U.S. Markets closed

Trump Hints at Civil War But He Launched a War on Facts

Timothy L. O'Brien

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The president of the United States suggested on Twitter on Sunday night that the country may have to endure a civil war should he be impeached and removed from office. So a timeline detailing how Donald Trump and the rest of us got to this point is probably in order.

Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, unseemly details of his conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked to the media. After that, the White House limited the number of people with access to transcripts or records of Trump’s phone calls.

Three months later, in May 2017, Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, and gloated about it in an Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the U.S., referring to Comey as a “nut job.” That ugly bit of juvenalia also made it into the press, along with the more serious and disturbing revelation that Trump disclosed classified intelligence information to the Russians. With that, the White House clamped down even further and began moving records and transcripts of some of Trump’s conversations onto a so-called “code-word” protected and highly classified National Security Council computer network, according to the New York Times.

Ever since then, apparently, many of Trump’s potentially embarrassing diplomatic machinations reportedly made it into that database alongside the more typically sensitive records all presidents have routinely and legitimately classified for national security purposes. Based only on what we know thus far, among the material on the secret NSC network reportedly ranking as possibly ghastly rather than improper or illegal are discussions Trump had with Saudi Arabia’s royal family about the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But it’s the opaque and overtly illicit material that we now know is hidden on that system, the use of which only became known thanks to a complaint filed by a Central Intelligence Agency whistle-blower, that is the stuff of presidential impeachment proceedings. The foundational disclosure, from the whistle-blower, was that Trump called Ukraine’s president in July and offered to connect him to his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr so they could jointly dig up dirt in Ukraine on a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. That conversation, the whistle-blower said, got stashed away on the restricted NSC network — which the White House later confirmed.

On Friday night, the Washington Post disclosed that when Trump met with the Russians in the Oval Office in 2017, he went beyond slagging Comey and disclosing classified intelligence. He also told them “he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries.” That statement “alarmed White House officials” who decided a memo summarizing the meeting should be “limited to a few officials with the highest security clearances in an attempt to keep the president’s comments from being disclosed publicly.” It wasn’t clear if that memo was secreted on the NSC’s restricted network, but congressional investigators can go ahead and find out.

CNN reported on Friday night that transcripts of sensitive calls between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia were also limited to a select group in the Trump administration. CNN said it wasn’t clear if those transcripts were placed on the restricted network; the New York Times reported that they were. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, said over the weekend that it would rather not see those transcripts made public. Congressional investigators should try to get a look at those conversations, too.

Apart from Trump’s staggering abuse of presidential power, one of the more troubling and pivotal disclosures from the whistle-blower’s complaint is that the White House systematically used the NSC network to hide his misdeeds. Doing so immediately turned that system into a Pandora’s Box of current and future woes for Trump and his White House. It also made those who managed the system, or who passed judgment on or had knowledge of the material that went into it — including witnesses and possible co-conspirators — into more than fair game for the Democrats running impeachment proceedings.

For anyone who has paid attention to Trump over the years, it’s all very familiar.

For example, the Trump Organization had its own email network, though the company’s proprietor and namesake never used it. In part this was due to his preference for telephone conversations and a certain amount of technophobia. But it was also because, as his business associates told me, so he could retain plausible deniability should disputes arise — and also because he didn’t like leaving paper trails around his dealings.

Trump used to tell reporters, myself included, that he had a taping system in his office and that he was recording conversations during interviews at Trump Tower. Trump’s employees worried he was taping them. Trump also suggested more recently that he had a taping system in the White House that he used to record his conversations with Comey. I never thought he had anything like that in place in Trump Tower or the White House (though Congress should ask as part of the impeachment inquiry). When Trump unsuccessfully sued me for libel my lawyers deposed him for two days in 2007 and he was forced to admit he had been lying about having a taping system. I imagine that Trump was averse to a taping system in his business (and at the White House) for the same reason he was averse to email: It created a record he might not want other people to see.

As Politico reported last year, Trump routinely tears up speeches and other documents once he’s done with them — forcing White House staffers to tape them together piecemeal so the administration can comply with the Presidential Records Act and make sure that all non-classified material the president touches is sent to the National Archives and preserved. (The White House, according to Politico, eventually fired the employees tasked with taping shredded documents back together.)

Trump has concealed details of several encounters with Putin dating back to the earliest days of his administration. In 2017, he asked his interpreter to give him the notes of a conversation with Putin in Hamburg and ordered the interpreter not to discuss any of it with other officials in his own administration. Trump and Putin met privately for more than two hours in Helsinki in July 2018 with only interpreters present, after which Trump told reporters at a press conference that he accepted the Russian leader’s assurances that the Kremlin didn’t meddle in the 2016 election. That assertion was at odds with the conclusions of Trump’s own law enforcement and intelligence teams and with what we now know he told Russian diplomats in the White House in 2017. Trump reportedly met late last year last year with Putin at a G-20 summit without a White House interpreter or aide, apparently relying on Putin’s interpreter to translate the conversation.

The White House’s use of the restricted NSC network to cover up the president’s various communications with foreign leaders is of a fit with all of this. It’s still not clear whether Trump personally directed that nettlesome files be put on that network; the whistle-blower’s complaint said that White House lawyers “directed” that Trump’s July call to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, be put on the network. The Washington Post reported that use of the restricted network required a senior White House official — “someone as high as the chief of staff or the national security adviser” — to request it in writing (so there’s some more documentation for congressional investigators to request).

CNN, citing officials in the Trump administration, reported Friday night that John Eisenberg, the White House’s deputy counsel for national security affairs, ordered that the call with Zelenskiy be put on the restricted NSC server. As it turns out, Eisenberg also fielded initial conversations with the CIA’s legal counsel, Courtney Elwood, when the whistle-blower first aired his concerns about Trump’s call to Zelenskiy. So any communication Trump has had with Eisenberg about his calls with foreign leaders, and ways to hide those calls, will matter as the impeachment inquiry moves along.

The entire highly classified NSC network is likely to become a legal football in coming weeks as congressional investigators seek broader access to records the White House won’t want to give up. Trump may not be able to rely on Barr — who should recuse himself from deliberations given that his name has surfaced in the Ukraine matter -- to help adjudicate any of that, which may explain some of the added desperation that has crept into the president’s Twitter feed over the last few days.

In addition to warning of civil war, Trump took to Twitter on Sunday evening to accuse Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat spearheading the impeachment inquiry, of “Fraud & Treason” and to demand that he be allowed to meet the whistle-blower who might have been “SPYING on the U.S. President?” He also said he wanted to meet “the person” who gave information to the whistle-blower. (The whistle-blower’s complaint actually cites several people that provided information.)

Running parallel to Trump’s attacks on his accusers is, of course, the war on facts he and his administration have waged since the moment he was inaugurated as president. And the White House’s classified computer network has emerged as a clear metaphor for all of that, forcing anyone watching this unfold to ask the most obvious and fundamental question: What kind of a person spends a lifetime going out of his way to hide records or avoid leaving a paper trail?

Someone who is either deeply paranoid or very, very naughty.

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.