In the whistleblower story about President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, one important detail has changed.
The Trump White House, the whistleblower charged, tried to “lock down” the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by placing it in a secret electronic system reserved for national security secrets. This ordinary conversation would have ordinarily been placed instead on an ordinary server used by multiple federal agencies.
Critics say Trump buried the transcript on the secret server because it revealed Trumpian misdeeds. Sure looks like a cover-up.
But the story changed a bit. Apparently, the Trump White House has been using this secret server for years to store transcripts of Trump calls. Why? According to intelligence community sources, it began after “[b]ack-to-back leaks of controversial remarks by President Trump during calls with leaders of Mexico and Australia,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal.
What were the “controversial remarks” that leaked out? Well, that’s just the thing. Nobody asserted that those calls revealed an abuse of power, collusion, or anything possibly illegal. Rather, the “controversy” was that the calls went poorly and could easily be presented to make Trump look bad.
The intelligence officials who leaked those Australia and Mexico transcripts weren’t whistleblowers. They were politically motivated leakers having a bit of fun at Trump’s expense.
But when the intelligence community leaks the president’s calls to make him look bad, that is malfeasance. This sort of malfeasance has become the norm in the Trump era, and it’s set off a spiral of paranoia, secrecy, dishonesty, and distrust that has helped bring us to the precipice of impeachment.
Trump is an extraordinary human being, unlike anyone else who has been even close to the Oval Office. He came in lacking experience in politics or policy. Most importantly, he came in lacking the comportment or habits we would normally find in a statesman.
Trump’s presidency was bound to put America’s institutions under a stress test. The intelligence community, the bureaucracy, Congress, the courts, and the media were going to be tempted by this man who didn’t follow the standard rules of politics. Would these institutions respond by doing their jobs, or would they respond by breaking norms?
Unfortunately, many supposed guardians of our democracy responded to Trump’s election by smashing norms. Sally Yates, acting as attorney general, refused to enforce the law because she thought it unwise and unjust. James Comey, the FBI director, appears to have laid subtle traps for the president. Many colleagues in the press abandoned their sobriety when faced with Trump.
And then some in the intelligence community took to using their access to the president’s calls as a way to leak information that made him look bad. And so Trump’s White House, to keep every single call from being leaked, responded with its norm-breaking: it became more paranoid and more opaque. It moved to the secret server calls that would normally be placed on a standard server. But “normally” doesn’t apply anymore, it seems.
This is bad news if you’re a conservative who believes laws and politicians can never keep peace but that norms and customs are necessary. It’s bad news if you’re a liberal, who these days regularly lament the smashing of norms.
It’s bad news for America where nobody feels the need to play by the rules and nobody thinks the other side cares about the rules.