Trump’s already-dysfunctional administration is newly paralyzed at the possibility of being pinioned by an Omarosa tape. And the president is only making things worse.
At first, it was easy for the Trump administration to dismiss Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s tantalizing hints about her experience as a White House employee. Donald Trump’s stooges instantly labeled her a liar and an attention-seeker—accusations that easily stuck to someone who’d made her name as America’s most notorious backstabber. “Instead of telling the truth about all the good President Trump and his administration are doing to make America safe and prosperous, this book is riddled with lies and false accusations,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders proclaimed in a statement last Friday, in what she presumably thought was a successful play to head off whatever beans Omarosa was gearing up to spill.
What no one could have predicted was that Omarosa had recorded what seems like every interaction she ever had in the White House, creating a virtually incontrovertible record—and one that often contradicted her detractors. After Trump claimed to have personally ordered Omarosa’s firing, she released a tape of him seemingly shocked at her exit. After former campaign official Katrina Pierson denied that she’d ever verified the existence of an Apprentice tape wherein Trump used the n-word, Omarosa dropped a recording of Pierson saying that the tape existed, and that Trump was “embarrassed” by it. (Pierson’s response: she only acknowledged the tape’s existence to placate Omarosa.) Within days of the White House’s first attack on Omarosa, and even as the president called her a “lowlife” and a “dog,” Sanders was reduced to admitting that the White House “can’t guarantee” Trump had never used the racial slur in question.
In a White House already crippled by backstabbing and paranoia, news of Omarosa’s tapes has landed like a bomb, effectively further paralyzing proceedings. “People are terrified . . . absolutely terrified,” a former Trump aide told Politico, which described an environment akin to the “psychological warfare that gripped the [Hillary] Clinton campaign two years ago,” when WikiLeaks gradually released skeins of John Podesta’s hacked e-mails. Worse, the tapes have reportedly deepened another fear among Trump staffers: that Omarosa is not the only one who secretly recorded conversations. According to CNN, that fear has permeated the ranks of Trump’s senior staff—even those who rarely interacted with Omarosa are now alert to the possibility that their own co-workers may have taped them.
There’s precedent for this in Trump himself, who often recorded his own phone calls without the other party’s knowledge when he was a businessman. As early as 2017, Trump floated the possibility that he had secretly taped his conversations with James Comey before axing the F.B.I. director. (“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey famously replied.) Trump’s habits caught on among those in his inner circle. As former Trump Organization employee Sam Nunberg explained to my colleague Emily Jane Fox, “It’s called C.Y.A.—cover your ass.” Another person in Trump’s orbit elaborated: “People are taping him first, because he always talked about taping people himself. And second, it’s because of his erratic behavior and his inability to tell the truth. He changes his mind after the fact. He commits to doing something, only to have him question you after you do it.” For people who associate with Trump, in other words, recording conversations is a matter of self-preservation.
As the already-dysfunctional White House disintegrates into a paranoid stew, there’s little question who’s to blame. After all, it’s clear that Omarosa learned the art of the P.R. blitz from the man who employed her for upwards of a decade. The same man is responsible for welcoming her into the White House with a job, and according to multiple reports, he’s responsible for the administration’s failed attempt to engage her in her war of attrition, which has badly backfired. Parties familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal that aides had prepared a plan to “starve” Omarosa of attention, and sources likewise told Axios that Trump was told by multiple people, including First Lady Melania Trump, to “ignore her and that engaging would only boost her book sales.” By now, of course, it’s painfully evident that Trump ignored this advice. And though Omarosa would likely have released her recordings whether or not the president had fueled the furor around them, his involvement has significantly upped the ante. Time and time again, Trump has undermined the smooth function of his own administration. The drama around Unhinged is simply the latest example.