It’s hard to dispute that voters knew far less about Donald Trump on Election Day 2016 than voters had about any other major-party presidential candidate in modern history. Some of this was a function of Trump’s background. Having not held elected office, he had no track record of accomplishments and no demonstrated patterns of policy positions.
Much of it, though, was by design.
On Tuesday, we learned that something we thought we knew — at least in broad strokes — we actually didn’t. While no one took the report from Trump’s personal physician that was released in August 2016 terribly seriously (given that it included phrases such as “if elected, Mr. Trump … will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”), it at least seemed to be an actual analysis from an actual doctor that provided some reassurance that Trump was sufficiently fit to serve as president. Until CNN reported the doctor’s claim that he hadn’t really written the letter at all and that it had been dictated by Trump himself. It fits — but it means we knew even less about Trump than we thought.
Given that revelation, it seems as though it’s worth reviewing what we didn’t know about Trump when voters went to the polls on Nov. 8, 2016.
How healthy he was. As above. It’s worth noting, though, that Trump also attacked Hillary Clinton as physically unfit for the position even as the sole presentation of his own health was the letter that his doctor now says Trump himself wrote.
How much he paid in taxes. We’ve been over this any number of times, of course, but it bears mentioning in the current context. While every presidential candidate since Gerald Ford had presented information about how much he or she paid in taxes, Trump declined to do so — repeatedly and fervently. This became important late last year as Congress debated massive tax cuts and Trump insisted that he wouldn’t benefit from the bill. On its face, that argument seemed unlikely, but without any documentation, there was no way to contest Trump’s claim.
His income and how much he was actually worth. For decades, Trump has presented his own net worth as substantially larger than it actually is. Last month, The Post reported on an incident in 1984 in which Trump, posing as his own publicist, called Forbes and made the case for being much wealthier than the magazine calculated. This subterfuge continued, in various guises, for years. Even when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2015, Trump claimed to be worth more than $10 billion — up to three times the estimates of his worth from independent analysis.
Why is this important? In part because it was Trump’s only credential. He pitched himself as a dealmaking, problem-solving business expert, but the numbers presented for his net worth (and the failure to release income data from his tax returns) meant that we had no way of evaluating whether he was actually much good at business. Sure, various buildings have his name on them, but it’s not clear what that means in terms of his business acumen — even granting that business acumen is transferrable to governance.
How much he gave to charity. Trump has also repeatedly claimed to have given vast sums of money to charities and individuals, claims that would be bolstered by a look at his tax returns. On the campaign trail, Trump claimed to have done enormous amounts of good for veterans in particular, claims that weren’t backed up with any documentation.
The only information we had about Trump’s charitable giving came from a Post analysis of the donations from and contributions to his personal foundation — which, in the years before his candidacy, was mostly funded by people besides Trump and which at times spent money on things that benefited Trump personally.
That his campaign was under investigation by the FBI. Trump’s campaign invested a great deal of time and energy portraying Clinton as corrupt and as having violated the law. He benefited from a bit of luck in this regard: Clinton’s personal email server was revealed during the investigation into the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and was reported publicly. Reporters tracked the investigation of that server as it was conducted by the FBI. Trump leveraged this public knowledge to paint Clinton as unusually “crooked.”
In the background, though, his own campaign was under direct investigation by the FBI, beginning in late July 2016. This, of course, was the investigation into whether elements of the Trump campaign were coordinating with Russian interests to affect the outcome of the election.
The campaign didn’t know it: It wasn’t told about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation or that members of his extended campaign team were under scrutiny. But the FBI and then-FBI Director James B. Comey did. The knowledge of that investigation never leaked prior to Election Day.
Update: It’s been pointed out that this actually was reported before the election, by the New York Times. That report, though, was headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
The extent of his campaign’s connections to Russian actors. What’s more, while there were rumors and questions about Trump’s and his campaign’s interactions with Russians, little was known about the specifics of those interactions. That, for example, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had met with a Kremlin-linked attorney in June 2016 to receive negative information about Clinton. Or that one of his foreign policy advisers had been told that the Russians possessed incriminating emails belonging to Clinton. It’s not clear how this might have been known, but it’s still information that was not public when voters went to the polls.
These are only the most prominent connections. There are many smaller-scale connections: private messages with WikiLeaks, meetings with the Russian ambassador, encounters at the NRA’s 2016 convention. During the campaign, questions existed about Trump’s relationship with Russia — even with these connections not being publicly known.
The scale of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf. An indictment filed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reveals just how broad the interference effort by Russian individuals actually was. It included visits to the United States, advertising on social media, promotion of real-world events — even paying Americans to build a cage and to dress up like Clinton in prison garb to attend a rally. The American intelligence community believes that all of this was done to help Trump be successful in the 2016 election, which we learned about only after the fact.
That his personal attorney paid an adult film actress $130,000 after she claimed to have had an affair with Trump. There were plenty of allegations about Trump’s sexual behavior circulating before the election, including various reports of unwanted sexual contact in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape’s release. What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported before Election Day that former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal had reached a deal with the parent company of the National Enquirer to bury her story of an alleged affair with Trump in exchange for money and some writing assignments.
That Trump attorney Michael Cohen had paid Stormy Daniels a six-figure sum only days before the election, though, was revealed only this year. She claims that the payment was meant to prevent her from telling the media about her alleged one-night stand with the now-president; Cohen claims the payment was for … well, he hasn’t really offered an explanation.
His positions on any number of policy issues. Even had all of those things been in the public sphere, it’s still the case that voters wouldn’t have known much about what Trump planned to do in office. He overtly avoided offering concrete positions on policy issues, arguing that articulating specific positions would limit him in negotiations. It was clear that in many instances he didn’t have positions on policies because he had simply never spent much time considering the issues. On foreign policy, he spoke vaguely about toughness, insisting that specifics would only tie his hands and tip off our enemies.
If we apply the matrix popularized by Donald H. Rumsfeld when he was defense secretary, many of these were known unknowns — things that we knew we didn’t know even as voters went to the polls. It didn’t matter, for example, that Trump didn’t release tax returns or inflated his net worth: He won the presidency anyway thanks heavily to partisan loyalty. But there were some unknown unknowns, too, such as the FBI investigations. We didn’t know we didn’t have a full picture of what the FBI was up to, and perhaps, in a race as close as that of 2016, it would have mattered.
Then there’s the health question, which we sort of knew we didn’t know but we didn’t fully know we didn’t know until this week. This would not have been a dealbreaker for many voters, it’s safe to assume, and, in that sense, probably didn’t make much difference.
But in the broad scale of Trump’s candidacy, it’s telling. It’s another black bar of redaction on a biography plastered with them.