(Cover of Time Magazine 18 May 2017)
Not all secrets are bad. Keeping secrets is part of what makes us who we are. As Sissela Bok pointed out, we want, expect and need some level of confidentiality in all sorts of areas of our life, from job interviews to juries.
Nor is the revealing of a secret necessarily bad for politicians. Revelations are not always damaging or destructive. Some can survive or even thrive after exposes. President Mitterrand shrugged of a series of damaging revelations from his past while Bill Clinton’s impeachment led to greater popularity. The danger for a politicians is when secrecy and exposure either reinforce commonly held (negative) perceptions about you (let’s call it the Cameron or Clinton effect) or makes you do stupid things (let’s call it the Nixon effect).
The Clinton/Cameron effect
In terms of the Clinton/Cameron effect, exposure hurts worst when it confirms what the public already knew rather than reveals something shocking. Bill Clinton was seen as a liar and a womaniser and the Lewinsky affair in 1996 told America probably what it knew (or should have known) already. Similarly Hilary’s email ‘scandal’ reinforced what many felt, namely that the Clinton’s were dishonest. David Cameron’s 2016 tangle over his tax affairs again reinforced the view that he was a super-rich elitist out of touch with the country-a revelation, according to Tim Shipman, that helped swing the Brexit referendum towards Leave.
For Donald Trump the latest wave of revelations about Russia and his tangled attempt to get out of it confirms a great deal that we already know. For example, what does his leaking of classified information tells us? Trump is utterly lacking in caution and possesses a truly astonishing talent for self-defeating actions. There’s an interesting side debate over how a President can simply declassify information at will but a more worrying discussion over how, in doing so, Trump may have now breached his oath of office. Taken together, his actions on the Russia scandal tell us something we know already: that Trump appears, by an objective measure, unfit to be President. And those close to him such as Jared Kuschner, are under deep suspicion. Even the T word now being bandied about.
The Nixon effect
The second effect is that the need to conceal leads to a series of mistakes that deepen the crisis. Think of David Cameron’s strange present tense denials or Clinton’s lying under oath. Even by the standards of an impulsive, inexperienced leader Trump’s response has been extraordinarily self-defeating. His every action, every tweet or comment sinks him deeper. As Nixon’s former Counsel pointed out, Trump’s actions are not those of someone innocent. Trump’s actions have probably taken him far into impeachment territory.
The question is what happens next. From one point of view the new special counsel could give Trump a respite. Perhaps a formal investigation will slow or stem the leaks that flow continually from, well, everywhere while? Could it be that the formal investigation gives everyone a break from Trump’s uncontrollably impulsive actions? For all the furore it’s unclear what power the counsel will have. More importantly for Trump the findings are secret.
In fact, though the Counsel’s investigation may be secret, its very secrecy makes it even more attractive and interesting. Any findings from the Counsel will not be leak proof and this administration has proved by far the leakiest in history. It is very unlikely any potential leaker or journalist could resist trying to get it. Nor will what the counsel discovers stay safe from Congress as their report can also be subpoenaed.
Gradually small pieces of a complex jigsaw are being gathered together. None of the small parts of the puzzle are wholly incriminating. It’s not even clear what the big secret is or if it even exists. But each is incriminating of something odd or not right. Elsewhere I wrote that Trump’s bizarre cover-up tactics meant there’d be so much smoke that the existence of any fire would become immaterial. Post-Comey it looks as though Trump is purposely starting bigger fires amid an already burning White House.
Now the talk of written evidence or captured conversations means there could be a detailed paper trail, as seen with Comey’s statement (some context here). Will Trump, a president created by virtual celebrity, fake news and ephemeral information, find his fate is sealed by formal documents and record trails? If the evidence doesn’t get him, the allegations and his impulsive responses probably will: Trump the self-incriminating president may well be Clintoned and Nixoned simultaneously.
(See part one here)