Omarosa Manigault Newman has been quite effective at keeping her distinctive name in the press over the past week. First, details from her new book began to dribble out. Then, an interview on “Meet the Press.” Then, while the furor over her comments and allegations was still bubbling, she began releasing recordings of conversations with officials within President Trump’s administration and campaign: Chief of Staff John F. Kelly firing her. Trump seeming to feign frustration at the firing. And, on Thursday, Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump offering her a steady income to, among other things, stay quiet.
By all accounts, the week has been a frustrating one for Trump and his staff. That’s apparent from the president’s Twitter feed, where Manigault Newman may have accomplished the unthinkable: replacing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as the focus of Trump’s ire. The New York Times reported that Manigault Newman might have up to 200 recordings in total, ready to trickle out as needed; Politico reports that this prospect has West Wing staffers “absolutely terrified,” as one put it.
Welcome to American politics in 2018.
Or, really, welcome to American politics in the 2015 to 2018 era. The combination of scads of electronic data or information and a tactic of releasing it slowly and steadily — whether intentionally or not — is a hallmark of the national political scene since early in the 2016 presidential primary season.
It started with Hillary Clinton’s emails. Not the ones stolen from the Democratic National Committee or her campaign chairman, John Podesta, but the ones from her private server that she turned over to the State Department. When her private server came to light, her attorneys reviewed its contents and turned over work-related emails to the government. (Emails determined to be non-work-related were deleted, spurring Trump’s ongoing demand to see what those emails said.) The State Department began reviewing and publicly releasing those emails in batches.
The effect, given Clinton’s position as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, was that every few weeks there would be a new batch of emails made public and reporters, doing what reporters do, would scour them for interesting tidbits — or even not-that-interesting tidbits. Every few weeks, Clinton’s email server would end up being in the news again and, every few weeks, there would be a few isolated emails offering mostly limited insights that became the subject of news stories. While Clinton’s campaign team probably wasn’t “terrified” about what was coming, there’s no question that they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about it.
Then came WikiLeaks.
After dumping files stolen from the DNC during the summer of 2016, the organization began to slowly release emails stolen from Podesta by Russian hackers (according to Mueller’s investigators) in October. The release began hours after the “Access Hollywood” tape went public but continued, day after day after day. With each batch, reporters and the public would dive into the documents, lifting up things that seemed interesting or, with the election looming, damning. Often they were neither, but it didn’t matter. Every day there were new messages that could contribute to criticisms of the Democratic nominee — or bizarre conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate.
It became the most prominent subject of the final month of the campaign — at least until former FBI director James B. Comey reset everything.
This slow trickle, inadvertent by the State Department and deliberate by WikiLeaks, helped Trump win the presidency. But shortly after he did, revelation water torture began to work against him.
In December 2016, reports began to emerge that federal intelligence agencies believed that Russia was trying to interfere in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf. Soon after, the public learned that members of Trump’s campaign were suspected of aiding that effort. The Russia investigation entered the spotlight and, in the months since, has dominated the media’s, the public’s and Trump’s attention.
It’s not new that there would be a slowly unfolding investigation that offers new details on a scattered timeline. But it’s hard not to notice that the pattern that worked so well against Trump’s presidential opponent now haunts his presidency. Administration officials have no doubt grown used to the cloud hanging over the White House, but few, Trump included, probably know the storm it might unleash next. Week after week, some new component is revealed — major or not — and the story itself gets a little more gas in the tank.
This was the environment into which Manigault Newman’s book was dropped. She’s not the first woman whose relationship with Trump has gone from positive to negative, and she’s not the first woman to fit that description who’s been an ongoing thorn in his side. The first to do that was Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who, paired with her attorney Michael Avenatti, has managed to be a constant-if-fading nuisance to Trump. Avenatti and Manigault Newman are both skilled in Trumpian tactics, which helps.
But Manigault Newman, unlike Daniels, isn’t simply working the media. She has documentary evidence to back her up. As with Clinton’s emails and some Russia investigation details, not everything she can reveal is particularly interesting or new. But there’s a Skinner-box component to it: She’s proved that she has interesting stuff so each time something new comes out, the media can’t help but take a look.
It seems unlikely that the drip from Manigault Newman will continue much longer. Two hundred recordings is a lot, but Nancy Sinatra also had a lot of recordings and I bet you are only familiar with one. Manigault Newman may have run out of drips. We’ll see.
It’s worth noting that this is a tactic that seems to be very much of this moment. Massive storehouses of information that follow from the collection of digital information or an individual’s ability to capture audio, photos or text mean that there’s a lot to wade through and a larger subset of possibly interesting material. Sometimes the public will pick out what it wants (as with WikiLeaks). Sometimes a political adversary will (as with Manigault Newman).
Sometimes the media will. CNN’s K-File team has defined itself on poring over old digital information and picking out damning details, sometimes then triggering more perusal by them and others, which create a snowball effect. It’s predicated on everything being available online, which, of course, is heavily predicated on an Internet that didn’t exist a decade ago.
There will be more drips and more individuals they’re falling on. As Manigault Newman’s sudden emergence reveals, it may be hard to predict where they’ll come from.