“This is deadly stuff.”
That’s what President Donald Trump said privately at the same time he was telling the American public that the coronavirus was no worse than the seasonal flu. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said.
Trump made these remarks to famed journalist Bob Woodward, who recorded the conversation with the president’s permission. The revelations are in Woodward’s new book, Rage.
The condemnation of the president has been severe from some quarters. Carl Bernstein, Woodward’s former partner, called Trump’s recorded comments the “smoking gun tape of the president committing the felony.”
Trump isn’t the first president to be caught on tape saying contradictory things in public and private. But like so much of his presidency, even as he follows after his predecessors, he breaks from the past.
Secret Tape Recordings
Between the 1940s and 70s, six presidents secretly recorded their meetings and telephone conversations. These tapes provide a fascinating inside look at the presidency.
Franklin Roosevelt introduced a recording system into the White House in 1940. He was angered by a news story that he believed was inaccurate and wanted to be able to set the record straight. In total, Roosevelt recorded eight hours of press conferences and telephone calls.
Over two years, Harry Truman used his predecessor’s recording device infrequently before giving it to the National Archive in 1947.
Six years later,in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower brought back a recording system and ended up taping 75 meetings in his eight years in office.
But it was the next three presidents that truly embraced secret recordings, culminating in Richard Nixon capturing thousands of hours of conversation.
The tapes offer a fascinating look at the drama and dilemmas of the presidency. For example, during the John F. Kennedy years, recordings provided listeners a front-row seat to the Cuban Missile Crisis’ anxiety-producing days.
As Kennedy and his advisers discuss what to do, knowing their actions could set off World War III, the tension is apparent. “You’re in a pretty bad fix,” General Curtis LeMay told Kennedy. “You’re in there with me,” the president replied with nervous laughter.
Similarly, weeks before his assassination, the weight of leadership was again evident in Kennedy’s voice as he expressed guilt about the US role in the overthrow of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Kennedy was “shocked” at Diem’s violent death and pondered what the future held for the Southeast Asian nation.
Withholding Vital Information
For all the drama, the secret tapes also have more lighthearted moments. In the same recording where Kennedy discusses Diem’s death, his son noisily enters the room, and Kennedy prods him to say hello into the recorder.
When Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sought to order new pants, he gave explicit instructions to make sure the pants were larger in the waist because his weight varied 10 to 15 pounds a month. He also asked for more room in the front, “down where your nuts hang,” as he so eloquently put it.
At the same time, these tapes have shown presidents withholding vital information from the public.
Presidents sometimes need to keep information secret and refrain from telling the public the whole truth, especially in the national security realm. But this results in a gray area ripe for abuse. It can be a fine line between withholding information to benefit oneself and doing so in service to the nation.
In public, Johnson championed the war in Vietnam. Privately he had serious doubts. “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for,” he said in one telephone call early in the conflict. Yet he still sent over half a million troops to fight in Southeast Asia.
Nixon also deceived on Vietnam. While publicly saying US troops would leave once South Vietnam could stand on its own, privately he didn’t believe it ever could. But instead of leveling with the American people, he kept American soldiers in Vietnam, worried that Saigon’s collapse would hurt his reelection prospects.
Most famously, Nixon’s recordings showed his involvement in Watergate, including the original “smoking gun” tape, despite his repeated denials. After Nixon’s recording system was exposed, and he left the White House in shame, future presidents avoided recording their conversations.
Gap Between Public and Private Thoughts
Nixon, as well as Johnson, didn’t expect their remarks to be exposed, at least not while they were in office. But with Trump, we didn’t have to wait until his presidency was over to hear the gap between his public and private thoughts.
Trump’s three immediate predecessors all sat for interviews with Woodward. But none treated the famed investigative journalist as a confidant or revealed such newsworthy revelations.
But in many ways, this fits with the unconventional nature of the Trump presidency. And throughout his time in office, he has frequently made remarks and sent Tweets that have caused shock and invited controversy in ways past presidents have shunned.
How history judges Trump remains to be seen. It’s too early to know where his coronavirus remarks fit into the larger context of his presidency. But one can imagine they will become central to assessments of his leadership, in part because they were recorded.
As Woodward noted in a recent interview, when you see comments “on paper that’s one thing. When you hear the voice it’s much larger than the words on the page.”Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.