If Richard Nixon taught us that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup, and Bill Clinton taught us that attempting a coverup was pointless, Trump has decided that coverups are good.
Let’s briefly consider that history and what we thought presidents, along with the rest of us, would learn from it. The idea that “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” meant that presidents get into real trouble when they try to conceal their own misdeeds or those of their aides.
The articles of impeachment against Nixon concentrated mostly on what he did after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate touched off the scandal. Among other things, Nixon tried to get the CIA to quash the investigation by the FBI, approved hush money to silence witnesses, and engaged in many other forms of obstruction of justice.
“It’s the coverup” is something of an oversimplification, since there was a ton of wrongdoing Nixon and others engaged in before the scandal became public. But the lesson was that the moment when a scandal breaks is a time of particular peril for a president. If he panics and tries to cover it up, he’ll wind up in even more trouble.
The major scandals that followed only reinforced this point. Both Ronald Reagan (with Iran-conta) and Bill Clinton (with Monica Lewinsky) initially lied to the public about what they had done, then eventually were forced to admit their deception. While Reagan escaped impeachment and Clinton survived his, the initial denials only hurt them.
Over the course of the Clinton years, a new scandal management strategy emerged. When scandal breaks, this idea says, it’s best to present all the facts publicly, even the ones that don’t cast you in a good light; then you can fight about what it all means and what to do about it.
The logic was that with the combined efforts of an opposition in control of Congress and a large and aggressive news media, it just wasn’t going to be possible to keep important facts hidden, at least not forever.
“One of the most important principles in crisis management is try to put all the information out as best you can in one fell swoop — in order to avoid the, you know, the drip, drip, drip,” said Chris Lehane, a Clinton aide. The advice may not have always been followed, but it was widely accepted in theory.
Which brings us to Trump. When he first ran for president it was obvious that he was an exaggerator and a fabulist, but only over time did it become clear that unlike most politicians or even most human beings, Trump lies constantly about everything, whether it matters or not, and he doesn’t care whether people think he’s honest.
So it’s only logical that he would reject both the idea that coverups are dangerous for presidents and the idea that there is value in getting damaging information out quickly. In some cases, he has calculated that coverups are sustainable indefinitely; for instance, he lied in 2016 by claiming repeatedly that he was about to release his tax returns, and since then has taken extraordinary measures to keep them concealed. While he might not be able to do so forever — multiple cases moving through the courts could force them into public view — so far it has worked.
To be sure, Trump has been inconsistent on this score. When Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Russia scandal began, Trump initially followed the advice of his first set of lawyers to cooperate and hand over documents. Then he became much less cooperative, not only refusing to be deposed (which his aides and allies agreed would be a disaster) but also working tirelessly to discredit the investigation as fundamentally illegitimate.
And he did approve the release of the rough transcript of his fateful call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But in that case, it appeared to be because he was laboring under the bizarre delusion that it would exonerate him. (Also, once the whistleblower’s complaint was filed, it would have been almost impossible to keep the transcript secret; the House would have subpoenaed it, and the courts would have forced compliance.)
Ever since, Trump has chosen the coverup, denying requests for documents, refusing to comply with subpoenas and ordering White House staff not to testify. And now, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are engineering the ultimate coverup, a farce of a Senate trial that is likely to hear no witness testimony and accept no documentary evidence on its way to a preordained acquittal.
It may be morally reprehensible and contemptuous of our constitutional processes, but it has a strategic logic. If the Clinton era proved that the facts couldn’t be concealed forever, the Trump era is proving that the facts don’t matter, or at least that they aren’t sufficient to determine the outcome.
With a rabid base of supporters, a relentlessly propagandistic conservative media and a Republican Party populated almost entirely by lickspittles and cowards, Trump has calculated that he can get away with pretty much anything so long as his party is united behind him. If he decides that a coverup is what he wants, a coverup is what he’ll get.