For eight years, upon entering the White House Situation Room, I had to put my BlackBerry into a box with foam padding, to prevent foreign adversaries from hacking into it and turning it into a listening device. This became routine, a reflex upon entering the windowless complex. Omarosa Manigault Newman did not, apparently, develop a similar reflex. And after she played a recording of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly firing her in the Situation Room, the response was swift: Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Manigault Newman’s actions demonstrated, “a blatant disregard for our national security.” President Trump called her a “a “dog” on Twitter.
It’s safe to say that Manigault Newman’s employment status was not, in fact, a matter of national security. Even an adversary with a voracious interest in American politics, such as Russia, didn’t have much to gain from hearing Kelly’s vaguely threatening dismissal of a staffer whose responsibilities were never entirely clear in the first place. Still, an important norm has been broken: When White House staffers record conversations in places that are literally built to be discreet, there is no longer any of the trust and confidentiality that a White House relies upon to function.
This seemingly trivial Manigault Newman episode illustrates a much more consequential problem, one of Trump’s own making: When the president of the United States routinely violates the norms of his office, there is no reason to believe that the people who work for him will not do the same.
Norms are not self-executing, and — unlike laws — they can be harder to enforce. They depend upon the expectations that people have in their leaders and institutions: to exert some measure of self-control in putting a common good ahead of a personal impulse; and to buy into the notion that we benefit, in the long run, when we abide by a set of standards that we want others to meet.
By contrast, Trump has eviscerated the expectations that we have for political leaders. We have a norm that presidents tell the truth, or at least that they’re supposed to. Trump, as The Washington Post has documented, has promoted more than 4,000 falsehoods since he took office, laying siege to the very concept of objective truth that is essential for democratic governance. After ignoring the norm that presidents release their tax returns, Trump has blown through any concern about the appearance of making money off his office. At a minimum, he has repeatedly profited from foreign interests and influence peddlers who spend lavishly at his properties to curry favor. It should therefore come as no surprise that the people he hires have — in the case of Manigault Newman — cut ethical corners to monetize government service.
Trump himself has dispensed with national security norms far more readily than Manigault Newman. He has revealed highly sensitive information in an Oval Office meeting with Russians, met with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin without any note-taker present, picked unprecedented fights with our allies, and repeatedly, publicly trashed the credibility of the United States intelligence community on foreign soil (notably, both times after meeting with Putin). Most disturbing, Trump has challenged the norm that presidents respect the independence of the rule of law in our country. By attacking the FBI, constantly dismissing the Russia investigation as a witch hunt, and demanding that the attorney general shut it down, Trump is — wittingly or unwittingly — leading America to embrace the concept that justice should be arbitrary.
Manigault Newman’s celebrity is a creation of Donald Trump, just as her unusual appointment to the highest level of White House staffer could have occurred only in a Trump White House. And her violation of norms in recording White House conversations took place because of the culture that Trump himself has created in the White House. Ironically, we’ve seen this cultural contagion spread to other parts of the government in ways that could hurt Trump: corruption scandals at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Health and Human Services Department and the Housing and Urban Development Department; an aversion to telling the truth that led multiple Trump associates to plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI; and a casual hostility to the Russia investigation that could land Trump’s family members — or Trump himself — on the wrong side of the law if they lied to investigators or obstructed justice.
Faced with Manigault Newman’s tapes, Trump must be wondering what other staffers will take with them when they walk out the door. More ominous, for our country, is the issue of what could happen in a dangerous world when so many norms are rendered obsolete. In the face of a financial crisis, the markets might not trust the information coming from a truth-challenged White House. Confronted with an epidemic disease, a dysfunctional White House staff might not be able to pull together or provide the public with clear guidance. In an escalating trade war with China or military intervention abroad, Trump might not be able to count on support from American allies. In the aftermath of a cyberattack, foreign countries could use Trump’s own attacks on our intelligence community to discredit our claims.
As the Trump White House has learned this week: Norms can seem like inconvenient conventions until you see what the world is like without them.