levy, the Trophy Club’s owner, explaining the relative bargain for guests. “I’ve got to take care of my people. I’ll take advantage of the situation, but not my people.”
His people, on this evening, were a peculiar lot: regulars, newcomers and, at present, the world’s most important porn star – with her presidential ties and a reported six-figure reason not to confirm them – traveling for now without a proper assistant.
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“Nobody wants to be seen with me right now,” the performer, known as Stormy Daniels, said in a brief interview, laughing softly behind an assemblage of nude pictures of herself. The line at her table belied the point.
And so it was – on the anniversary of the inauguration; with a government shutdown consuming the capital; with cities across the country, including this one, hosting women’s rallies condemning President Donald Trump as an emblem of misogyny – that this national moment delivered a glut of customers, journalists and a notable adult film actress to a perhaps inevitable fate.
The music came on. The clothes came off. And an airport strip club claimed its piece of the U.S. presidency.
“Waaa-ooooooh!” came the cry from a crowd of a couple hundred or so as the show began.
Every White House leads a trail to venues strange and varied: global summits, hardscrabble swing-state spots, a golf course in South Florida.
On Saturday, the Trophy Club was almost certainly making its executive debut. One night only.
Better known as Stephanie Clifford to some offstage, the 38-year-old headliner was setting off on what is being called the “Making America Horny Again Tour,” capitalizing on her spin through a Trump news cycle.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Clifford was paid $130,000 in hush money shortly before the 2016 election to conceal a past relationship with Trump. In a 2011 interview with In Touch magazine, made public in recent days, Clifford is quoted as saying that she and Trump had the sexual encounter in 2006 – months after Trump’s wife, Melania, gave birth to their son.
A lawyer for Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, whom The Journal identified as the person who helped arrange the payment, said in an email this month that Trump “vehemently denies any such occurrence.”
Pressed Saturday, Clifford responded to any question about Trump with a wordless grin and a shaking head.
Most attendees did not much care, subsisting in the club’s smoky kaleidoscope of flesh. Women swaggered by in tights, leatherette and heels that could dent metal, brushing past a vending machine that spits cigarettes. Bartenders shooed too-stingy visitors from the good seats, returning $15 in singles for a $5 drink order paid with a 20, and mouthing the lyrics to “Super Freak.”
Above the bar, festooned with balloons of red, white and blue, one TV was tuned to a Trump-themed panel on CNN, as a government shutdown clock ticked in the bottom right corner. Beside the stage, the president’s face looked out from an old picture, mugging beside Clifford.
“HE SAW HER LIVE,” an ad for the event read, using the same image. “YOU CAN TOO!”
The region is Trump Country, in a state he carried by 14 points, in a county he won by 25 points. But even among those who might be expected to tut-tut an extramarital encounter and covert payment by the future president, the story of Clifford has struggled to break through entirely in recent days.
Shutdown. Russia. North Korea. A porn star hardly rates.
“This is just a news story. I don’t know if it’s accurate,” the Rev. Franklin Graham, a Trump supporter, told MSNBC.
But broadly, he allowed, “our country has got a sin problem.”
Levy, the club owner, with slicked hair and a thick goatee, said his aim was entirely apolitical. “I’m strictly ‘How can I get lightning in a bottle?’” he said.
He read the Journal article about Clifford, whom he said he had known before, and was compelled to reach out, inviting her once more to the bar he calls “Cheers with breasts.”
Levy declined to say what he was paying her, though financial considerations dotted the club’s Facebook page during the week.
“How much to get in?” one man asked.
“$130,000,” a woman replied.
Clifford said she was receiving her “normal amount, I guess.” She performed two shows, elaborate burlesque acts around 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., lit in part by a disco ball large enough to crush three men if it shook loose from its bearings. Attendance flagged a bit by late in the night.
In between, Clifford, who said she had not danced since the summer, mingled with well-wishers, photo-seekers and, if they approached, reporters.
“Imagine coming back when you’re the most insecure,” she said of her return. “It’s the only time I’ve ever gone onstage and was actually scared.”
She was asked what it had been like to be Stormy Daniels over the past week. “Stressful,” she said. “And amusing.”
Next in line, a man in a cap was waiting, sliding behind her for a picture. Clifford dutifully removed her top. The man grabbed at her front, tentatively at first. The brim of his star-spangled hat, reading “Make America Great Again,” nearly grazed her blonde hair.
Clifford smiled again, beside a well-stocked jug of tips.
Our country has got a sin problem. And a sense of humor.