Glenn C. Altschuler
On Aug. 8, 2022, FBI agents searched several areas in Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. They removed 15 boxes, 14 of which contained U.S. government documents marked classified, secret, or top secret.
To protect national security, an ongoing criminal investigation, and the individuals involved in it, FBI and Department of Justice officials have a duty, at least for now, not to divulge the contents of the documents, and what prompted them to request a search warrant. Former President Trump has an obligation to explain what he did and why he did it.
To date, Trump’s public statements have been limited to attacks on the FBI, DOJ, and Biden administration, many of which are unsubstantiated or demonstrably false.
Although the search warrant was approved by a judge magistrate, Trump maintained that his home was “under siege” and “occupied” by FBI agents, in a manner akin to the corrupt practices “in broken Third World countries.” He said the “raid” was one episode in a “witch hunt” designed by “Radical Left Democrats” and implemented by Justice Department officials, who are colluding, he said, with President Biden to prevent Trump from running for president in 2024.
Trump asserted that he had issued a “standing order” while he was president that documents moved from the Oval Office to his residence were to be immediately and automatically deemed to be declassified. The alleged mandate did not include consultation with or even notification of relevant agencies; 18 top officials of the Trump administration have characterized the claim that he issued this standing order as “ludicrous,” “a complete fiction,” and “bulls—t.” One of them, former White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, said he could not “imagine that anyone who worked in the White House would have allowed that order to go forward without dying in the ditch to stop it.”
Trump suggested — wi-thout evidence — that Bi-den knew in advance about and approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. He also insinuated that FBI agents — “This, after all, was the FBI” — had planted the documents they said they found on the premises.
The former president has insisted that his attorneys and representatives “were cooperating fully” and that “the government could have had whatever they wanted, if we had it.” We now know that his representatives slow-walked the National Archives for over a year, that a grand jury issued a subpoena and DOJ officials visited Mar-a-Lago seeking compliance with it — and still all the documents were not handed over. Although a Trump lawyer certified that all material marked classified had been returned, the search on Aug. 8 yielded twice as many classified documents as had been returned by Trump’s lawyers when they swore there were no more.
If Trump still believes that anyone who is “extremely careless in the handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” is “not fit” to serve in a position of authority in the U.S. government, then he must publicly address the questions that arise from his apparent decision to retain such information in an unsecured location in his home.
Trump should explain why he, unlike his predecessors, should own government documents generated during his tenure in office, and why he chose to transfer specific documents to Mar-a-Lago. Many Americans may sympathize with his desire to keep the meteorological map of Hurricane Dorian he marked up with a black Sharpie or “love letters” from Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. But possession of top secret documents about human and technological sources and methods has already prompted speculation that he wants to prevent the National Archives from acquiring material that could damage his reputation; have close-at-hand communications that he could use to embarrass, intimidate, or injure someone he believes slighted or poses a threat to him; or, among Trump’s conspiracy-driven critics, to accumulate information he can sell.
Trump should also provide a detailed account of who had access to the material stored at Mar-a-Lago, which is a private club visited by many people, who, of course, do not have security clearances. He must indicate as well whether any documents were altered, moved to another location, or destroyed.
The stakes are very high for Trump — and the nation.
The Department of Justice is investigating potential crimes, including mishandling of government records, violations of the Espionage Act (i.e., retention or mishandling of documents containing information that could harm national security or help foreign adversaries), and obstruction of justice.
As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared in 2016, there are many people on the political right “who are going to have to explain and justify how they fell into this trap of supporting Donald Trump, because this is not going to end well, one way or the other.”
If the former president, whose Teflon coating may be wearing thin, wants to dispel perceptions that he is hiding something, and prove Rubio wrong, he has his work cut out for him — especially if, as with the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, he cannot rely on the truth to do it.