For this morning’s reading assignment I recommend two pieces. The first is by Clive Irving of The Daily Beast. Mr. Irving discusses several historical examples of secret meetings between government officials or world leaders, the details of which were later at least partially revealed to the public. The Nixon Watergate tapes are one obvious case, but Irving also mentions Dick Cheney’s 2001 energy task force, private conversations during the 1985 Geneva summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, a 1956 meeting at a villa outside Paris involving leaders from the United Kingdom, Israel, and France as they unsuccessfully planned the ouster of Egyptian General Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the January 20, 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Nazis formalized their plans of their Final Solution to “the Jewish problem.”
All but the Watergate example had important implications for war and peace. Our knowledge of these events, however imperfect, informs our understanding of some of the most significant events of the last one hundred years. According to Irving, we now have another example.
Donald Trump spent two hours alone with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July and we still have no idea what was specifically said or agreed between two of the most powerful men in the world. (Only two interpreters, bound to silence, were present.)
Those interpreters have the rarest kind of information, and we’re going to want to learn from one or both of them what was said in Helsinki.
After their Helsinki meeting, Trump looked like a man in thrall to Putin. Asked if he still believed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, he said “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. He said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be….”
Later, after even House Speaker Paul Ryan rebuked Trump for the remarks, he attempted to rewrite what was already on the record by saying he had intended to say “I don’t see any reason why it would not be”—a tautology that convinced nobody.
There is no inevitability involved here. History does not reveal itself but must be pursued and compelled to reveal its secrets. It’s not hard to imagine Watergate without the evidence on the tapes. It’s a minor miracle that we ever unearthed the minutes of the Wannsee Conference and learned one of the most important questions about the Holocaust.
And this gets me to my second piece of recommended reading. Chris Strohm and Shannon Pettypiece report for Bloomberg that the Trump administration will seek to suppress any report coming from the Office of Special Counsel.
[Robert] Mueller may submit his findings on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign to the Justice Department as early as February, according to one U.S. official. After that, things could get messy…
…Under the federal regulation that authorizes special counsels, Mueller is required only to submit his report to department leaders. There’s no mandate that any part of Mueller’s findings be provided to Congress or the public.
What happens next would be decided by Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker or by William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, if he’s confirmed by the Senate by then.
Both Whitaker and Barr have been openly critical and dismissive of the Russia investigation. Trump is relying on them to protect him from the worst. He’s also considering a selective battle to suppress evidence based on claims of executive privilege, which may be more effective as a stalling tactic than as an historical eraser.
Trump and his lawyers expect to get an advance look at the report if there’s a chance it will be shared beyond the Justice Department. They may assert executive privilege to withhold any information related to Trump’s time in the White House or during the transition, depending on what’s included.
“We will look at it and see if the president thinks there is a valid claim and if there is, do we want to make it,” said Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “We reserve the right. We don’t know if we have to, but we haven’t waived it.”
Giuliani said the White House would be willing to fight in court to preserve material it considers privileged.
The best laid plans of suppression by the Trump administration could be obliterated in a moment if the report simply leaks. Assuming that doesn’t happen, we could be facing a near-future where the public knows that long-awaited information is available and that they are being prevented from seeing it.
I think we should contemplate just how unpopular that will be, because people have a natural thirst to know the hidden secrets of history. We will want that report and we will require the information about Helsinki.