The Republican Party is now obsessively inventing excuses for why the man who attempted to overthrow the government rather than abide his election loss is allowed to make off with whatever classified nuclear weapons documents he wants to, after the coup’s failure, but we’ve been learning much more about the actual circumstances of the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club with each passing day.
None of it is looking any better for Trump than it did the day of the raid, and a whole lot of it looks worse. The facts of the case remain the same: When leaving the White House, Donald Trump took a large quantity of government documents with him. Those documents were, by law, required to be turned over to the National Archives. Some of the documents were classified. Some reportedly pertain to classified “nuclear weapons” secrets.
We now know that the government subpoenaed Trump to get the documents back, he didn’t return them, the Department of Justice had good reason to believe he was still hiding classified documents, and when they executed a search warrant based on suspected violations of the Espionage Act and other laws they indeed found and seized “secret,” “top secret,” and “confidential” documents from Trump’s for-profit, spy-infested private club.
There’s really no possible excuse you can come up with for that one. The government has Trump dead to rights violating multiple U.S. laws, including the Espionage Act, and the purported inclusion of nuclear weapons secrets in the mix escalates the severity of the offense to hair-raising levels.
That doesn’t mean Trump’s allies aren’t trying. But if anything, the excuses are still just making things worse.
One actually useful round of excuse-making came from a perhaps too-gullible NBC report. In this version, The Butler Did It. Donald Trump never packed those boxes in the first place, you see; he was too busy wallowing in darkness after his failed coup attempt and was making no attempt to get himself packed up and out of the White House before Joe Biden’s inauguration. White House aides and government workers instead “frantically tossed” documents into boxes to be shipped with “other, previously packed records set aside by Trump,” and the whole lot was moved to the Mar-a-Lago basement.
So it was the fault of government workers, then, that numerous classified documents got thrown in alongside Donald’s other keepsakes.
Well, not really. It’s both useful to know and, ahem, excruciatingly obvious, but it doesn’t actually help Trump. If anything, it just moves the timeframe of possible crimes around a bit. Donald Trump did not intentionally move nuclear weapons secrets to Mar-a-Lago; instead, he was so cavalier about mixing nuclear weapons secrets in with his own supposed possessions, bringing them to the White House residence and leaving them scattered about, somewhere, that workers couldn’t distinguish those papers from the rest of the clutter.
That’s … not better. It just means that highly sensitive U.S. secrets were floating around the White House residence, accessible to every cleaner, plumber, coup-plotting lawyer, and family guest, for the duration of Trump’s White House stay. A government charge that Trump mishandled government documents is a shoe-in, at this point. He mishandled them so badly that the staff simply couldn’t keep up.
As for the meat of the excuse, that The Butler Did It, we’ll likely know more soon enough. A CNN report notes that investigators have been interviewing Trump staff and White House workers “involved in” moving the documents. Investigators likely know, then, whether those staffers saw classified markings on some of what they were moving. They likely know which boxes Trump “set aside” himself and which were packed by hurried staffers.
Which set of boxes were the classified documents found in? Investigators either already know or are trying to find out.
A highly related excuse being peddled by Trump sycophants is that Donald Trump had a “standing order” that if he wanted to take procedure-protected secret documents to the Oval Office or other places then, from now on those documents were automatically declassified.
That is extremely not how that works, of course. There is a process for declassifying government documents; it is impossible for the “president” to declassify documents by power of thought, without ever telling the rest of government to do it.
And the argument is functionally useless, even as excuse. The question is whether the documents were classified or not, and that’s not an ambiguous thing. The government now has those documents in their possession. If they are documents with classified markings that were later deemed unclassified by Trump, they now know. If they are documents that are still classified, they will know that too. There’s a list.
There is no presidential power Trump can declare that broadly says “if I put it down my pants, that means it’s not classified.” Government documents classified above “secret” level often get those designations not just because the information itself should be kept secret, but because admitting the government knows it can immediately tell foreign nations how that information was obtained. The declassification process requires identifying which U.S. assets—that is, spies—will be burned by releasing the information and, if possible, securing their safety.
A “standing order” to declassify any document Trump shoved down his pants, or into a pocket, or gave to Barron so that Barron could impress his friends with it, would result in an organized intelligence operation to tell each involved asset “the information you provided us with went down Donald Trump’s pants, so we can’t guarantee your identity hasn’t been compromised.”
Are there such records? The government already knows. And even if there are, that doesn’t absolve Trump of the crimes being hinted at in the now-released warrant documents. The government asserts the mishandling of government documents—a slam-dunk case. The documents don’t need to be classified in the first place.
Of course, if the Trump White House really did have a system by which Trump could remove any above-top-secret nuclear documents he wanted to from government control by pocketing them and leaving it to his staff to work out whether that meant they should be declassified, that might count as mishandling them from the moment he did so.
