Several days after the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump introduced a new claim neither he nor anyone on his team had ever floated before. The sensitive materials in question, the former president said, had been “declassified.”
It wasn’t long before the strange talking point was thoroughly discredited. The claim was rejected as absurd by former members of his own team, including his former attorney general. The Republican’s own lawyers carefully avoided repeating their client’s assertions — in large part because they knew he was lying.
And yet, he can’t seem to help himself. Trump sat down with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last night, who asked the former president about the process he allegedly took to declassify materials. He replied:
“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it.... If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, ‘It’s declassified.’ Even by thinking about it, because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago or to wherever you’re sending it. And there doesn’t have to be a process. There can be a process, but there doesn’t have to be. You’re the president, you make that decision. So when you send it, it’s declassified. We — I declassified everything.”
To be sure, it’s easy to laugh at the idea that a president has a telepathic declassification ability. Indeed, people probably should laugh because this is deeply foolish, even by Trump standards.
But there’s a serious dimension to this, too, since this is effectively the only argument the former president seems to believe in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation into his alleged misconduct.
Trump is no longer denying that he took classified materials to his glorified country club. On the contrary, he now seems to have largely confirmed that he “sent” sensitive documents to the Florida property, though he’s never explained why or what he intended to do with these secrets.
Instead, the former president — not his attorneys, mind you, but Trump himself — is defending himself by repeatedly insisting that the classified documents were no longer classified documents.
This may be a political pacifier of sorts for the Republican, but it’s not a real argument.
Right off the bat, the idea that there’s no real declassification process is quite bonkers. The New York Times recently published a report considering the question of whether a president can declassify information in secret without leaving a written record or telling anyone.
“That question, according to specialists in the law of government secrecy, is borderline incoherent,” the Times concluded. “If there is no directive memorializing a decision to declassify information and conveying it to the rest of the government, the action would essentially have no consequence, as departments and agencies would continue to consider that information classified and so would continue to restrict access to documents containing it.”
But just as notable is the question of relevance: As the recent Times report added, “none of the three criminal laws cited in a search warrant as the basis of the investigation depend on whether documents contain classified information.”
Indeed, around the time viewers saw the Hannity interview, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — including two Trump-appointed judges — issued a ruling that explained, “[A]t least for these purposes, the declassification argument is a red herring because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal. So even if we assumed that Plaintiff did declassify some or all of the documents, that would not explain why he has a personal interest in them.”
So to review, Trump said there doesn’t have to be a declassification process, but there does. He said he can declassify “by thinking about it,” but he can’t. He said he “declassified everything,” but his own team said he didn’t, his lawyers refuse to argue it, and even if he did, it wouldn’t matter.
It’d be funnier if this weren’t such a serious mess.