Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”
What if Richard Nixon had gone on national television, looked into the cameras and urged a loyal henchman to break into the Watergate building to steal documents that could damage his opponent?
What if Nixon had followed that admission by publicly praising the criminals who committed the break-in, openly calling them “very smart” while also discussing, at length, why they shouldn’t really be punished?
What if Nixon’s son had acknowledged publicly that one of the people who broke into Watergate had offered him “high-level,” “sensitive” dirt on his dad’s opponent, quickly responded “I love it!” and then held a meeting at their campaign headquarters to get it?
Would we think those actions were any less sinister because they were done out in the open?
Americans expect scandals to be conducted in the shadows. Plots hatched in secret backrooms seem far more insidious than conspiracies discussed on television or Twitter. This cognitive bias we tend to have — where we equate nefarious activity with activities conducted in secrecy — has caused millions of Americans to wrongly dismiss the seriousness of the Trump-Russia investigation. “Surely, they couldn’t have been so stupid to openly admit wrongdoing on television and then tweet about it!” they say.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration and Trump campaign have consistently proved that line of argument to be wrong. They were that stupid.
Donald Trump went on national television in the summer of 2016, looked into the cameras and invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, after the Russian government had already used cyberattacks to steal documents from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign. He openly encouraged a foreign power to commit an illegal cyberattack on his political rival — while we were all in the audience.
Imagine how much worse we would think it was if we later found out he had instead secretly called Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and invited him to hack Clinton. Yet because Trump did the same thing before cameras, we mistakenly think it’s less serious.
Donald Trump Jr. got an email that offered “high level,” “sensitive” dirt from the Russian government to help Trump win the election, replied “I love it” and set up a meeting. His father then promised new dirt on Hillary Clinton — on live television — just hours after the meeting was confirmed. (That e-mail exchange, at a minimum, proves that the Trump campaign at least tried to collude with the Russian government to win the election. Even if the campaign tried and failed, does that really make it better?)
After Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, the White House tried to go back to the old playbook of secrecy and spin, arguing that the firing had nothing to do with the Russia investigation. Trump was having none of it. In an interview with Lester Holt, Trump admitted — on television — that he fired Comey because of “the Russia thing.”
We’re all waiting for the “smoking gun” tape that proves Trump used his political power to try to impede the Russia investigation — behavior that could result in a charge of obstruction of justice. But the thing is, we’ve already seen it. Trump fired the gun himself, on TV, while we all watched.
Even with the most recent revelations about Michael Flynn, there’s a relevant Trump tweet. From the documents affiliated with Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI, it’s clear that Flynn spoke to Russia’s ambassador to the United States in late December 2016 after President Barack Obama sanctioned the Russian government over its meddling in the U.S. election. Flynn urged him to persuade Putin not to respond aggressively in return, which Putin obliged. Trump on Dec. 30, 2016, tweeted out: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!” His praise came in response to a decision that seems to have been coordinated jointly between Flynn, the Trump transition team and the Kremlin.
In mid-February, Trump reportedly pressured Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. And, if that weren’t brazen enough, Trump tweeted in late March that “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity”— which certainly could be seen as attempting to improperly influence a potential witness.
Trump is a reckless, impulsive, political neophyte who views television ratings as the primary arbiter of someone’s worth. Is it really so hard to imagine that his scandals would take place in the spotlight?
Real-world politics isn’t a Tom Clancy or John Le Carré novel. Not every politician in the real world is a savvy genius who cooked up a clever plot that could foil investigators. We need to recognize that what we’ve seen — with our own eyes — is already evidence of improper, disqualifying behavior for any president. Until we accept that secrecy is not necessarily part of scandal, Trump will continue to use his dazzling showmanship to get away with it.