A daily trickle of revealing internal conversations between staffers. Growing anxiety about what one might have once said. No sense of how long it will go on.
Omarosa Manigault Newman’s slow release of secretly taped conversations from inside the Trump campaign and White House is having the same effect on staffers as the daily dumps from WikiLeaks had on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, when chairman John Podesta’s emails were trickled out during the final stretch of the race.
“People are terrified,” one former Trump aide said of the tapes. “Absolutely terrified.”
On Tuesday, the fifth day of her one-woman news cycle, Manigault Newman released a taped conversation from the 2016 campaign, in which former spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and another African-American Trump adviser, Lynne Patton, discussed the possible existence of an N-word tape.
“He’s said it,” Pierson says on the recording. “He’s embarrassed.”
The latest reveal indicates that Manigault Newman isn’t just trying to discredit President Donald Trump, who is the subject of her book, “Unhinged.” In her crusade for publicity and payback, she’s willing to embarrass and expose her former colleagues along the way.
“I think it would be great if every single person in this room and this administration never had to talk about this again” — Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders
The result is the same type of psychological warfare that gripped the Clinton campaign two years ago with staffers — and anyone tangentially in their orbit — waking up every morning bracing themselves for what potentially embarrassing missive might be made public, and waiting for the onslaught to end.
Like the WikiLeaks dump — which severely damaged the Clinton campaign by taking it off message, but never produced a smoking gun — Manigault Newman’s tapes, according to someone who has listened to them, are juicy to listen to but ultimately don’t contain any bombshell about the president or his family.
Former senior staffers also said they felt safer because Manigault Newman was not included in small, high-level meetings. And they doubted that she taped the one broader senior staff meeting that she attended, which included about 25 people.
“But if I was on the communications staff, where she was interacting more with people,” said another former senior administration official, “I can see how people might be nervous.”
There are, of course, many differences between Manigault Newman’s tapes and the WikiLeaks emails. Where the Clinton campaign was targeted by a shadowy outside force trying to disrupt the election, Trump’s hacker is a known knife fighter he willingly brought into the house because, as he tweeted earlier this week, she said flattering things about him.
While WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dumped thousands of pages of documents for the public to make sense of, Manigault Newman — who in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday called herself a whistleblower — is dribbling out bits and pieces in building her case against Trump, cherry-picking the evidence to bolster her own argument and not delivering a full picture. In the world of whistleblowers, Manigault Newman is just playing a few notes on a flute.
While White House staffers have nothing but their own recollections to count on as they brace for a next tape, the Clinton campaign had the ability to know what could, potentially, come out.
“We had John’s emails,” recalled Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “We were worried they would start making stuff up. But we had something to work from. We had the ability to figure out what the universe might be.”
Palmieri said another plus was the more sober characters that populated her campaign.
“Nobody had to be worried that there was an email where Hillary used the N-word,” she said. “And John doesn’t say crazy stuff. But for other people on the campaign, especially younger people, it was really upsetting because every staffer’s greatest fear is that they do something that becomes a problem for their candidate.”
There were, however, embarrassing moments for longtime Clinton aides in the WikiLeaks dump. Longtime Clinton adviser Neera Tanden groused in one email about the boss that “her instincts are suboptimal” and said of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, “I find him a bit insufferable.”
While the email hack left donors with bruised egos, and some friendships slightly frayed, other Clinton loyalists said there is a stark difference between a foreign adversary stealing personal emails and a colleague leaking dialogue from meetings.
“Unless Omarosa is a Russian plant,” said Tanden, “these are night and day.”
That’s also true of how the two situations are being handled.
In Clinton world, Palmieri started every day with a readout on what had come across the Wikileaks transom that morning. In this case, the White House strategy so far — with the exception of the president — has been to try and ignore Manigault Newman and her tapes.
“I think it would be great if every single person in this room and this administration never had to talk about this again,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the press briefing Tuesday afternoon, studiously avoiding referring to Manigault Newman by name. When pressed on whether she wanted the president to stop tweeting about his former staffer, she added, “I think it’s better for all of us to walk away.”
Despite the administration’s attempts to pivot away from the topic, the fear about the tapes is still hanging over people inside and outside the administration.
One former Trump adviser said he already assumed every conversation he was having in the White House was being recorded in some fashion, and went so far as to purchase a Faraday box, which blocks electromagnetic fields, to store his government phone.
The only people breathing easy this week are those who had little to do with Manigault Newman at all. “Luckily I spoke to her approximately four times ever,” said another former White House official.