Secrecy has always been Donald Trump’s thing. His net worth? It’s hidden in private companies that produce no reliable public reports. His charitable giving? Listed on tax forms that were also kept secret. Profits on investments? Indebtedness? Business traffic at his properties? Secret. Secret. Secret. How ironic, then, that he’s now on the path to possible impeachment thanks to what looks like a scheme he couldn’t hide.
Trump’s presidency is threatened by the secrets revealed by a whistleblower inside the national security community who reported that the President was seeking foreign help to get dirt on his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The whistleblower’s complaint drew attention to the now-infamous call Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25.
As a record released by the White House shows, Trump used the call to ask the Ukrainian government to investigate two conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence. The first holds that Ukraine and not Russia waged an information war on America’s 2016 election. The second suggests that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden were involved in some sort of wrongdoing related to Ukraine’s energy industry.
Couched in the words “do us a favor,” Trump’s requests followed the administration’s halt of the transfer of about $400 million in aid scheduled to help Ukraine defend against a Russian-backed armed rebellion in its east. In a classic display of Trumpspeak, the President told Zelensky, “there’s a lot of talk” about Biden and he hoped Ukraine would help Attorney General William Barr’s probe into it.
In the so-called listening room, where officials expected to hear Trump and Zelensky carry out a routine conversation, some were aware of Trump’s obsession with Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine but said they didn’t realize that Trump would raise it directly with Zelensky. As The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported — and the whistleblower complaint noted — when the call ended, those officials recognized the peril the call posed to the administration and stashed the record of said call in a system designed to protect the most sensitive official secrets. According to the whistleblower’s complaint, this was not the first time that electronic vault was used to conceal information for political purposes.
The spectacle of listeners recognizing the President’s alleged abuse of power and moving to lock down the record offers the world a perfect illustration of what happens when a habitual manipulator moves into a system of checks and balances but doesn’t change his ways.
When Trump was just a businessman and I was a biographer attempting to verify the tales he told, I discovered that among members of his family and in his small circle at company headquarters everyone loyally kept his secrets. However, in some cases they didn’t have to say a thing because Trump could rely on opaque proceedings to maintain his secrets. The lawyers and accountants he hired were bound by promises of confidentiality. His bankers were not free to reveal what they knew and the same was true for local, state and federal tax authorities who aren’t allowed to divulge anyone’s private information.
The issue of Trump’s taxes illustrates how he plays the secrecy game. When Trump first said he would seek the presidency, he said he would follow the 40-year tradition that has seen every major candidate release many years of personal tax forms. Then he reversed himself, claiming he was under audit and lawyers advised he not make the returns public. Thanks to a federal court ruling published this week, Trump’s tax secrets may be revealed. Prosecutors in Manhattan say they need the returns and the judge agreed. Appeals are certain, but the ruling is well-crafted and according to some legal experts, seems likely to be upheld.
As the tax situation illustrates, Donald Trump may finally be running up against forces more powerful than his secrecy strategies. He seems to have struggled to find and keep competent officials in the White House who can also play his game. The record turnover among high-ranking officials must be blamed, at least in part, on the stress associated with the challenge of keeping in focus two versions of reality — the one in Trump’s mind and the one evident everywhere else.
The trouble for Trump, and those around him who tried to adapt to his ways, is that the government is too big, and it is served by some who are devoted to higher values. An old dog who can’t learn new tricks, the President tried to run the US government the way he ran the Trump organization — which may well lead to his impeachment.