Video or it didn’t happen.
That was almost the lesson nearly two years ago when The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape capturing Donald Trump on a hot mic bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.
Except the world learned something else. With Trump, the normal rules don’t apply: Even with a video, there are those who will still argue it didn’t happen.
By the end of November, Trump started to question the validity of the recording to aides. In January, just before his inauguration, he told a Republican senator that he wanted to investigate it and didn’t think it was his voice.
When asked about the matter in November 2017, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “He’s made his position on that clear . . . as have the American people in his support of him.” She declined to elaborate.
Ever since, tapes have defined the Trump presidency. Some real, some rumored, but all representative of the culture surrounding the 45th president.
The world in which Trump enjoyed his greatest success — reality television — is programmed to treat reality as “reality,” a kind of altered recorded world that is shaped by producers who are gunning for maximum effect.
In her book “Bachelor Nation,” entertainment writer Amy Kaufman outlines all kinds of reality-show hacks that the matchmaking show adopted, including editing sound bites of contestants so that the meaning of their statements was the opposite of what the contestant intended, and tracking contestants’ menstrual cycles to try to catch them when they were most likely to cry.
In other words, the world Trump comes from is one where everything is being recorded and nothing is to be believed.
Maybe that’s why he has been able to ignore all the tapes so far. In addition to the “Access Hollywood” tape, there were the “John Miller” tape, “The Apprentice” tapes, the elusive “pee tape,” the Michael Cohen tape and the Omarosa tapes, not to mention the nonexistent James B. Comey-Trump “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” tapes.
The search for the cache of Trump tapes that would provide the proverbial smoking gun has become a never-ending hunt in some corners. See: “The Hunt for the Trump Tapes,” an eight-part series airing later this month on Viceland starring the comedian and outspoken Trump critic Tom Arnold, who says he won’t stop digging until he uncovers incriminating audio and video of Trump.
Spoiler: Arnold doesn’t find the tapes. But if he did, would it matter?
There was a time when recordings were definitive. The release of key segments of President Richard Nixon’s tape recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office were a decisive step in the road to his resignation.
“If it wasn’t for tapes, Nixon might have survived in some form,” said Nixon biographer John A. Farrell.
There are key differences between then and now. Back then, “there was a reverence for the Oval Office,” Farrell said. The American people didn’t expect to hear Nixon and his aides speaking so cynically — and profanely.
Today, we swim in cynicism and are not easily shocked.
Jay Rosen, media critic and journalism professor at New York University, said the "Access Hollywood" tape, as well as the litany of other real and alleged tapes, has not seemed to harm Trump's standing with his core supporters and forces "us to think about the nature of that bond . . . as something untouchable by news and investigation. A lot of people in politics and news, which would include a lot of people in establishment Washington, just have a hard time interpreting that and understanding that."
Rosen chalks up the quest for a bombshell tape to be “partly an expression [of] the befuddlement.”
In the weeks before Trump took office, several news outlets reported on the Steele dossier, in which Russian intelligence claimed to have arranged and monitored Trump engaging in “perverted sexual acts,” including hiring prostitutes to urinate on the bed in the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Moscow. Trump denied the allegations, and the “pee tape” has never materialized.
Other tapes have been equally elusive. Dylan Howard, chief content officer of American Media, which owns the National Enquirer, mocked reporters who had contacted him in search of yet another rumored tape that was seen as the white whale of all these rumored tapes. The reporters calling Howard about that tape may have been recorded themselves. Howard had a “Nixonian” system installed in his Manhattan office to tape conversations and also recorded most of his calls, according to a former associate.
Likewise, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, often taped his phone calls with a similar Nixon-like zeal. Cohen last month pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including two violations of campaign finance law, related to payments he made to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.
Cohen is a prime example of the practice in Trump’s world of everyone taping everyone else. He also shows that while the recordings may not be revealing evidence that shakes the president’s core supporters, the tapes could be important legal evidence.
In a recording, released by Cohen over the summer, Cohen told Trump he needed to “open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David,” referring to David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media. In another recording, Trump appeared familiar with a deal that Playboy model Karen McDougal made to sell the rights to her story of an alleged affair with him to the media company.
The web of tapes may connect Pecker and Cohen: Pecker was granted immunity by federal prosecutors investigating Cohen, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. It is unclear whether Howard’s recordings played into the immunity deal.
And of course, the Cohen tapes have tripped up Trump, who has changed his story multiple times. Most recently, he’s hit on an explanation that he knew about the payments to the women who alleged affairs, but only after the fact.
