Lesson(s) of the Day

President Donald Trump meets with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP

I guess we can say that the lesson of the day is that when private conversations are released willy nilly to the public it can be damaging to the parties involved. 

The simple reality is that we speak differently in private and especially among trusted coworkers and friends than we do in public. Whether this is right or wrong is hardly the point. It is an ingrained part of the human experience. Indeed, it is probably a necessary part of the human experience. When we think someone is ugly or stupid, unless we want to hurt that person we generally will try to avoid telling them this. If we have to confront our beliefs with them and choose not to lie we will generally try to do so in the least hurtful and damaging way. Candor has its place. Total candor is sometimes critical to be fair and loving to someone we care about and want the best for. But as a general matter, being indifferent to these niceties doesn’t make you transparent. It makes you an asshole.

This obviously comes out with the issue of emails. But today’s news actually brings up the great unstated revelation of the Russia/Wikileaks/DNC hack meta-story. Russian hackers accessed large swathes of the private email correspondence of various DNC staffers. They gained full access to the private email of John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign and one of the most powerful people in the Democratic party. We can probably assume that other people’s emails were hacked that we never heard about. The really big story was how little genuinely damaging stuff there was. People talk. People say nasty things about other people. Sometimes people confirm that what they really believe is the polar opposite of what they claim. Sometimes they denigrate their supporters as imbeciles and chumps. Again, a very sophisticated state-backed subversion campaign got access to close to everything off these servers. And what they came up with was pretty thin. Yes, there were some embarrassments. But fundamentally the delta between what the people in question were saying in public and in private just wasn’t that large.

In the nature of things, the Democrats couldn’t really make this argument. “We turned out, on balance, to be fairly honest and not that bad” isn’t a great campaign slogan. But I think it is simply a fact that there just wasn’t very much there. These calls today are communications with foreign heads of state which are by definition being recorded at least on both ends of the line if not perhaps by third parties. They are also public documents, not private communications. They’re not private chats or trash talking with pals. And yet you can see that with Trump, the delta is quite massive. That’s as we expect, since Trump is a congenital liar.

I will say this. Outside of very specific circumstances where the public has a pressing need to know, Presidents should be able to talk freely and confidentially with foreign heads of state. I’m not saying they should have legal executive privilege protection. But in the normal course of things, Presidents and other top officials should be able to rely on these communications remaining private for a significant length of time. This is not at all a criticism of the journalists reporting them. I’m just saying that any President and White House staff would be pissed about this and feel reasonably like it’s no way to work.

The larger story I think is this: we’ve already gotten a few hints of what the hidden story is with Trump – these phone calls, the Access Hollywood tape, Trump Jr. hearing that the Russian government is pursuing active measures to get Trump elected president and saying he ‘loves’ it. We know why the Trumpers are so wedded to secrecy and non-disclosure. They’re hiding a lot!

We all need and deserve a zone of privacy to do our work and in a way be fully human. Some of us just need it a lot more than others.