Some Notes on the Document Scandal/Mar-a-Lago-Gate

Since August 8th — but really, a lot over the last six-odd years — I have repeatedly felt compelled to write about secrecy-related events as they were being reported. The Mueller Report has already taken its place alongside the Pentagon Papers and any number of WikiLeaks disclosures as an allegedly impotent revelation, that is, ineffectual because it allegedly said nothing more than what folks already knew. Allegedly, no one read the Papers. The same has been said of the WikiLeaks disclosures. After all, what do you know about Joshua Schulte or Vault 7? Another example: the Trump phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinkskyy, like the Trump Tapes, played at the final session of the January 6 Committee, are clear media analogs to the ever-damning Nixon Tapes. As Lisa Corrigan has pointed out, none of these now-historical records were ever intended to be a damaging disclosure — these were legacy projects. So in some ways, to me, the story that began on August 8, 2022 — or even earlier on February 6, 2022, when we learned about the “burn bags” in the White House (to say nothing of flushing documents down the toilet) — feels less like the breaking of some dark and damaging secret and more like a very familiar bedtime story. To quote one of those earlier headlines, some of the documents Trump tried to hide at Mar-a-Lago were actually pretty important.

I’m not concerned with whether Trump has already admitted guilt or made some significant misstep. The point isn’t to conjecture about whether the documents might *actually* belong to a former sitting President, which seems utterly absurd. I think dwelling on or seeking to expose some “unknown unknown,” is similarly wasted effort. I think Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick put it best:

Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hyper-visible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, p. 140

Even if we avoid a totally paranoid mentality about this incident, the story is … not great. Those documents could absolutely have effects both immediately and for years to come. Unlike some experts, my concern doesn’t arise because I have specialized legal knowledge but because of what I know about the rhetoric of these events. Although rhetoricians often have much to say about the injustice of the law, rhetoric is also, famously, not about knowing or discovering “the truth.” Tweaking the famous Col. Nathan R. Jessup line, we cannot handle the truth because it’s been redacted and, therefore, taken out of the public’s hands. Rhetoric is what reshapes the truth we don’t have access to. It runs on uncertainty. It communicates knowledge about something we don’t know.

So, here are some notes about why rhetoric, often a bad word for people speaking disingenuously, offers some perspective on events like this one. If you’re reading, thank you. Selfishly, I hope these notes will help me track some of what I’ve noticed as I finally wrap up my book project on the rhetoric of secrecy this fall, titled This Page Left Intentionally Blank.

What does rhetoric have to do with these documents at all?

For one thing, the documents are clearly being hailed as weaponized speech. Weaponized speech describes a whole collection of metaphors that makes information into something capable of doing harm in the public mind’s eye. “Information Bombs.” “Cyberwarfare.” “Digital Terrorist.” The language we use about information curates our relationship to — and our expectations about — the consequences of “deploying” them (which, in Trump’s case, amounts to selling them or having them stolen). Sometimes, it heightens a threat that isn’t all that threatening, except to encourage “warlike” attitudes. Other times, they signal a risk calculation and a heightened state of anxiety. Trump’s documents aren’t just dangerous for what they contain; they’re dangerous for what they could do — if read, spoken, and spread. This, again, is a way of alerting us to weaponized speech, which has consequences much in the same way that releasing a computer virus has consequences.

When tuning in, I frequently ask whether the national security talking heads are anxious and whether their purpose is to produce or quell anxiety. These and other experts have already agreed on the significance of invoking the 1917 Espionage Act and what comes next. Regardless of whether their purpose is to produce or quell anxiety, the situation is, again, not great. I have noticed a proliferation of “cut through the fog” editorials (this post might even be an example) that continuously beg the complicated question of the American public’s fetishistic relationship to its national security institutions. I often think that it is not just a little strange that the public always seems to crave ever-more James Bond, Jason Borne, and Avengers content — as more-and-less secret wars become ever more unpopular. The fetishistic mode is especially active on occasions when Natsec officials actually wish to communicate something to the public at large. In this case, we, the attention-paying public, are meant to be in the know that something has happened. And the way that this something has been communicated is through metaphor.

What do you mean, metaphor?

Metaphors place one thing in terms of another. When the focal “thing” we are trying to describe is prohibited from being described, then metaphor is essential because it allows us to say something indirectly, without giving away the goods. If I say, “you’ve been on a real dinner biscuit lately,” I’m coding my praise (you’re on a roll) in a way that sounds strange to anyone but the person who feels the need to decipher it.

So what is the indirect language we’ve gotten about this particular leak? The secrets are classified, secret, and top secret. They have been suspected of containing national defense information, FISA materials, and nuclear, human, and signals intelligence.” They have been called “crown jewels” by the likes of former FBI official Chuck Rosenberg and Lawfare Contributor/George Mason Professor David Priess. And parts of the warrant and the affidavit are redacted, making a spectacle out of the fact that there is something out there that cannot be read. All of these are ways of representing something that can’t be represented, making a metaphor out of something severely secret and which must therefore be stepped around to be articulated.

Metaphors are also about making connections between roughly similar historical events. If Mar-a-Lago-gate (we still haven’t settled on a name, apparently) is “unprecedented,” then what comparisons are we reaching for? With the January 6 commission, Watergate has been an ever-present, if not mismatched, point of reference. To be sure, the -gate suffix is a thoroughly tired metaphor. A better, if not still imperfect, comparison for the release of confidential security information that spans a presidency might be the infrequently mentioned Valerie Plame scandal of the George W. Bush administration (recall that Trump pardoned I. Scooter Libby) or again, the WikiLeaks document dumps (which Trump openly celebrated for leaking DNC information in 2016). In the case of the Trump-basement-document-gate, the most recent hullaballoo about “redactions” in the DOJ affidavit most obviously mirrors the public fretting over the “redactions” in the Mueller Report. The question in both cases is: what could the hidden stuff do when and if it were revealed?

