What went through Omarosa's or Michael Cohen's minds when they started secretly recording conversations at work? I can't tell you that. But I can tell you what was going through mine.
To nip any untoward rumors in the bud, the following predates my academic career by years. So no need to cast about looking for a culprit among the many wonderful academics at any institution I've ever been associated with. Or, let me spell it out: This is not about anyone in higher education, period.
In my early post-college life I worked directly for a ownership-level person at a company and that person was engaged in illegal activities that require, and will receive, no additional detail here because the specifics are not relevant. What is relevant is as follows:
1. I was being asked to do things that were either not legal or were highly suspect
2. I was about 22 and in a position with no power, dependent on the whims of one or two people for continued employment
3. I needed the job, as it paid above-average and I had recently graduated from college with not-insubstantial credit card debt. Basically whatever part of my college tuition and living expenses for three-plus years I couldn't borrow or pay for with earnings during summers and part-time during the school year, I charged. I did what I could under the circumstances in which I found myself.
So the first obvious question is, why not just quit? "Why didn't you quit" is a question often asked rhetorically that gives away a great deal about the privileges of the questioner. I didn't quit because like the vast majority of Americans I lived essentially paycheck to paycheck and didn't have another job offer handy. If there are people out there in the early 20s who can afford to quit a job and support themselves without one for an indeterminate time, I was not one of them.
Given this, I felt strongly that:
1. Someone might end up being arrested or going to jail, and it was NOT going to be me.
2. I was in a weak position in which I could, I imagined, be blamed for something I did not do and was not my fault
3. I needed to protect myself somehow and make it clear that I said no when asked to do certain things, and I needed something more than my word against a wealthy white guy's word to prove it.
This was pre-smartphone, but owning to some writing I did for a now-defunct sports website, I owned a small digital recorder. And on a couple of occasions – maybe three total – I used it to record conversations wherein I was extremely uncomfortable with some of the things being discussed and in which I was being involved against my will. I didn't ask to be there, in other words, and I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But short of quitting and walking out the door, I didn't see how to avoid it.
Nothing that involved me ended up coming of this, at least as far as I was affected. I left the job as soon as I could, and what legal consequences followed had nothing to do with me. I was relieved, obviously, and had not enjoyed what happened one bit. At the same time, however, I believed I had done the right thing to protect my own interests.
Obviously there is an angle with White House employees that wasn't a factor for me – the potential to sell-tell, or financially profit from taking recorded conversations to a tabloid or writing a book. Simply put, nobody cared about me or the job and nobody would have any interest in hearing the conversations.
In short, there are a small number of reasons someone might record a conversation:
3. Ass Covering in an environment where illegal things are happening
Apparently everybody is secretly recording everybody else in the circle of people around Trump, which is probably the least surprising thing we could learn. From the outside we can't assign one of these motives. All I can tell you is that from my perspective, profit or "blackmail" never even entered the picture. The dominant, and in fact only, consideration was that I recognized an illegal activity when I saw it and resolved that 1) I was not going to participate in any way and 2) I was not going to be the one punished for it, if it came to that.
My guess – and it is solely a guess, of course – is that the covering of one's own ass preoccupies the thoughts of everyone near or inside this White House. The president is a con man and a grifter, and no doubt he attracts some fellow grifters whose interests in recording conversations or collecting "evidence" may be to profit from it later. But I think a very basic human tendency in a workplace where employment is at-will and one is at the mercy of more powerful people is to recognize when something fishy is going on and ensure that if someone ends up going to jail or being called to account in the future that person is someone else.