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Nuclear angle to Mar-a-Lago scandal comes into sharper focus

Donald Trump really seemed to think the controversy surrounding nuclear secrets at Mar-a-Lago had gone away — right up until it landed on the front page.


After FBI agents executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, it was only natural to wonder not only what they found, but also what they were looking for. Three days later, The Washington Post shed light on this, reporting that federal law enforcement sought “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons.”

Donald Trump quickly denied the story, comparing it to the Russia scandal. That didn’t help: The Russia scandal was, and is, entirely legitimate.

In the days and weeks that followed, the former president seemed to celebrate the fact that this dimension to the scandal had not advanced. On Aug. 26, for example, by way of his Twitter-like platform, the Republican responded to a redacted affidavit from the Justice Department by writing, “Nothing mentioned on ‘Nuclear,’ a total public relations subterfuge by the FBI & DOJ.”

Left unmentioned, of course, was the uncertainty surrounding the redacted content, which might very well have referenced classified documents relating to nuclear weapons.

Five days later, Trump added, “Whatever happened to NUCLEAR, a word that was leaked early on by the FBI/DOJ to the Fake News Media!” The implication was that this angle had disappeared from the coverage, though that wasn’t entirely true: A Justice Department court filing last week included a copy of a subpoena issued to Trump that included an S/FRD classification marking — and that refers to a category of information about nuclear weapons.

The former president nevertheless seemed to think that this specific dimension of the Mar-a-Lago scandal had gone away, which in turn, at least according to him, raised questions about the merits of the larger controversy. It was against this backdrop that the Post advanced its reporting overnight:

A document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was found by FBI agents who searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and private club last month, according to people familiar with the matter, underscoring concerns among U.S. intelligence officials about classified material stashed in the Florida property.

According to the reporting, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, there’s nothing routine about the documents in question. At issue are closely guarded secrets that even many senior national security officials cannot see or even know about.

“Documents about such highly classified operations require special clearances on a need-to-know basis, not just top-secret clearance,” the Post added. “Some special-access programs can have as few as a couple dozen government personnel authorized to know of an operation’s existence. Records that deal with such programs are kept under lock and key, almost always in a secure compartmented information facility, with a designated control officer to keep careful tabs on their location.”

As for Trump’s response, at least as of this minute, there hasn’t been one. While the Republican was eager to respond to the Post’s original report four weeks ago, he’s so far said nothing about the latest revelations.

Obviously, the news brings into focus just how sensitive the materials at Mar-a-Lago were. It also raises all kinds of difficult questions about why Trump allegedly took documents like these in the first place.

But I’m also eager to see how other Republicans respond to developments like these. Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was the morning after the FBI’s search when 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.”

Soon after, 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.”

So, can we expect a new consensus this morning on the seriousness of the scandal?

Catherine Rampell recently wrote a good column along these lines, reminiscing about the time Trump boasted in 2016 that he’d survive politically even if he were caught shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.

“At this point, no straw — no lead pipe, even — could break the camel’s back,” Rampell said in her column. “Republicans have demonstrated that Donald Trump could commit any transgression or crime and they would still defend it. Put another way: Trump conducted his Fifth Avenue test, and Republicans have failed.”

If prominent GOP voices are seriously prepared to argue that they’re comfortable with a former president taking nuclear secrets to an unguarded country club and refusing to give them back, I’ll look forward to hearing their rationale.