Indictment secrecy repeats pattern of past efforts targeting Trump

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn upon arrival at the White House in Washington, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Indictment secrecy repeats pattern of past efforts targeting Trump

INDICTMENT SECRECY REPEATS PATTERN OF PAST EFFORTS TARGETING TRUMP. Everyone in the universe knew that an indictment of former President Donald Trump would be an explosive event in the political, legal, and media worlds. It would be something everybody talked about, dominating television, the internet, social media, radio, everything. And indeed, that has turned out to be the case.

But here’s the thing: Everyone is talking about Trump’s indictment, but no one knows what Trump has been indicted for. The indictment is under seal until Tuesday, and outside of a small group of local prosecutors in Manhattan, no one knows the charges against Trump — not even Trump himself. We know what has been reported in recent weeks, that the indictment could be a strained effort to convert an old misdemeanor charge against Trump into a new campaign finance-related felony, but we don’t really know what the document says.

In the absence of facts, speculation flourishes, some of it in an atmosphere of high emotions. Is the indictment, in fact, “a misdemeanor that somebody put a suit on,” in the words of former congressman and federal prosecutor Trey Gowdy? Does it document one of the most momentous crimes in U.S. history? Is democracy itself being tested? (And if so, how do we pass the test?)

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It is obvious that in such a debate, the public should know what the charges are. Are the counts in the indictment what has been discussed previously? Are they strong? Are they weak? No one knows for sure.

What we do know for sure is that in these highly politicized cases, the accuser benefits from secrecy. Speculation focuses on alleged wrongdoing that cannot be examined in any detail until the secrecy lifts. So the speculation grows. Concerning Trump specifically, it’s a phenomenon we have seen many times before. In fact, the current indictment drama fits a long-established pattern of efforts to get Trump in the past: Focus on a secret allegation and engage in dark speculation while the public cannot fact-check the allegation. Some examples from the last few years:

1) The classified documents case. Trump, as a former president, is said to be under investigation for mishandling classified documents and for obstructing the Justice Department’s investigation. And yet, to this day, no one in the public knows what the classified documents involved in the case are. Are they the nation’s most sensitive secrets? Are they classified material so widely distributed that it shouldn’t have been classified at all? No one knows. But that has not stopped many prominent voices from engaging in the wildest sort of speculation.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have the highest security clearances, have sought information from the Justice Department on that very question: What documents are Trump accused of mishandling? They have also sought information on what documents President Joe Biden is suspected of mishandling. The Justice Department has stonewalled the Senate. “This is where the Biden administration gets an absolute failing grade,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) told NBC recently. “Their position is outrageous. We’ve seen squat. I’m not a guy that comes on TV and makes threats, but I’m joining with my Republican colleagues and my colleagues, Democrat and Republican, in the House. This position cannot stand.”

2) The Mueller report. In 2019, Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller finished his report and sent it to the Justice Department. The problem was that the report could not be quickly released to the public because the special counsel had not made the redactions necessary for a report based on grand jury information. The work would take weeks. Speculation ran wild. What was in the report? Did Mueller have a smoking gun?

Fortunately for the public, Attorney General Bill Barr stepped in, releasing a brief summary of the report’s “principal conclusions.” The two biggest such conclusions were that Mueller could not establish that conspiracy or coordination had taken place between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia and that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed the investigation. Barr’s work set off a firestorm when some Democrats accused him of distorting Mueller’s findings. But Barr’s summary was entirely accurate, and the big picture was that Barr had helped control the speculation by giving the public some actual facts about the Mueller report.

3) The first impeachment. The allegations that led to Trump’s first impeachment, in 2019, began as leaked information from an anonymous whistleblower about a phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Acting on the advice of House Democrats, the whistleblower filed a secret complaint targeting the president. With no one in the public knowing what was happening — indeed, no Republicans in the House knowing what was happening — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) began making TV appearances discussing the whistleblower complaint, darkly suggesting it showed wrongdoing by Trump and hinting that it might even lead to impeachment. Then then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took up Schiff’s cause, announcing an impeachment inquiry over evidence no one in the public knew anything about.

The headlines were huge. The speculation was rampant. And it was all on the basis of secret evidence. That is when Trump had enough and simply released the White House’s rough transcript of the Zelensky phone call. It was unprecedented for Trump to do such a thing. But the moment he did it, light shone on a debate that had previously been conducted in the dark. Both sides claimed the transcript supported their case. But politically, the important thing was: The accusers had been benefiting from the secrecy in the impeachment matter. Releasing the key piece of evidence made the public discussion an informed debate.

4) The dossier. Perhaps the grandfather of all the secret accusations against Trump was the Steele dossier. Created by a former British spy paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, and later adopted by the FBI, the dossier was a compilation of unfounded allegations claiming there was a long-term “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump and the Russian government. It was all BS — there’s no better way to say it — but it created enormous anticipation among journalists, Democrats, and Never Trumpers. It is hard to overstate the sense of excitement that existed among that group about the so-called pee tape that alleged the Kremlin had a video of Trump involved in a kinky sex act with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.

Indeed, the first leak of the dossier’s allegations, in January 2017, suggested a big sex scandal, plus the involvement of U.S. intelligence. The frenzy might have consumed Trump’s young presidency had not Buzzfeed News called everyone’s bluff by releasing the entire dossier early in the controversy. The debate in the dark became a more informed debate. A number of fair observers immediately saw the dossier as deeply flawed, while die-hard Trump opponents clung to its allegations. Later, when more information came out, the dossier turned out to be even more deeply flawed than skeptics had suggested.

5) The tax returns. As a candidate and then as president, Trump broke with 40 years of tradition by not publicly releasing his tax returns. It was a move his political opponents could reasonably cite to criticize him. On the other hand, he had no legal obligation to do so. In any event, Trump’s decision set off a long Democratic crusade to force him to release his tax returns. As they pushed, Democrats and their allies in the press fed increasingly sensational speculation about what the returns might conceal: massive criminality, international intrigue, wrongdoing on a Trumpian scale. Once they won the majority in 2018, House Democrats intensified their effort to force Trump to release the returns. It took years, a long court battle, and a trip to the Supreme Court, but they finally won in 2022. And then…nothing much happened. The big journalism outlets did deep dives into the returns and came up with nothing terribly spectacular. In the end, Democrats reaped political benefits from the secrecy, in this case unwisely imposed by Trump himself, even when the substance of the matter proved to be nondramatic. The light of day revealed that the fevered speculation was mostly fevered speculation.

In each of these cases, secrecy fed speculation, and the speculation was often wrong. It’s just common sense that such secrecy is a bad thing in a highly politicized public debate. With that in mind, several media outlets have asked the judge in the Trump indictment case to unseal the indictment immediately. “Any delay only allows speculation about the contents of the indictment to proliferate,” the media organizations wrote. They’re right.

In this case, the period of secrecy will be brief — from Thursday, when the indictment was revealed, to Tuesday, when Trump will appear in court and the indictment will be unsealed. But five days of secrecy and speculation, coming after weeks of secrecy and speculation as the Manhattan investigation intensified, have repeated what has become an old pattern in the Trump years.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found. You can use this link to subscribe.

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