When you want to work in the White House, it’s important to tell the truth.
I don’t mean that from an ethical perspective, though of course it’s important to tell the truth for the good of society, too. I’m talking about practicality. As the frenzied untangling of the Trump administration’s histories shows, when you work in the White House, telling the truth can save you a lot of hassle, and the rest of the country a lot of worry. Working as Barack Obama’s director of scheduling and advance in the weeks before the 2008 presidential election, I learned this through what I thought at the time was the hard way: by doing it.
I’ve written before about my struggles with the SF86, the extensive form you must fill out if you need national security clearance. The form is the starting point for the FBI’s interviews and background checks, which they use to evaluate a person’s fitness to serve in high-stakes positions. It’s no joke. Though my SF86-related panic attacks had mainly to do with my lifelong love of marijuana, these interviews are about a lot more than having done a bump of coke in a club in college.
Even the most junior potential staffers are expected to spill the details of everything they did since the age of 18 — where they lived, their landlords, the contact information for their French cousins they visit every summer. My dorm at the University of Wisconsin had been torn down; to complete the form, I had to show the FBI on Google Earth where it had been and give contact information for people who could validate it had existed. I had to call my boss at a job I had when I was 26 and which I quit, badly, on the day they gave me my bonus. I had to ask if I could provide his phone number, email and address to the FBI. If part of your family lives in a remote village in Siberia, chances are you won’t get your final clearance until the FBI has talked to them.
I mention the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes things we had to deal with not to be a martyr or because any of us felt the intensity of the questioning was unfair or inappropriate. I tell you this because it was a job to complete this form, and it was a job we all — senior advisers and junior assistants alike — took seriously. We knew that the security of the United States could be compromised if we screwed up the SF86. That was far more important than saving ourselves from an awkward conversation with an FBI agent; mine was about whether it was accurate to say I’d smoked weed “more than 500 times” in my life.
When you go to work in the White House, you divest yourself of your secrets for the same reason you divest yourself of your financial holdings: so people can’t blackmail you.
Now, imagine we’re not talking about staffers. Imagine we’re talking about the president. Actually, never mind. No need to imagine. We are talking about the president. With every passing news cycle, the current administration is learning this lesson, about the importance of telling the truth, an even harder way. The total failure to follow protocol, to tell the truth about staffers’ backgrounds, is biting them in the ass.
From Jared Kushner’s continual revisions of his SF86 — I didn’t even know you could update that form — to Trump’s deserved imbroglio with the adult film star Stormy Daniels, it’s clear that this administration did not foresee the consequences of its sloppy disregard for compliance and of its shortsighted belief that staffers were above the law. I can understand why they would think they were above the law: They’ve been told their entire lives that the rules don’t apply to them. But the consequences they’re facing now are not merely personal or financial.
According to the financial disclosures they filed and amended in 2017, Kushner and Ivanka Trump, two of the last “senior staffers” left in the West Wing (for now), have debts that range between $31 million and $155 million. Initially, they’d reported them to be somewhere between $19 million to $98 million. Not only does this tell us that the Trumps are a family of wheelers and dealers (as if we needed numbers to know that), but it also shows that, during the months the FBI and the American public didn’t know about those debts, these senior advisers to the president of the United States were vulnerable. If a foreign agent presented one or both of them with the chance to solve their financial problems, what assurance do we have that they would put the security of their country above their bank accounts?
When you go to work in the White House, you divest yourself of your secrets for the same reason you divest yourself of your financial holdings: so people can’t blackmail you. Though the emphasis on Trump’s taxes may have seemed to many voters a secondary issue, the Stormy Daniels scandal shows why they mattered. If President Trump had disclosed his tax returns, like every single candidate and nominee before him, I don’t believe we’d be in this pickle — the pickle of a U.S. president being sued by a porn star after his alleged affair with her, which she claims took place when his new wife had just given birth to their child.
Regardless of whether there’s more to know — and I suspect there’s plenty — what the Daniels saga demonstrates is that the White House officials’ unwillingness to disclose their sordid pasts has compromised the security of the United States. Daniels is blackmailing Trump right now; she wants to expose her version of what happened between them. As The New York Times reported this week, Daniels claims Trump didn’t sign their 2016 nondisclosure agreement; can we trust him to cross the t’s and dot the i’s in other situations? What other secrets might individuals or foreign governments be able to use to get the president of the United States to do what they want?
We don’t know, though the infamous Christopher Steele dossier gives us some idea. And if the public and the FBI don’t know, the Trumps probably really don’t want us to know. The combination of the Trump administration’s unwillingness to disclose sensitive information and its total incompetence is gravely dangerous. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer about whether they’re above the law, whether they’ll go to jail. It’s about whether they are going to drag the rest of the country down with them.
Alyssa Mastromonaco is the former deputy chief of staff for operations of the Obama administration and author of the New York Times-bestselling memoir Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House.