It’s Been an Open Secret All Along
The scandal of Michael Wolff’s new book isn’t its salacious details—it’s that everyone in Washington has known its key themes, and refused to act.
Three months ago, when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times unloaded their first big report about Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexual aggressiveness and abuse, the depth of detail made the story unforgettable—and as it turned out, historic. Real women went on the record, using their real names, giving specific dates and times and circumstances of what Weinstein had said or done to them.
Of the reactions that flowed from this and parallel accounts—about Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly in the Fox empire, or Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose in mainstream TV, or Kevin Spacey and Louis CK in the film world, or Michael Oreskes and John Hockenberry in public radio, or Mark Halperin and Leon Weiseltier in print and political media, and down the rest of the list—one response was particularly revealing. It was that the behavior in question had been an “open secret.”
In the very short term, a few people reflexively offered “open secret” as an explanation, even a rationalization. Of course everybody knew that Harvey/Roger/Kevin was this way (the reasoning went). If you were smart, you kept your distance, and you’d never take the bait of going for “a meeting” up in the hotel room. Want to give, or get, a “massage”? No way!
But you rarely hear rationalizations of that sort any more. Now the open-secret premise usually leads to a follow-up question. If “everyone” knew what was going on, why didn’t anyone do more to stop it? And this in turn has led to institutional and personal self-examinations.
In the best circumstances, organizations have asked: How could we have failed that badly? What should we do differently? Individuals have asked: What should I have known, that I merely suspected (or willfully ignored)? What more could I have done, based on what I actually knew? For powerful illustrations in this last category from members of the Atlantic family, involving episodes at The New Republic, see this by Michelle Cottle, this by Peter Beinart, and this by Franklin Foer.
In the worst circumstances, details have piled up about organizations that made deals, payoffs, or threats to keep ugly specifics of what they knew from getting in the way of their business plans. Thus the tens of millions of dollars in harassment settlements while Bill O’Reilly was still a Fox cash cow; thus the payoffs and investigations by the Weinstein organization to placate or intimidate women who might otherwise go public with their complaints against Harvey Weinstein.
In all these cases, the malefactor remains most to blame. But “it was an open secret” now properly seems a broadened indictment, of all those who quietly let him get away with it, rather than an excuse.
The details in Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury make it unforgettable, and potentially historic. We’ll see how many of them fully stand up, and in what particulars, but even at a heavy discount, it’s a remarkable tale.
But what Wolff is describing is an open secret.
Based on the excerpts now available, Fire and Fury presents a man in the White House who is profoundly ignorant of politics, policy, and anything resembling the substance of perhaps the world’s most demanding job. He is temperamentally unstable. Most of what he says in public is at odds with provable fact, from “biggest inaugural crowd in history” onward. Whether he is aware of it or not, much of what he asserts is a lie. His functional vocabulary is markedly smaller than it was 20 years ago; the oldest person ever to begin service in the White House, he is increasingly prone to repeat anecdotes and phrases. He is aswirl in foreign and financial complications. He has ignored countless norms of modern governance, from the expectation of financial disclosure to the importance of remaining separate from law-enforcement activities. He relies on immediate family members to an unusual degree; he has an exceptionally thin roster of experienced advisers and assistants; his White House staff operations have more in common with an episode of The Apprentice than with any real-world counterpart. He has a shallower reserve of historical or functional information than previous presidents, and a more restricted supply of ongoing information than many citizens. He views all events through the prism of whether they make him look strong and famous, and thus he is laughably susceptible to flattering treatment from the likes of Putin and Xi Jinping abroad or courtiers at home.
And, as Wolff emphasizes, everyone around him considers him unfit for the duties of this office. From the account in The Hollywood Reporter:
Hoping for the best, with their personal futures as well as the country's future depending on it, my indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all—100 percent—came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job.
This is “news,” in its detail, just as the specifics of Weinstein’s marauding were real, hard-won news. But it also is an open secret. This is the man who offered himself to the public over the past two-and-a-half years.
I feel this way because I believe I chronicled signs of every one of these traits through the campaign cycle, in The Atlantic’s 162-installment “Trump Time Capsule” series. But practically anyone else in political journalism can make a similar claim. Who and what Trump is has been an open secret.
It was because of this open secret that nearly 11 million more Americans voted against Trump last year than for him, including the three million more who voted for Hillary Clinton. (The rest were for Gary Johnson, who got nearly 4.5 million; Jill Stein, with nearly 1.5 million; Evan McMullin, with about 700,000; and a million-plus write-ins.) It was because of this open secret that virtually every journalistic endorsement in the country went against him, including from publications (like The Dallas Morning News or The Arizona Republic) that are ordinarily rock-ribbed Republican, and others (like USA Today) that had not offered endorsements before or (like The Atlantic) generally did so only once per century. It was because of this that his party’s previous nominee, Mitt Romney, publicly denounced him—and that most of the political establishment, Democratic and Republican alike, assumed that no person like him could ever reach the White House.
(The shared certainty that Trump would fall short, which Wolff demonstrates extended to every part of the Trump campaign as well, may explain one of the major journalistic failures of the campaign: the disproportionate harping on Hillary Clinton’s email “problems,” as if this objectively third-tier failing were on a par with Trump’s grossly disqualifying traits. Most of the press assumed she would soon be in office; this was a warm-up for the kind of inspection real presidents should be prepared to undergo.)
Who is also in on this open secret? Virtually everyone in a position to do something about it, which at the moment means members of the Republican majority in Congress.
They know what is wrong with Donald Trump. They know why it’s dangerous. They understand—or most of them do—the damage he can do to a system of governance that relies to a surprising degree on norms rather than rules, and whose vulnerability has been newly exposed. They know—or should—about the ways Trump’s vanity and avarice are harming American interests relative to competitors like Russia and China, and partners and allies in North America, Europe, and the Pacific.
They know. They could do something: hearings, investigations, demands for financial or health documents, subpoenas. Even the tool they used against the 42nd president, for failings one percent as grave as those of the 45th: impeachment.
They know. They could act. And they don’t. The failure of responsibility starts with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, but it doesn’t end with them. Every member of a bloc-voting majority shares responsibility for not acting on their version of the open secret. “Independent” Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski share it. “Thoughtful” ones, like Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. Those (in addition to Flake) who have nothing to lose electorally, from Bob Corker to Orrin Hatch. When they vote as a majority against strong investigations, against subpoenas, against requirements for financial disclosure, and most of all against protecting Robert Mueller and his investigation, they share complicity in the open secret.
We are watching the political equivalent of the Weinstein board paying off the objects of his abuse. We are watching Fox pay out its tens of millions to O’Reilly’s victims. But we’re watching it in real time, with the secret shared worldwide, and the stakes immeasurably higher.