As the week has passed, the liability that former President Donald Trump faces has become clearer to the media and the general public. But despite knowing for months that the National Archives sought classified materials stored at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s Florida home, Trump and his supporters have never appeared to be ahead of the game.
In fact, I’m not sure that Trump’s own team grasped before last Thursday — at soonest — just how much trouble the boss is really in this time.
As Breitbart News first reported, a federal magistrate signed off on a warrant ahead of the search of Trump’s home/office/resort that allowed for the seizure of all “physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, 2071, or 1519.” Those are the statutes that cover illegally removing, destroying or hiding government documents, obstruction of justice and the Espionage Act.
Everything we’ve seen since suggests that the usual attempts from Trumpworld to poison the well ahead of bad news haven't been working. There has been nothing that could counter the simple fact confirmed last Friday: Donald Trump is under federal criminal investigation.
Among the dodges Trump offered up is that the material recovered “was all declassified.” It’s the same argument that former Trump appointee/stooge Kash Patel used in May. He told Breitbart that classified documents then-recently recovered from Mar-a-Lago had actually already been declassified. Trump “declassified whole sets of materials” before leaving the White House,” Patel claimed, but, he said, White House counsel Pat Cipollone “failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified.” (Experts think that it may mean exactly that — and as NBC News reported on Friday, “the three laws cited in the search warrant do not specify that the mishandled documents had to have been classified.”)
While Trump as president did have the authority to unilaterally declassify most items, there are some major exceptions to that rule, including those related to nuclear weapons. And last Thursday evening, The Washington Post issued a bombshell report alleging that among the documents the Department of Justice sought were “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the DOJ would move to unseal the warrant and receipt list had already rocked Republicans by undercutting their claims that the department wasn’t being transparent. But The Washington Post’s reporting prompted an almost eerie silence from the right on Twitter for hours Thursday night. When Trump attorney Christina Bobb was asked on Fox News about the report, she offered up a less-than-rock-solid defense. Bobb said that she had “not specifically spoken to the president about what nuclear materials may or may not have been in there. I do not believe there were any in there.”
Her hesitancy became slightly more understandable Friday when the receipt list she’d signed Monday was unsealed. The three-page list does not detail the subject matter of the documents seized. Instead, it merely lists how many sets of documents were recovered at each of the four levels of classification — confidential (3 sets), secret (3), top secret (4), and “various classified/TS/SCI documents” (1). (TS/SCI stands for “Top Secret/Secure Compartmentalized Information,” meaning that access should only be available to specific officials with need-to-know clearance and viewed in highly secure environments.)
“His lawyers have asked for a more specific account of what was removed from Mar-a-Lago,” The Wall Street Journal reported. That quote, along with the documents being first reported by the WSJ, Fox News and Breitbart, all conservative outlets, leaves me confident that Trump’s team, not the Justice Department, was the source for those outlets’ stories published before the court unsealed the warrant.
But that favoritism didn’t add many points to the board for Trump. The best that Breitbart could do with its scoop was to wonder why a warrant signed on a Friday might not be executed until Monday.
Other attempts to run defense have also fallen flat. Earlier on Friday, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, tried to downplay the significance of whatever materials might have been found at Mar-a-Lago. “I can tell you that there are a number of things that are classified that fall under the umbrella of nuclear weapons but that are not necessarily things that are truly classified,” Turner said at a news conference.
The idea that anything short of a nuclear-weapon schematic is totally fine to have at a personal residence, even behind a padlock, is a wild leap from the GOP’s past attacks on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. But it’s also karmic that Trump would be subjected to a search warrant for alleged mishandling of classified materials. As part of the response to the Clinton scandal, he signed a law in 2018 that “stiffened the penalty for the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents from one year to five years, turning it into a felony offense.” (That specific section wasn’t cited in the warrant but could still come up in any future prosecution.)
Of course, the wildest and most nonsensical deflections came from Trump himself. In one post on his social media platform he falsely claimed that “President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!” In a news release, he claimed that “they” could have obtained the documents “any time they wanted and without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago. … ALL THEY HAD TO DO WAS ASK.” He then repeated the false claim that Obama took “33 million pages of documents, many of which are classified” to Chicago.
The National Archives and Record Administration issued a statement in response making clear that it moved 30 million pages of unclassified records to a facility in Chicago where that agency maintains them. All classified records from the Obama administration are accounted for in a facility in the D.C. area, the agency added.
It’s obvious by now that the original game plan from Team Trump — call the DOJ corrupt and demand they reveal the warrant — has backfired. Plans B (claim all the documents in question were declassified) and C (hope that nothing related to the country’s nuclear weapons program was actually recovered) aren’t faring much better. The lack of ambiguity here has him and his cronies on the backfoot. For once, Trump is caught in a binary, one that asks whether classified materials were or were not recovered from his home.
It’s the exact kind of black-and-white court case that Trump managed to avoid for his entire time in public life. I don’t doubt that he’ll come up with a Plan D, E, and F in the coming days and weeks as we wait to see if charges result from Monday’s search. But there’s nothing he or his team can say or do to change the fact that Trump’s future could shift dramatically based on what the DOJ chooses to do about the 11 boxes of classified materials its agents brought home from Florida.