Despite what anyone may want to believe, the chances of Donald Trump moving into the White House in January are not trivial. He is still a candidate; he still has ardent supporters; and he still could be our next president. This means that, now more than ever, journalists with relevant information have a responsibility to stop wringing their hands and burn Donald Trump.
Currently, at least one potential cache of nightmarish Trump material is hiding in plain sight: Mark Burnett’s video archives at The Apprentice. There are significant barriers to any of it becoming public. But there is another potential source of Trump tapes: All the dozens or hundreds of journalists who have interviewed him, often off the record, over the past 30 years.
As a rule, journalists don’t burn sources because of practical considerations (doing so, they worry, would render promises of protection to other sources null), because decent people consider promises of confidentiality generally binding, and because these promises can in some circumstances be legally binding when a written or verbal contract is involved. But almost every rule—even the very nearly sacrosanct—has its exceptions. For reporters today, that exception is Donald J. Trump.
To be clear about what we’re talking about and to whom we’re speaking, it’s important to note that Donald Trump’s rise to power and celebrity over the past three decades had a great deal to do with his skill as an information broker.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s in particular, Trump and New York gossip columnists depended upon one another entirely. He had a knack for working them: Former Daily News columnist Liz Smith, who was treated to visits at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, told The New Yorker,“I was left holding the bag, ethically, because I had foolishly appeared to have accepted a lot of favors from him.” Former Page Six editor Susan Mulcahy admitted in Politico, “I helped make the myth of Donald Trump. And for that, I am very, very sorry.” And former gossip columnist A.J. Benza reckoned with the role he played in creating The Donald by laying out Trump’s mechanisms for controlling the press to Adam Carolla back in May:
Trump spent every morning on the phone with me, with Page 6—he loved to get his name in the paper. As a result, he would drop dimes on other people in every industry he knew dirt on. You put the story in the paper, and then, three days later, you say, “Donald Trump was at a Knicks game with this supermodel.” And he’s happy. That’s all it took.
Sue Carswell, a former reporter for People magazine, recorded at least one call between her and Trump in 1991. And we know of at least one other journalist who has hours of recorded, implicitly off-the-record conversations with Trump. It’s inconceivable that they would be alone—journalists recording conversations with sources was and is a matter of course, and few people have talked more to more reporters than Trump. And given what we now know about how Trump speaks in private, it’s equally inconceivable that there isn’t information in these tapes that would be crucial to the public’s understanding of the man who would be president.
The thing standing between the public and this information, if not the law, is the sacred “reporter’s code,” which places the promise of confidentiality above the journalist’s duty to inform the public. This is, at root, practical: The reporter keeps information secret so they can get more and (presumably) more important information down the road. This argument is no longer relevant. What could possibly be more important than telling the public everything there is to know about the nationalist would-be autocrat who, even in disgrace, remains terrifyingly close to becoming president?
Past his specific policy stances (insomuch as any even exist), reporters should burn Trump because he is cancerous, attacking not just the health of the body politic but its ability to be healthy. If there’s one thing he hates more than bad press, it’s not being in control of the press at all. So the only option, as far as he’s concerned, is neutering the First Amendment itself. There’s a reason he asked Peter Thiel to speak at the Republican National Convention, and why Thiel’s name has been floated as a potential Supreme Court nominee.
Here are just a few things Donald Trump has said regarding the press:
- “I’m going to continue to attack the press [if I’m president].”
- “It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false!”
- “I am not only fighting Crooked Hillary, I am fighting the dishonest and corrupt media and her government protection process. People get it!”
- “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Trump’s complaints only make sense as part of an agenda to bend the press to his will. (Newspapers and others can already be sued for deliberately running false information—or, in some cases, true information.) Where a real estate mogul or reality-TV personality is doing this privately, to ensure favorable coverage in the gossip press, this is the way of the world. Where a politician expresses an intention to use the power of the federal government to do the same, it is potentially fatally dangerous to free speech—especially when Trump’s actions show he means it.
For the vast majority of his campaign, Trump took great pleasure in denying press credentials to outlets who covered him critically. In some cases, the campaign flat-out denied entry to events to reporters even when they’d purchased their own tickets. He’s vilified journalists, blacklisted entire media outlets, and routinely encouraged crowds to jeer and mock reporters at his rallies. The candidate has backed his anti-journalism rhetoric with action; one can only imagine what the president would do.
By riding the demonization of women and ethnic and religious minorities to the precipice of the White House, Donald Trump has made himself a danger to the United States. By actively threatening the Constitution, he has made himself a danger to the press. Between the two, he has long since forfeited the considerations that journalists normally afford their sources.
A reporter’s first obligation right now is, as always, informing the public to the best of their abilities. One of the main factors that would prevent reporters with Trump tapes from releasing that information—a sense of deference to their previous arrangements—does not apply here. Trump has failed to uphold his end of the deal by threatening the social and legal infrastructure that makes such arrangements even conceivable. Whether done out of misplaced attachments to made-up precepts, fear, or some warped sense of loyalty to a conscienceless demagogue, sitting on anything that could contain information relevant to the election at hand is an abandonment of journalistic responsibility.
There is less than a month left in the election. If you are a reporter who’s had dealings with Donald Trump that you believe the world should be aware of, you should publish those stories. And if you can’t bring yourself to do so, you can reach us by email here or through SecureDrop here, or make the information available to any number of other media organizations who are willing to publish true and important facts about public figures, at least while they still can.