“Look, the fact is that there’s a lot of things that — of speeches I have made, positions I have taken, interviews that I did overseas with people, all of those things relating to my job,” Biden replied at one point. “And the idea that they would all be made public and the fact while I was running for a public office, they could be really taken out of context.”
“The papers are position papers,” he continued. “They are documents that existed and that when I — for example when I go — when I met with Putin or when I met with whomever. And all of that to be fodder in a campaign at this time I don’t know of anybody who’s done anything like that.”
I know of someone who did something like that. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton had an enormous amount of material from her tenure as secretary of state released to the public in advance of her presidential bid. It was a semi-willing act on her part, an attempt to demonstrate that she had nothing to hide after questions were raised about her use of a private email server during her tenure. Later, of course, Clinton’s campaign was the target of a hack that resulted in the release of thousands of additional documents shortly before the 2016 election.
Even before the hack, though, a pattern emerged. A new set of emails from Clinton’s tenure at the State Department was released and reporters and the public would pore over them, picking out details that were titillating or, at times, conformed to a particular narrative. The sheer volume of what was available made it easy to find something that someone would find interesting.
Once the material stolen from Clinton’s campaign manager was released in October by WikiLeaks, the same pattern continued but with higher stakes. Pieces of conversations served as new shoots of controversy or as new evidence aimed at bolstering existing theories. Few if any of those controversies or theories still linger, in part because Clinton lost and in part because there wasn’t anything to them in the first place.
This is the lesson Biden clearly learned, regardless of whether he acknowledges it. Sharing more information can be disadvantageous in general — but particularly at a moment when information will be used in bad faith to attack you. We expect our political leaders to be honest, but being honest is often politically disadvantageous.
President Trump is familiar with both sides of this paradox.
Trump has repeatedly stonewalled questions about his conduct and his finances. After assuring voters that he would release his tax returns, he declined to do so as a candidate and as president, breaking with more than 40 years of precedent. His approach to sexual misconduct allegations — far more numerous than Biden’s — is encapsulated in a quote from Post reporter Bob Woodward’s 2018 book about the Trump presidency.
“Trump gave some private advice to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women,” Woodward wrote in “Fear.” “ ‘Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice. You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,’ he said. ‘If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.’ ”
That last point is important. It has allowed Trump to maintain an air of uncertainty about his behavior that he uses as a weapon. He attacked prominent Democrats such as former senator Al Franken and Bill Clinton for having admitted to inappropriate behavior, using his own blanket denials as cover for his critiques and the denials of his allies as cover for continuing to support them. By refusing to offer any information at all, he prevents even constrained investigations of what happened. (When information has emerged, as with his payments to two women before the 2016 election, it has not reflected well on his position.)
Trump’s intransigence helps him in another way, too: It makes the process of asking seem futile and obsessive. Keep asking Trump to prove his assertions that he’s not benefiting from tax cuts, that he’s losing money as president or that he has no conflicts and you are dismissed as quixotic and unable to accept the reality of Trump’s deflections.
In case he needed the lesson, Trump has also seen how revealing too much can work against him politically. The United States, for example, has been much more open about the spread of the coronavirus within its borders than was China. We have seen more confirmed cases and deaths than any country — though no one accepts the figures from China or Iran or other countries as necessarily accurate. We look worse in comparison (and, by now, probably are faring worse in many respects), but China’s limited release of information allows it to position itself as successful in contrast to the United States, to its advantage.
More frustrating to Trump was the steady release of information about his campaign’s interactions with Russia during the 2016 election and how Russia sought to influence the outcome. It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes when, after winning the presidency in part thanks to the way in which information was used against Clinton, he saw week after week of reports about what his team had done and how Russia had worked to his benefit. Often, as with Clinton, revelations were exaggerated or used to present a flimsy case.
It’s worth noting that while it was no doubt frustrating to Trump at the time and while he continues to hold up the investigation of Russian interference as an example of toxic bias against him, he ended up seeing some benefit from the slow release of revelations. As we wrote in February of last year, the way in which revelations of his campaign’s activity unfolded slowly meant that each was digested and, as needed, spun to Trump’s advantage. Drop the full report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on someone who hadn’t read news reports and they would no doubt be stunned at what was learned. Hand it to a country already familiar with the details, as Mueller did, and you get more shrugs than you might expect.
What’s important about the way in which public information has damaged Trump is that neither of the cited examples involves admissions he made. Yes, the White House did provide information to Mueller’s team, but only to a limited extent. Trump learned his lesson on that front; facing questions from a hostile House Democratic majority last year, his team refused to comply. (That approach led to one of the articles on which he was impeached.) The coronavirus data, meanwhile, has been released by states, an effort that’s out of Trump’s hands.
At the same time, Trump continues to benefit from the sort of cherry-picking of information that hobbled Clinton in 2016. His allies’ focus on the origins of the Russia investigation by now includes dozens of threads of purported malfeasance, ranging from demonstrated questionable behavior by investigators to intricate conspiracy theories pasted together from dubious assumptions.
That there are far, far more of the latter doesn’t detract from the benefit to Trump; if anything it enhances that benefit. The impression one gets is that there’s a massive web of hostility to the president and that any new detail that emerges (or any old detail that reemerges) serves to bolster the sense of there being a case, if not the case itself. The sunshine here acts less as a disinfectant than as a critical part of the food chain for weeds.
At the risk of self-promotion, the media is at its best when it serves as an adjudicator of this information. Reporters familiar with the scope of the pertinent questions may run the risk of missing details, but objective consideration of what’s being presented has historically been a useful filter for informing the public.
In the modern era, that role is complicated in two ways. The first is by the social media reward system, which might spur a reporter to highlight something interesting but not important. The second is that the ability to acquire and share information isn’t limited to large institutions. Anyone can see what’s released by WikiLeaks or in text messages between former FBI officials, and anyone can tweet conspiracy theories about how the information proves cannibalism or secret plots against the government.
We don’t really know where the appropriate middle ground here is, or if there is one. We can’t know whether Biden’s recalcitrance about opening up his records is a function of concern about what might be found or concern about enabling bad-faith nitpicking about his past. What we know is that we’re in a challenging moment politically, with massive incentives to hide information and little benefit from sharing it. Again, the media used to leverage its communications conduit to the public to intermediate on these issues, but that conduit is now splintered, and a campaign targeting the media as untrustworthy — often using cherry-picked mistakes — has been effective.
We’re left with candidates for the presidency who, at least at times, see more value in secrecy than openness. And that’s not a great place to be.