The classified documents that the FBI seized at Mar-a-Lago on August 8 included information about a foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities, according to a Washington Post report citing “people familiar with the matter.” The Post adds that “some of the seized documents detail top-secret U.S. operations so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are kept in the dark about them.” The trove of more than 100 classified documents included material with markings so restrictive that FBI agents needed additional clearances to examine them.
Trump lawyer Christopher Kise condemned leaks about the nature of the purloined documents, saying they “continue with no respect for the process” or “any regard for the real truth,” which “does not serve well the interests of justice.” This week a federal judge in Miami approved Trump’s request that a special master be appointed to review the documents with an eye toward material that might be covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege. Kise said “there is no reason to deviate from that path if the goal is, as it should be, to find a rational solution to document storage issues which have needlessly spiraled out of control.”
The concession that the records seized by the FBI posed “document storage issues” is hard to reconcile with Trump’s claim that he declassified all that material before leaving office. According to Trump, he had “a standing order” as president that automatically declassified anything he removed from the Oval Office to study at his residence in the White House.
Trump has not presented any documentation of that purported policy, which was news to national security officials who should have known about it. But taking him at his word, he decided that all the documents he took with him to Florida did not need to be classified, meaning that allowing general access to them would not pose a threat to national security. If so, it is hard to see why their presence at Mar-a-Lago would raise “document storage issues.”
All told, Trump retained more than 300 documents that were marked as classified: 184 that were found in the 15 boxes that he turned over to the National Archives in January, 38 that his lawyers gave the FBI in June in response to a grand jury subpoena, and more than 100 that the FBI seized during its search last month. The Justice Department says the FBI found 76 of those documents in a basement storage room secured by a padlock, which means dozens were discovered elsewhere. According to the Justice Department, the other locations included desk drawers and “a container” in Trump’s office. The markings on the documents ranged from “confidential” to “top secret,” and the latter included “sensitive compartmented information,” an especially restricted category.
Despite those markings, Trump insists, none of the records were actually classified. But even some of Trump’s reliable allies do not seem impressed by that defense. “Why did he have all that secret stuff at Mar-a-Lago?” Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy wondered during an interview with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem last week. Regarding Trump’s claim about a “standing order” that no one seems to have seen, Doocy noted that it was “news to the agencies that those documents belong to.”
Former Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee who alienated him after the 2020 presidential election by rejecting his fanciful claims of systematic voting fraud, is likewise unimpressed by the former president’s excuses. “I can’t think of a legitimate reason why [the documents] could be taken out of government, away from the government, if they are classified,” Barr told Fox News last week. “The driver on this, from the beginning, was loads of classified information sitting in Mar-a-Lago. People say [the FBI search] was unprecedented, but it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put [it] in a country club.”
Barr noted that Trump’s declassification claim suggests his treatment of sensitive information was remarkably cavalier. “I, frankly, am skeptical of this claim that ‘I declassified everything,'” he said. “I think it’s highly improbable.” But “if in fact he sort of stood over scores of boxes, not really knowing what was in them, and said, ‘I hereby declassify everything in here,’ that would be such an abuse and show such recklessness that it’s almost worse than taking the documents.” And regardless of the documents’ classification, Barr noted, they “still belong to the government and go to the archives” under the Presidential Records Act.
Whether the FBI’s politically explosive search of a former president’s home was justified, Barr said, depends on the nature of the documents that Trump retained and exactly how sensitive they were. But he said Trump’s handling of the records was “clearly foolish” and “inexplicable.” He added that the Justice Department “may well be able to make a case” that Trump committed federal felonies by retaining the records, resisting the government’s efforts to recover them, and concealing the documents he still had after the handovers in January and June.
Government officials “jawboned for a year” with Trump’s representatives, Barr noted. “They were deceived on the voluntary actions taken. They then went and got a subpoena. They were deceived on that, they feel, and the facts are starting to show that they were being jerked around. So how long do they wait?”
Barr said the Justice Department needs to ask whether “it really make sense to bring a case as a matter of prudential judgment,” given “the fact that this is a former president,” “the state of the nation,” and “the fact that the government has gotten its documents back.” The answer, he thinks, “will turn on how clear the evidence of obstruction or deceit is. If they clearly have the president moving stuff around and hiding stuff in his desk, and telling people to dissemble with the government, they may be inclined to bring that case.”
In Trump’s view, the evidence either does not matter or cannot be trusted. “Nuclear weapons issue is a Hoax,” he wrote on Truth Social after the Post published its story, “just like Russia, Russia, Russia was a Hoax, two Impeachments were a Hoax, the Mueller investigation was a Hoax, and much more. Same sleazy people involved.”
Author: Jacob Sullum