The Technology That Can Destroy a Presidency

Charles Tasnadi/AP File Photo

From Xerox copiers to secret tapes to missing emails, machines are still at the center of modern political scandals.

One of the biggest scandals in the history of the American presidency began with a single Xerox machine.

That copier, inside a small advertising agency above a flower shop in Hollywood, California, was what Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo used to duplicate the classified Vietnam War documents that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

The machine “was a big one, advanced for its time, but very slow by today’s standards,” Ellsberg wrote in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers in 2002, “It could do only one page at a time, and it took several seconds to do each page.” Ellsberg worked all night so that the information, which he later leaked to American newspapers, could be made public.

It wasn’t just a leak, but a firehose. And after Ellsberg made his move, the information kept coming.

“The Nixon administration is now trying to fathom a mystery,” the newspaper columnist James Reston wrote in 1972, “Why, it wants to know, are so many more government secrets now leaking to the press?”

The answer, Reston concluded, was not purely political or even philosophical, but technological. “The real source of the leaks is Chester Carlson, who invented the electrostatic copying or Xerox system, which now dominates the federal government and influences the flow of information in every other big institution in the country.”

This wasn’t necessarily something to celebrate, he cautioned. Copy machines were changing the way people thought about how they shared information—dramatically and irreversibly. All that change, to people in the early 1970s, was deeply consequential, similar to the way people see the influence of the internet today.

“Paradoxically, the copying machines which were intended to expand information and truth are going in the opposite direction,” Reston wrote in 1972. “The Xerox is not increasing security but diminishing it. It is not encouraging honest dissent, but blocking it. The modern copying machines are not informing Washington so much as enslaving and confusing it...”

Forty-five years later, Xerox machines are still with us, but the flow of information is largely a matter of pixels, not paperwork. Technology is still playing an important, if not central, role in today’s political scandals.

From the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate tapes to Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the fundamental questions are the same: What information is being hidden from the public, and why?

Often, the answers depend on the type of machine that is used to conceal the information.

It was Richard Nixon’s refusal to hand over secret White House recordings that led to his eventual impeachment. Nixon suggested having his long-time secretary transcribe the tapes instead, in part so that he could remove portions of the recording that he viewed as irrelevant. When an 18-minute stretch of that tape was mysteriously ruined, erasing a crucial portion of a conversation about the Watergate break-in, Nixon’s chief of staff blamed it on some inexplicable “sinister force” in the White House.

“I don’t want to be quoted,” a White House lawyer said after one particularly contentious hearing in December 1973. “But wait for the technical experts, just wait.”

Just wait. Eight months later, Nixon resigned.

“At the time of Nixon’s resignation, some of his supporters expressed the wish that Nixon had simply burned all the tapes, in defiance of the subpoenas,” David Kopel wrote for The Washington Post in 2014. “Although this would have been very bad politically for Nixon, it could not possibly have been as politically bad as the eventual release of the smoking gun tape.”

We still don’t know for sure what was said on the 18 minutes of missing tape—all you could hear was a hum, and many restoration attempts have failed—but historians have concluded it contained,  “some general comment that revealed [Nixon’s] involvement in the cover-up,” as John W. Dean, a member of Nixon’s White House counsel who was jailed for his involvement in the cover-up, told the New York Post in 2014.

Those tantalizing missing sections of tape loom large in culture. Donald Trump’s campaign fixation on Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server capitalized on memories of Nixon’s downfall.

Trump always reinforced the idea that a Watergate-like bombshell was about to be dropped, even when all available evidence suggested otherwise. “The invention of email has proven to be a very bad thing for Crooked Hillary in that it has proven her to be both incompetent and a liar!” he tweeted during the presidential campaign last year. The 11th-hour news that the FBI was re-examining evidence related to Clinton’s email scandal was so damaging because it seemed to validate Trump’s accusations against Clinton.

Email hadn’t been a huge part of presidential politics up until this point, strangely enough. In 1993, President Bill Clinton had an email address——but there’s little evidence that he actually used it.  Even a decade later, people were still debating whether email qualified as a public record. Despite a few records of emails sent from the Oval Office, there’s not much to support the idea that George W. Bush or Barack Obama did much emailing from the West Wing during their respective tenures. Just because the public doesn’t know about much presidential emailing, of course, doesn’t mean it’s never happened. After all, tens of millions of Bush-era emails—sent and received by members of his administration—were deleted and at least partially recovered about a decade ago.

Despite remaining indispensable for many American workers, email appears to be surprisingly absent from the chief executive’s office. And although technologies evolve, surveillance and clandestine communications remain deeply embedded in American political culture, as Watergate demonstrated. That may be part of why, in addition to the enormity of the scandal, references to Watergate are so frequently coupled with a reference to the technology that was involved. Like when Trump tweeted, without evidence to back up his claim, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”Now, however, the Watergate comparisons are being lobbed at Trump, who fired the FBI director who was supervising the investigation into alleged ties among Russia and Trump’s associates. The timing and the justification for the firing are highly suspicious, nonsensical even.

But the American public does not yet know what, if anything, the president is covering up.

“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” he tweeted last week. The “real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers,” he tweeted last month.  

His interest in cracking down on leaks—despite celebrating them during the campaign when they worked in his favor—is certainly suspicious. More echoes of Watergate there, too. Comey’s firing came just as CNN reported the news that federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in the presidential election. Days before he was dismissed, Comey signaled he was ramping up the investigation, The New York Times reported.

People have often treated Trump’s tweets as a cipher for understanding his motives. The president’s impulsiveness lends to the idea that he might one day slip up and reveal more than he should. Perhaps he already has. Unraveling the mysteries of a 21st-century version of Watergate, if there indeed is one, is likely to require a stitching-together of technological pieces that reflects the way technology is used today—constantly, across platforms, across devices.

The question remains: What is the president hiding?

It’s the same question that swirled around the missing chunk in the Watergate recording, and the same question that prompted Ellsberg to seek out a Xerox machine he could secretly use overnight. Today, the answer may be “nothing.” But it’s still possible something much bigger is hiding in plain sight.