“Doesn’t the tape with Cohen demonstrate that the president is lying?” asked a Scottish television reporter of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s current personal attorney, in a recent interview. “No, they demonstrate that Cohen’s lying,” Giuliani retorted.
Why are people in Trump's world so driven to record?
Two former White House staffers said that they were almost certain that Trump had a recording system installed in his office in Trump Tower, an intriguing notion that falters under some scrutiny.
Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer and executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, interviewed Trump extensively for his biography. During that process, Trump told O’ Brien repeatedly that he was recording him, even as O’Brien was the one conducting the interviews.
Trump would slide his hand under his desk, as if pressing a secret button, and ask permission — “Tim, you don’t mind if I record this conversation, do you?” — O’Brien recalled recently in an interview. Later, when Trump sued O’Brien for asserting in his biography that Trump was worth between $150 million and $250 million, far less than Trump claimed, Trump admitted in a deposition that he had never taped conversations with O’Brien.
“He used tapes and the threat of tapes to control narratives of himself,” O’Brien said.
The effort seems to have backfired. He used the threat often enough that “anyone around him knew they’d better make their own tapes to protect themselves,” O’Brien added, clearly enjoying how the tables had turned: “I think he has a recording system in his office just like I think he has $10 billion in his bank account.”
Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the reality TV stars who transitioned to the White House along with Trump, took the lessons she learned from that part of her life with her.
After she was forced to resign from the Trump administration, she wrote a book documenting her time in the White House and has promised that most every quote she included is backed by recordings. She is rumored to have hundreds of tapes.
The first Trump tape to emerge during the 2016 election cycle was of one "John Miller," a man who sounded distinctly like Donald Trump, and was, but who in the early 1990s masqueraded as his publicist to a People magazine reporter, Sue Carswell.
Carswell was chasing a New York Post report that Trump had broken up with Marla Maples, even as he was in the process of ending his marriage to his first wife, Ivana Trump. Carswell called Trump’s office, and John Miller called her back, confirming the story in detail.
In the conversation, Miller, who identified himself as a spokesman of sorts for Trump, assured her that Trump was simply a man in high demand. The story that resulted — “Trump Says Goodbye Marla, Hello Carla,” referring to model Carla Bruni — quoted Miller extensively.
Miller denied that Trump had given Maples an engagement ring, and by the end of the call, she realized, and wrote in her article, that the “fascinating” interview was made all the more so because “the reporter realized that the man she was talking to seemed to be . . . no, it couldn’t be . . . yep, it apparently was: Donald Trump, posing as a fictitious PR man.”
Carswell recorded the call, and a former colleague of hers provided it to The Post in the May 2016. Carswell said recently that Trump apologized to her for the misdirection back then, but when the tape emerged again in the midst of the presidential campaign, he denied he had done the impersonating.
Frustrated by her experience and Trump’s electoral success, Carswell, who went on to work as a fact-checker for Vanity Fair for many years, has penned a novel, called “The Fact Checker,” to seek some kind of creative revenge.
The manuscript is set in year three of a totalitarian administration run by a president who has a publicist named John Miller. In the book, Carswell published the transcript of her call with Trump, verbatim. The fact-checker in the novel reveals that the president masqueraded as John Miller, and the fallout is politically devastating for him. In Carswell’s rendering, the fact-checker runs for office herself using the slogan “Putting Facts First,” and as the book closes, she seems set to prevail.
In real life, what’s happening is a famous actor and comedian has engaged in a years-long quest to unearth a tape that will take down the actual president. Tom Arnold told a radio interviewer in December 2016, not long before the inauguration, “I have the outtakes to ‘The Apprentice’ where he says every bad thing ever, every offensive, racist thing ever. I have that.”
The problem is, he doesn’t have it anymore. Arnold says the link he once had to the outtakes has expired. So in the eight-part special that airs later this month, he narrates his quixotic effort to unearth the tape, or tapes, that will reveal the president for who Arnold claims him to be.
“My whole thing with these tapes is, I know who this guy is. I’ve known him for 30 years,” says Arnold, who accuses Trump of sexually harassing people and saying racist things. “This is wrong. This is bad. And all the people who are looking the other way are in my business, and they control the tapes.”
Arnold knows that Trump has spent much time on tape. There were, he says, 18 cameras set up inside Trump Tower during the taping of “The Apprentice.” All Arnold wishes for is one unedited 12-hour period during the 15 seasons when Trump was the host. That, he believes, would be enough to reveal Trump.
The problem is, as Arnold knows, without a video, it didn’t happen.