In retrospect, with Mueller, not much. Even when the redactions were lifted, it wasn’t much of a surprise; for many, nothing seemed to come of the report itself. That could be the end of it here, too. We may likely see what a former president’s claim to executive privilege means against the Espionage Act of 1917, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, or the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. These were alleged crimes against misogynistic WikiLeaks front-man Julian Assange and heroic whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Assange is indefinitely detained. Manning has already served a long sentence for refusing to speak on the Assange issue. But, despite the egregiousness of Trump’s newest selfishly-motivated, hugest-ever security vulnerability, it somehow does not so much as disqualify him from running for public office.

What about the seriousness of the potentially leaked documents?

When secrets themselves concern “nuclear” information or “signals” intelligence, my understanding is that representatives of the national security state do not just put the lost value into dollars (e.g., “it’s a five billion dollar catastrophe!”). They also translate it into terms of risk and potential harm. Here, Trump-a-Lago-gate sounds like what Peter Galison calls an “objective” secret, a secret which, once released, cannot be unreleased. An “objective” secret is “diffuse” (expressed in many words), “technical” (unavailable to people without the appropriate expertise), “determinable” (i.e., they could be independently found out or deduced), and “eternal” (living in long-lasting memory). Unlike its “subjective” counterpart, an “objective” secret cannot be changed at a moment’s notice or forgotten in a few days.

“Objective” and “Subjective” Secrets.

The above images are borrowed from my online textbook, while the above distinction is borrowed from Peter Galison’s “Removing Knowledge: The Logic of Modern Censorship” in Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford UP, 2008)

A subjective secret might be, for instance, the temporary position of a warship or platoon. An objective secret might look like the sourcing and code for a Stuxnet or a Sandworm, a known cybersecurity vulnerability, protected identities, or a manual for nuclear technology. Given the enumeration of the documents — 184 documents the first time, 300 documents this most recent go-round — Special-Access-Programs-gate seems to be about secrets expressed at some length, not with brevity.

Of course, not every “biggest ever” secret is significant. The rhetorical presentation of great volume is megethos, which, as Jenny Rice explains, gives the viewer an impression of size, significance, and magnitude. Sometimes this is “mere” rhetoric: after the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, the greater-and-greater volume of WikiLeaks successive releases turned out not to have the grandiose consequences Julian Assange had promised. When Trump released his health plan after the emergence of COVID-19, it materialized as a predictably “huge,” “enormous” book — which turned out to be full of blank pages. It is also true that public audiences have difficulty discerning magnitude, and “biggest ever” doesn’t consistently deliver the emotional impact it promises. The scale of the difference between 1, 10, and 100 million — or any of these and 1 billion — is difficult to perceive because these magnitudes are so far outside the scope of what many of us are accustomed to.

And then there’s the question of who would even want these secrets, which places other instances of leaky security at Mar-a-Lago in the spotlight. Consider Trump’s 2017 Lavrov/Kislyak meeting. Or the maybe-tourist who ventured into the resort in 2019. Or other possible Russian informants in the white house. Or, most recently, the pseudonymous Anna De Rothschild, whose story sounds like a mash-up of Anna Delvey/Sorokin and Mariia Butina.

What does all of this add up to?

Again, perhaps nothing. Most pessimistically, these events could go the way of the Mueller Report, creating a mega-lithic story that occupies a months-long (if not years-long) media cycle on the incalculable damage wrought by a Trump presidency that is disconnected from a realistic assessment of the non-existent legal consequences that leaking has for former presidents and the ultra-wealthy. That isn’t to say that the document scandal doesn’t have effects. One immediate effect might be heightened paranoia and stochastic violence against people suspected of being “spies” and “infiltrators.” Another is to intensify “deep-state” style conspiracy theories about the DOJ and the FBI while heroizing these institutions, reinforcing partisan support for policing at every level. As one member of the Twitterati stated on August 9, 2022: “the fbi is not GOOD. it cannot do GOOD THINGS. it can however do FUNNY THINGS. this is an important distinction.”

Depending on how damaging the documents are, we might not have a good sense of the effects the documents have already had — or what might be coming down the road. What sticks out to me now is the month-long effort to communicate national security harms and damages. This seems like a challenging rhetorical task because the need to amplify the sensitivity of the documents is almost certainly balanced against the more frequent imperative to say nothing at all. I am reminded, for instance, of Chuck Schumer’s appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show on August 8th, 2022, where he repeatedly refused to comment on the then-only-hours-old FBI seizure of documents. Instead, he insisted upon celebrating also-recent policy “wins” related to job creation, climate change, debt reduction, inflation relief, corporate taxation, and drug costs. The subtext was that “Democrats are persisting and things will happen” — which, when placed against the other dramatic events of the day, had the ring of a double-entendre. According to Schumer, “things happening” meant legislative victories. However, as a way of metaphorically talking about something that he didn’t want to talk about, Schumer’s emphasis on the fact that “things are happening” also made Doc-a-Lago sound like it was part and parcel of the “results” that democrats were delivering.

At least for now, it all adds up to this: For there to be a shared sense of gravity, stories like this one are built up as rhetorical secrets; to borrow a famous turn of phrase, what makes these secrets stick is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” Even though Trump perpetrated crimes out in the open and in plain sight, what draws us to them is the way that they are constructed to make something appear as if it is hidden, keeping us on the hook for what might come next.