There have been no new revelations that help Trump. Not one. If there is any good news at all, for Donald and his forever-enablers, it is that he is not being accused at this point of taking classified documents with the intent of selling them to foreign spies.
But the case that he took above-secret classified documents to Mar-a-Lago on purpose is getting stronger, and it’s Trump himself who’s undermined his own defense.
If the government wanted to prove a criminal case against Trump, and the odds that the Department of Justice will have the stomach to do remains iffy even when nuclear secrets are in play, it would be helpful for the government to be able to prove that Trump did not merely take the documents out of negligence during his post-coup ennui. It would be much worse if Trump took the documents on purpose, and in fact tried to keep the documents even after they were discovered.
He did. That’s another bit of information we’ve learned since the FBI raid; Trump and his legal team appear to have taken steps to hide classified documents from the government after the government became aware that such documents were in his possession.
News reports of the government’s actions in June to get the classified documents back have painted the subsequent FBI raid in a new light—and have obliterated any premise that the FBI was being heavy-handed against a supposedly cooperative Trump. A grand jury subpoena was served against Trump in June that reportedly led to 15 boxes of government materials being taken from Mar-a-Lago, including classified materials.
But government investigators remained convinced that there was more classified material that Trump was intentionally hiding from them. We don’t know why, but the information used for the resulting warrant reportedly included testimony from “at least one witness.”
Why did investigators believe that they needed to go to extremes in order to get that classified information back? It’s probably because they had a witness testifying to such documents still being in Trump’s possession, but back in June Trump’s legal team signed a written statement declaring that all classified material had now been turned over to the government.
That’s huge news. The Trump team asserted to the government that there was no classified material left in the boxes that remained at Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department had a witness telling them otherwise.
And when the resulting warrant was executed, numerous “secret,” “top secret,” and “classified,”-stamped documents were found and seized by investigators.
That changes the situation, and once again it’s not in Trump’s favor. Federal investigators now have solid evidence that Trump sought, through his lawyers, to hide the remaining classified material in his possession, and you can’t get more “solid” than an affidavit from Trump’s team insisting that there was nothing left there to find.
Trump’s lawyers might attempt to make the case that they were just brazenly incompetent, and signed that statement without actually looking for any such documents. They could make the case that Trump simply affirmed to them there were no remaining classified comments, and they didn’t check.
The second case would be a case of Trump attempting to deceive the government agents looking to get the classified documents back, and that would be … much worse. Much, much, much worse. It’s one thing to “accidentally” take classified government documents and dump them into an unlocked room in your Spyland Pleasure Club. Lying to federal investigators who come looking for them is another.
So now we’ve got an intentional act, at least to the extent that anything that rattles around Trump’s brain before dropping from his mouth can count as an “intentional” act. Whether or not Trump knew the White House staff had “accidentally” shoved classified nuclear secrets into the boxes containing the rest of his post-coup detritus, upon being visited by government agents informing him that they knew he had them, Trump allowed agents to take what they saw, then lied about the documents they didn’t see.
There’s still more to suggest that Trump’s handling of those documents was more nefarious than accidental. In reporting the Trump-lawyer-signed document claiming no more classified documents to be present, The New York Times also reports that subpoenaed surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago showed that “after one instance in which Justice Department officials were in contact with Mr. Trump’s team, boxes were moved in and out of the room.”
“That activity prompted concern among investigators about the handling of the material,” reports the Times. Yeah, no kidding. And there’s nothing in the report to confirm whether it was Trump’s lawyers doing the box-moving or an unknown somebody else.
It’s still unlikely that Trump pocketed classified nuclear weapons secrets with the explicit intent of selling them to foreign Mar-a-Lago visitors who expressed an interest, and by “unlikely” we mean it’s of course quite transparently something he’d do but if the government had any indication of such a thing, they’re certainly not sharing it with the rest of us. But on the charge of mishandling government documents, both classified and not, as outlined by the Espionage Act and not, the government’s case is ironclad.
Trump’s allies can debate over whether he was so ignorant that he didn’t realize there were above-secret classified documents mixed into his luggage, but the documents would only have gotten packed if they had previously been mishandled, falling out of the rest of government’s security controls, to begin with. And Trump made a specific attempt to keep those documents, hiding them from investigators who came calling.
None of the current excuses hold water. Not even a little bit. Trump’s been once again caught dead to rights on this one, and what happens next will depend much more on government stomach to pursue it than on Republican theories about Magic Declassification Pants or Nefarious Moving Guys.
It still doesn’t top an attempted coup, but attempting to hide classified nuclear weapons documents from the government agents tasked with retrieving them is something that regularly lands other Americans in prison cells. Trump’s executive powers ended the day he moved out. Now he’s just another guy caught with sensitive government intelligence documents in his basement.
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