Are political "backroom" meetings routinely recorded?

Hi SD,

Thinking about the Trump/Ryan meeting got me wondering about all these backroom deals. Does everyone have a recorder hidden in a pen or shoe or something? Is it common knowledge that every politician will have some sort of recording device on them during a meeting to ensure that they can take advantage of anything incriminating or damaging the other participant might say? If so, how can anything get done if the participants involved can’t speak frankly to each other? In the case of Trump and Ryan, the stakes are very high, politically, for these two. I would think that they would both want to record the meeting for their own purposes. If both participants know the other person is recording the meeting, they can’t say anything too mean or intimidating. Thus, an air of politeness, and therefore, no confrontations on anything of substance. What am I missing here? Thanks as always for explaining this to me. Would one party submit to an inspection of their person by the other party’s representatives as a gesture of good faith? Tell me how this works.



You seem to be starting this train of thought with some very bizarre premises.

ask Tricky Dick Nixon

What’s the OP missing? That everything that is recorded gets leaked. That’s why nobody records anything.

No, people do not routinely record backroom meetings. That’s one of the qualities that make the meeting “backroom.”

It’s also true that one of the parties may disclose what was discussed. But having no recording of the event allows the other party to deny it.

This doesn’t make sense to me. If I were Ryan, I would grab a recorder, put it in my shoe or something, tell no one, and wait for Trump to make a mistake. What’s irrational or dumb about that? If nothing incriminating or noteworthy is said, erase the recording. But it seems like a common sense move not only to ensure honesty and protect against threats, but to have a record of any important agreements reached. What’s the issue?

The issue is that if you record one meeting, no one will ever want to deal with you again, whether in the back room or the front room.

Why? Because you have betrayed an implicit trust? By the same logic, we shouldn’t need prenups because if the participants are completely honest, any protective measures just question the security of the relationship. So too with political relationships. Recording a proceeding is a protective measure, nothing more. And why would someone not want to deal with you? Strange time for such a dishonest bunch to cling to a veneer of integrity.

My guess is that recording a meeting is essentially a nuclear option. After you reveal you’ve done it, even once, nobody in politics will ever meet with you again and your political career will be over.

Prenups are open and agreed; there is nothing dishonest or deceitful about them. They cannot meaningfully be compared to the clandestine recording of a meeting without the consent or assent of other participants in the meeting. So your analogy breaks down right there.

(Plus, in many jurisdictions this would or might, depending on the circumstances, be illegal.)

In the OP the point is made “How can anything get done if the participants can’t speak frankly to each other?”.

Indeed there is a not-insubstantial body of thought that says that, contrary to popular and media-driven expectations, absolute transparency of absolutely every conversation a person in power has is not necessarily a way to better decision making by those who have to make decisions. It may be more informative for electors, but it does not enhance the quality of decision makers themselves. Having a space in which to discuss things without the risk of disclosure, it is frequently conclused, allows for better decision making. This is the premise behind the Chatham House Rule.
Just because transparency is generally a good thing does not mean it is universally and without limitation a good thing, and we all understand that utterances made in private might be a tentative, ill-formed dialectical groping towards a final position. Media publications, however, always expose every utterance to being read “against the grain”, which results in the consequence that no politician could ever say anything that was not a fully formed, well-developed expression of view, like Athena emerging fully formed from the brow of Zeus. In a large sense, there has to be a trusted space where views can be refined and developed, where tentative thoughts can be expressed without the risk of premature total commitment to them.

Breaking the implicit trust inherent in private conversations is not necessarily for the long term good, nor does it necessarily make for better government. It is a question of judgment to determine, or even if it can be determined, at what point it is better to reveal than conceal. The point is over and above the practical consequence mentioned by others that no-one will ever talk frankly to you again. Indeed that practical consequence may emerge from a sort of collective recognition of the value of my major point.

The media’s default is that it is always better to reveal, although the unnuanced assumptions behind that are not clear beyond argument.

Dude, your shoe is beeping.?

And if Trump makes a big mistake, what are you going to do? Release the recording and show the public that you’re a paranoid Speaker of the House that nobody can trust to talk to in confidence?

The answer is obviously no, that political meetings are not routinely recorded. It’s a bizarre idea.

In some cases there are translators there (for dealing with foreign countries) but I assume if they ever revealed anything they would quickly lose their job at a minimum. Don’t know if there are laws about translators but I assume they might be covered under secrecy laws.

I get what you are saying, but I would only release the recording if a threat or other incriminating words were spoken. If nothing untoward was said, I’d destroy the tape.

And if people see you as paranoid? This is politics. It’s a quest for power. You have to be paranoid if you want to keep your position. Perhaps they’d know better than to admit their wrongdoing in front of you, or to try and coerce you.

This idea of “no one would ever speak frankly to you again” makes me think that honest talk is an implicit privilege, unspoken, that politicians afford each other, as a matter of courtesy. But does it not also imply tacit approval of their crimes or sins? I mean, how much are you really a protector of laws if you put this unspoken frank talk rule above the need for the public to know about any wrongdoing? You got this far? Then you should watch what you say, and others should be expected to do the same.

Feel free to tear this apart. This is why I am not a politician. Please set me straight :slight_smile:

It’s not necessarily implicit or unspoken. Nolle Prosequi has already pointed to the Chatham House Rules, which are explicit and frequently explicitly invoked.

And it’s not accorded as a courtesy, but as a necessity. It’s the case not just in politics but in many areas of life that if you want to work with people, to build relationships with them, etc, one of the things you need to be able to do from time to time is to talk to them in confidence, to share with them information or ideas with their being passed on to other, etc.

Only if you think the only possible reason why somebody might wish information not to be made public is that the information relates to a crime or a sin. Which would obviously be a very silly thing to think.

Anyone other than Nixon ever have a lot of tapes of private meetings?

You’ve got to be trusted
By the people who you lie to,
So when they turn their back on you
You’ll get the chance to set the knife in

– Roger Waters, David Gilmour

I get it now. This makes sense to me.

Do you think that political enemies use threats often in private? Or is the conversation more professional? Is there cajoling involved? Ryan seems less opposed to Trump than some other politicians are. I don’t think Trump has explicitly insulted Ryan personally, has he?

I wonder how a conversation between Trump and someone like Cruz or Boehner would go, where each participant has been attacked strongly by the other, and ideological differences are stark? I think Ryan has attempted to put himself outside of the fray, so to speak.

In this particular example, Ryan is a politician who stands for re-election in his Wisconsin district every two years, and then must stand to be re-elected Speaker every two years. If he is shown to be a Nixonian paranoid in whom nobody can trust to have a private conversation, not only are his fellow Republicans (who generally have to work with him on a daily basis) going to turn against him, the voters of his district might think twice about whether Ryan deserves the job.

TLDR version: House of Cards is total bullshit. The idea that politicians routinely scheme in such diabolical ways is a huge overestimation of their capabilities.