Some secrets keep quite well. Others don’t. Like rotten stuff stashed in the freezer to avoid detection, they eventually start to stink up the joint. This is a yarn about the stinkers.
In an election year, stinkers that don’t keep well can come back to haunt their star players. You’d think that any ambitious figure would try to avoid producing a stink in the first place. Particularly a memorable one, shot in living color, even if for a B-roll.
Last week was a particularly fetching one for political stories that back up the advice to avoid such mis-steps in the first place.
A documentary about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, begun back in the Obama days, was completed with some particularly gnarly shots of Trumpian law enforcers picking locks, lying to onlookers and other unsavory tactics. The objectionable frames so inflamed ICE that the agency sought to suppress them. That was its first mistake.
A congresswoman was verbally accosted by a male congressman on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. There were no cameras, but a scrappy reporter recounted the exchange in such detail that the congressman’s obscenity was fully spelled out — an extraordinary rarity — on the front page of the New York Times.
A federal judge issued a stinging rebuke of probation officers who were trying to get former Trump attorney Michael Cohen recommitted to prison. The New York-based judge ruled that the tactic was a plainly retaliatory attempt at Cohen’s declared intent to publish a book about Trump. His name didn’t come up in the proceedings. It plainly didn’t have to.
In New York, the head of Hearst’s magazine division quit upon publication of a yearslong saga of lewd and sexist behavior in the workplace.
In two of these cases, reports escaped publicly. They were bound to. Secrets don’t keep well in places where their infections fester until guardians can keep them no longer. There is no more pointed time to recount the dangers of secrets with a stink then on the eve of an election. Such untold material is always dangerous material. It’s no surprise that it would rise up to menace and bite someone.
Yet public servants and figures repeatedly forget that such secrets rarely keep well. There are always good odds that they will slip out, as part of a lawsuit, testimony, or an account by someone who felt uncomfortable as a silent witness to treachery. Particularly in the case of politicians who seek reelection.
The film, “Immigration Nation,” produced images that have horrified the customs agency and its lawyers particularly in the Trump era. The agency, say the filmmakers, has unleashed all sorts of threats against the makers and producers, all in an effort to delay its release until after the 2020 election.
The project began in 2011. At the time, the agency felt that its work should be documented. Once the Trump years began, ICE was recruited to enforce its lawful duties. But they often slopped over into a campaign against immigrants and others of non-white skin.
Contracts which covered the terms of how the agency would “review” the work are now being debated. This has produced an atmosphere in which it’s unlikely the film can stay under wraps. This is still a legal era in which “prior restraint” — the blocking of release at the government’s request — is unlikely to prevail in the courts.
There were no cameras to record the verbal accosting of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) by Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican. You can imagine how that went. It’s only surprising that Yoho didn’t realize that there was a reporter for The Hill, a small paper, who overheard the moment Yoho lost it, calling her “a f***ing bitch.” It’s standard that newspapers do not spell out expletives. But the AP Stylebook, a common resource, makes an exception when the utterer is a public figure or, say, an elected congressman.
Yoho also didn’t anticipate that Ocasio-Cortez would take to the floor of Congress and place her entire account of the episode into the record. There are few defenses, outside of those heard in male locker rooms, that will do Yoho much good, though he may survive in his conservative district.
This represents an outburst that would have remained secret were it not for witnesses. Witnesses always lurk as a danger as the years pile up after a suspicious occasion.
Michael Cohen, once Donald Trump’s lawyer, was out of prison due to the coronavirus when an overzealous probation department sought to shackle him up again. This enraged a federal judge in New York, who declared from the bench that the “retaliatory behavior” would not cut it. This is a case where the Man Who Must Not Be Named didn’t need to be.
The behavior of Troy Young, head of Hearst’s magazine division, arose as the result of a newspaper investigation that mirrored the takedown of film mogul Harvey Weinstein. It was simply a story waiting to happen. But Young apparently never heeded the continuing danger his behavior represented while it was still secret.
The problem with secrets that don’t do well in the fridge was highlighted by the Washington Post’s recounting last week of the tale of Trump University. The story arose in 2016 about the misleading sales tactics used by then-candidate Donald Trump. He settled the suit by paying off complainants seeking refunds, and was able to boast that he admitted no fault.
The story would likely never have been recounted except as an illustration of tactics still employed by a candidate for reelection to the presidency.
The next time a visit to the fridge tempts you, stop. This would be a good time to consider what’s in there, and how badly it may want out.