More than 50 years ago, then president Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff HR “Bob” Haldeman had a conversation in the Oval Office. All conversations in the Oval back then were recorded. Except this one. The nature and content of that conversation will forever remain a mystery because there is an eighteen and a half minute gap in the recording. Someone or something erased that conversation.
The now infamous missing eighteen minutes has been a subject of speculation ever since. It’s even a favourite moment for conspiracy theorists where, according to their fantasies, everything from alien spacecraft in Area 51 to the conspiracy to kill JFK is discussed. More realistic speculation centres on Nixon’s culpability in the Watergate scandal. But the bottom line is this: we will probably never know for sure what Nixon and Haldeman talked about for those 1,110 seconds that day, or how it came to be erased. We can speculate, but we almost certainly can never know.
Donald Trump’s latest scandal, his bizarre hoarding of huge quantities of top secret documents at Mar-a-Lago, has a similar mystery. It turns out there are some 48 empty folders that once contained top secret documents. How they came to be empty and where those documents are no one can say.
But Trump’s missing secret documents are not quite so securely entrenched in the obscure mists of the past as are Nixon’s missing eighteen minutes. For one thing, the content of the folders can be inferred in many ways. One way is through supporting documents elsewhere.
The whole problem with destroying or misappropriating documents is there are almost always other documents and emails and memories of those documents that exist somewhere else. It’s almost always a painstaking process to find these supporting documents, but it can be done. And the conclusion could be devastating for Trump.
For one thing, the content of those documents could turn out to be information that is known to be compromised. For example, if one of the documents was known to contain classified technology that is known to now belong to Russia, it could be inferred that Donald Trump sold that document to Russia. (The question would remain, why didn’t he merely photocopy the thing? Or why didn’t he sell it with the folder? You’d have to ask Trump. But don’t forget, Trump is one of the world’s most spectacularly stupid people.)
Whatever happened to the documents missing from the 48 folders will remain speculation in the meantime. But at least one fact can be gleaned from it that is probably beyond speculation. Trump is extravagantly cavalier with America’s secrets, treating them not only as if they are his own personal property, but as if the contents don’t matter because the dangers they represent to lives and national security don’t affect him personally. He is just that obviously narcissistic, and 48 empty folders that once contained top secret documents give mute testimony to the extent of hIs narcissism. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.