shadow

Got a story to tell (or sell)? Better back it up with a tape.

Why We Wrote This

In US politics, secret tapes seem to be popping up everywhere this summer. Recordings – made in private and even security-sensitive areas – are increasingly seen by many as necessary to support their version of events.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
Then-GOP nominee Donald Trump and Omarosa Manigault attend a church service in Detroit on Sept. 3, 2016. Ms. Manigault has published a new tell-all book about her time in the White House.

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Omarosa Manigault Newman is just the latest figure pushing secret recordings to support her version of a narrative, in a summer marked by a steady stream of “tape-gates.” Just a few weeks back, Washington was abuzz over Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former fixer, and his tape of their discussion of buying the story of an alleged Trump mistress. More recently, GOP Rep. Devin Nunes was recorded at a closed-door fundraiser characterizing congressional Republicans as Mr. Trump’s last line of defense in the Mueller investigation. Weapons, levers of influence, historical records: Tapes can be all these things. Useful for the person possessing them, they can be quite dangerous in the wrong hands. In an industry marked by dissembling, spin, and even outright lies, electronically captured moments provide rare glimpses into a public figure’s true self, and the atmosphere in the rooms where it happens. Even if their words repeat things that are already largely known, the immediacy of a tape makes it all seem more credible, more real. “It makes us think we have a window into what’s really happening,” says Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.

Some years ago, I accidentally carried a tape recorder into an interview with a senior national-security official in a secure US government building. (Actually, “accidentally” probably isn’t the best way to describe what happened. “Cluelessly,” or “without thinking” might be better descriptors.)

As a reporter, I was ushered around normal security by a media handler, which is how it happened. Upon entering the official’s office, I set my stuff down on his desk, and then peeled a newspaper off the top of the stack to reveal the offending item.

To me, the recorder was a means to accurately get down every word of an important conversation. To everyone else in the room, it was contraband of the highest order, a security breach on a floor where the trash was shredded and burned every night. They leaped back as if I’d unveiled a coiled snake.

“Whoa,” said the handler, after a moment’s silence. “Don’t ever tell anyone we let you bring that in here. Somebody could get fired. Probably me.”

Such is the power in politics of audio (and in some circumstances, video) recording devices.

In an industry marked by dissembling and spin – and even outright lies – snippets of electronically captured moments often provide rare glimpses into a public figure’s true self, and the atmosphere in the rooms where it happens. Weapons, levers of influence, historical records: Tapes can be all these things. They can be quite useful for the person possessing them. But it’s dangerous to let records like that into the wrong hands.

Omarosa Manigault Newman is just the latest figure to try and use the tale of the tape to support her version of a Washington narrative. Indeed, this summer has been marked by a steady stream of “tape-gates.” Just a few weeks back, Washington was abuzz over Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former fixer, and his tape of their discussion of buying the story of an alleged Trump mistress. More recently, GOP Rep. Devin Nunes was recorded at a closed-door fundraiser characterizing congressional Republicans as Mr. Trump’s last line of defense in the Mueller investigation. 

This is why politicians want the “record” button in their own hands. Even if their words repeat things that are already largely known, the immediacy of a tape makes it all seem more credible, more real.

“It makes us think we have a window into what’s really happening,” says Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who studies the history of American political discourse.

US presidents, of course, have been responsible for the most – and probably most consequential – secret recordings of unguarded political conversations. More on that in a moment.

But for recent effect, it is the newer developments of smart phones, social media, and partisan news organizations that have combined to weaponize a practice as old as F.D.R.

'Guns or religion' and the 47 percent

In 2008, for instance, an unpaid volunteer for a Huffington Post citizen journalist initiative went to a Barack Obama fundraiser in San Francisco and recorded the then-candidate saying of white working-class voters, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Rival Hillary Clinton seized on the remark as a means to try and discredit Mr. Obama. They are still used by Obama’s critics as an example of what they call the former president’s elitism.

In 2012, a leaked video of a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraising event caught the then-presidential candidate dismissing 47 percent of the population as government-dependent. “My job is not to worry about those people,” Mr. Romney said.

The tape delivered Romney’s struggling campaign a roundhouse blow, as critics used it to frame the former Massachusetts governor as an unfeeling plutocrat.

As a candidate and White House occupant, Trump has proved a diamond mine for clandestine tapers. Prior to the election, many people – including some of his own aides – saw the “Access Hollywood” tape of his vulgar talk about woman as politically fatal. It wasn’t.

Trump’s former associate, Mr. Cohen, promises he has more tapes of presidential conversations. So does Ms. Newman.

But so far, Newman’s motives in releasing tapes are subtly different, says Dr. Mercieca of Texas A&M. Many tapers and leakers want to influence a particular policy, or damage an official. By releasing snippets of the discussion of her being fired, and Trump’s reaction to it, Newman is just reaffirming stuff we generally knew. The point is to bolster her credibility as her new book becomes available.

“She lacks credibility, she’s been portrayed as a villainess,” says Mercieca. “The tapes were brought out as evidence the quotations she had in her book were true.”

It’s possible Newman could face legal trouble. She signed a nondisclosure agreement before taking a White House job, Trump said in a tweet. She appears to have taped chief of staff John Kelly during her dismissal conversation in the Situation Room, a supposedly secure place where personal electronics are prohibited.

But there’s also the question of why Mr. Kelly was using the Situation Room, a national security crisis management center, as a space to fire people.

“The character of the folks involved is truly the bigger point here. I don’t think Omarosa’s actions (at least those identified so far) violated criminal law,” wrote national security lawyer Bradley Moss on Twitter on Monday.

Presidential recordings

As noted above, the White House itself, as an institution, has by far the most experience in semi-clandestine and completely secret taping of political conversations. Presidents pioneered the practice.

Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a string of presidents used taping equipment with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Their motives ranged from defending themselves against inaccurate news leaks (F.D.R), to help in preparing memoirs and developing political leverage. Along the way, these tapes become an invaluable historical resource, says Dr. Marc Selverstone, an associate professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and chair of the Center’s Presidential Recordings Program.

“They’re an incredible and powerful window into the way power works,” says Dr. Selverstone.

John F. Kennedy, a published author before becoming president, was particularly interested in taping historically important moments. It is likely he planned to use the tapes for any memoirs he planned to write, says Selverstone. His brother, Robert Kennedy, eventually used them to help write his short history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thirteen Days.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the only president to use his tapes for their intended purposes in real time, as he drew on them to produce his own memoirs. The L.B.J. tapes reveal the intentional duplicity of power, however, as he says differing things about Vietnam to different people – telling reluctant senators he sees no path to victory, and telling Pentagon officials the opposite.

L.B.J. recommended to his successor he install a taping system, and Nixon did just that. Those machines produced 3,400 hours of some key moments of the highest foreign policy successes, and lowest political failures, in American history. The famous “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, in which Nixon concurred with an attempt to use the CIA to get the FBI to back off the Watergate probe, ended his presidency.

Have presidents since then taped their conversations? The lesson of Nixon would loom over them. Trump has intimated there are some tapes of some matters, but then later seemed to back off.

“We assume nobody will want to repeat Nixon,” says Selverstone.

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