From the Holocaust to Watergate, there are plenty of examples of how easily bad stuff happens when, like in Helsinki, there is no record of what is said.
Donald Trump spent two hours alone with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July and we still have no idea what was specifically said or agreed between two of the most powerful men in the world. (Only two interpreters, bound to silence, were present.)
How much does this matter?
Quite a lot, probably. First off, there are new concerns about Trump’s continuing susceptibility to talking points that can have only one source – Russian propaganda. More of this later. Second, it belongs in a long trail of events that have either deliberately left serious blanks in the historical record or delayed by many years discovery of the truth.
We live in a moment in America when the discovery of information is in daily hand-to-hand combat with the deliberate suppression of information. For the second time in recent history the fate of a presidency might well rest on the unhindered discovery and exposure of essential evidence. Nothing is as central to the health of a democracy as overcoming a cover-up.
In 1974 the evidence that proved fatal to Richard Nixon’s presidency was all on tape—the White House tapes that recorded the president’s unguarded conversations with aides as they engineered the Watergate cover-up.
But one section of those White House tapes still remains undisclosed. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, removed eighteen and a half minutes of a key recording of conversations between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R Halderman between March and April 1973. According to her this was inadvertent—and covered only five minutes of the taping.
Experts who examined the equipment in 1974 decided that several portions of several conversations had been removed, adding up to eighteen and a half minutes. In 2009 new technology was employed to try again, but failed and Nixon and Haldeman took the secret of what was said to their graves. Some historians believe that Nixon himself could have erased the tapes.