The salacious centerpiece of the recent “Russian intelligence memo” was an allegation that a videotape existed of President-elect Donald Trump observing lurid acts involving prostitutes at a Moscow hotel. A handful of journalist friends called me after Buzzfeed released the 35-page memo and asked me, as both a writer and crisis manager, what I thought.
“Do you know how many times in my career I’ve heard about a ‘telltale videotape or photo’?” This came as a surprise to some of the callers who felt this would be the thing that blew up Trump once and for all.
The oldest – and cheapest -- dirty trick of postmodern America is to allege the existence of “telltale optics” that will blow up somebody big. A scandal video that never surfaces is almost as good as one that does because it’s proof that the plotters were clever indeed and accomplished their nefarious objective of blackmail.
Two examples of this phenomenon come to mind from my own experience. In the sweltering summer months of 1983, I was a young press aide in the Reagan White House. A Los Angeles lawyer held a press conference saying he had a videotape of top Reagan Administration officials in compromising positions. For a few days, Washington was frantic with speculation about who was on the tape. Friends who worked for Democrats in Congress and who detested Reagan listed (over drinks in Georgetown) who they had heard from “good sources” was on the tape. Word was that “the Reagan Administration is rocked to its core.”
The truth was much more banal. Michael K. Deaver, the president’s “image maker," told me not long after the scandal subsided that Reagan had thought the whole thing was funny and said something like, “Sounds like that tape is more interesting than the boring nighttime reading you guys give me. I hope that lawyer releases it.” When challenged, the lawyer announced that the tape had been stolen from his office safe.
“A CIA black bag job,” one of my anti-Reagan friends concluded. Uh huh.
A better-known “telltale optics” myth involves how FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn’t prosecute organized crime for many years because kingpin Meyer Lansky kept a photo of Hoover having sex with a man in his safety deposit box. Shortly after Lansky’s widow Teddy died I had occasion to go through the contents of Lansky’s safety deposit box with her granddaughter, my friend Cynthia Duncan (I was working on a book and articles about Lansky who died in 1983). There were Lansky’s private diaries but, alas, no Hoover photo.
Hoover had virtually chased Lansky out of the country with dubious prosecutions during the last years of his reign. Wouldn’t that have been an opportune moment for the clever Lansky to deploy that photo? And wouldn’t the Lanskys, some of whom have worked on books and movie pitches about the famous “Little Man,” have sold the photo in in the three and a half decades since his death?
The truth is that the photo never existed. The real reason why Hoover was late to the Mafia game was because he was a bureaucratic genius who knew that it was much easier to chase reckless bank robbers and communists than a loose confederacy of low-profile criminals scattered across the country -- and whose associations were seat-of-the-pants opportunistic rather than centralized.
My experience with “telltale optics” is that they surface quickly because someone in the food chain simply cannot help themselves. (See Weiner, Anthony). I have seen little evidence that people in the intelligence community – American or Russian -- are foresighted strategic geniuses who move like ghosts through the night wreaking havoc undetected.
CIA legend and Soviet expert, Jack Platt, told author Gus Russo and me not long before he died last Christmas, “You can’t @#%&*! imagine how rarely blackmail is used by American or Russian intelligence.”
Of course, there was the salacious Access Hollywood tape that tripped Trump up during the late stages of the campaign and something else might be out there. Plenty of questions about Trump’s associations remain ripe for scrutiny. But today’s consumers of scandal need to know that crisis managers hear about “telltale optics” regularly and a vast majority of them lead precisely nowhere.