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Did Donald Trump really bring nuclear secrets to Mar-a-Lago?

Donald Trump spent much of his term mishandling classified information, including nuclear-related information. But now, the story is vastly worse.


UPDATE: (Aug. 12, 2022, 2:30 p.m. ET): NBC News on Friday obtained a copy of the warrant used in the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, as well as the related property receipt. The FBI recovered 11 sets of classified documents in the search, according to the documents.

It was late Monday when the public learned, by way of a written statement from Donald Trump, that FBI agents had executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. The next morning, a Republican commentator named Alice Stewart appeared on CNN and argued that federal law enforcement better have been looking for something extremely important.

Unless there were nuclear secrets at stake, Stewart said, the search warrant “is going to hugely backfire on the Biden administration.”

Yesterday, Fox News’ Dana Perino, another Republican commentator, said effectively the same thing. Unless there were nuclear secrets on the premises, the former White House press secretary said, “I really don’t understand how a document could warrant this kind of warrant.”

It was against this backdrop that The Washington Post published a truly jaw-dropping report.

Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought in a search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida residence on Monday, according to people familiar with the investigation. Experts in classified information said the unusual search underscores deep concern among government officials about the types of information they thought could be located at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and potentially in danger of falling into the wrong hands.

The article added the newspaper’s sources did not shed light on whether the materials in question “involved weapons belonging to the United States or some other nation.”

To be sure, Trump has denied the accuracy of the reporting, comparing it to the Russia scandal. The problem, of course, is that the Republican has repeatedly denied the accuracy of reporting that turned out to be correct, and the Russia scandal was entirely legitimate.

For much of the week, much of the political world — including the former president’s critics and his allies — has pondered some core questions about the controversy. Just how sensitive were the classified documents Trump inappropriately took to his golf resort? How serious must they have been for FBI agents to show up at Mar-a-Lago?

If you’d asked me to come up with the single worst scenario imaginable — the most profoundly dangerous information he could’ve inappropriately taken to his golf resort known as a haven for spies — I would’ve said, “Nuclear secrets.”

And here we are.

David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, told the Post, “If that is true, it would suggest that material residing unlawfully at Mar-a-Lago may have been classified at the highest classification level. If the FBI and the Department of Justice believed there were top-secret materials still at Mar-a-Lago, that would lend itself to greater ‘hair-on-fire’ motivation to recover that material as quickly as possible.”

Some key caveats are in order. For one thing, the Post’s reporting hasn’t been independently verified by other news organizations, including MSNBC or NBC News. For another, if the FBI was looking for classified documents related to nuclear weapons, we don’t know if they were found or whether the former president took them deliberately.

For that matter, as Joe Cirincione, whose expertise on nuclear matters has few rivals, noted overnight, some nuclear-related documents are sometimes over-classified.

In other words, there are elements of this story that we do not yet know. Some caution is in order.

That said, if the Post’s reporting is accurate, it does help the larger series of events make sense. Federal law enforcement realized that executing a search warrant at the home/business of a former president was a dramatic move, and it’s one officials probably wouldn’t have taken if this were simply a matter involving love letters between the Republican and North Korea’s dictator.

It becomes easier to understand why these events unfolded the way they did if Trump took national security secrets to his resort — and wouldn’t give them back.

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik declared on Tuesday morning, “If the FBI can raid a U.S. President, imagine what they can do to you.” Three days later, the response seems painfully obvious: If any of us took nuclear secrets to a golf club, we should expect the FBI to show up at our door.

What’s more, let’s also not forget the degree to which this fits into a pattern of indefensible behavior: Trump spent much of his presidency repeatedly mishandling classified information, including nuclear-related information. This pattern makes it nearly impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt.

In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio repeatedly told Americans that Trump was so “dangerous” that he couldn’t be trusted with nuclear secrets. Six years later, it’s difficult to think of an issue on which the Florida Republican was more correct.