Every time Trump tries to throw a wrench into the vast justice machine coming toward him, he makes things worse for himself. Last night’s court filing by the Department of Justice in response to his request for a special master is an example.
First, here is everybody’s favorite photograph today.
Donald Trump’s legal problems appear to have gone from bad to worse overnight. In a court filing late Tuesday, the Department of Justice alleged that the former president and his associates not only failed to turn over highly classified materials he’d taken after leaving office —they concealed the documents and lied to officials who were seeking their return. Investigators “developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the storage room,” the DOJ wrote in the filing, “and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”
The filing includes some of the most damning evidence of obstruction the government has made public so far, including a photo of classified documents — some gathered by human intelligence sources — recovered from a box in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago office, “commingling” with personal items like framed magazine covers.
See also Philip Bump at WaPo, The photo of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, annotated. Bump says that according to the filing, this particular box of stuff was taken from Trump’s office in Mar-a-Lago. The office, mind you, which is probably not all that off limits to employees and guests. It’s not certain where the photograph was taken, but some people have said they recognize the carpet from Mar-a-Lago.
As for the documents in the photo, we can see the from the cover page that some of this stuff is as classified as classifed gets. But Bump points out something a bit hinky:
Document 3 is more interesting. First, its classification marking was obscured by the government before publishing the photograph. Then there’s the date, which appears to be Wednesday, May 9, 2018. That day, Bloomberg News notes, was one day after Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
You have to look at Bump’s article to see the numbering system, but I believe “document 3” is the one behind the “2A” card with a little gold eagle-seal at the top.
We also learned that the FBI searchers found three classified documents in Trump’s office desk at Mar-a-Lago. We know this now because, the filing says, that’s where Trump also kept the passports that were seized.
See also. This is a real tweet. This must be the best excuse the House GOP could muster today.
That TIME Magazine cover was huge threat to national security. ? https://t.co/yy0AOmxMEh
— House Judiciary GOP (@JudiciaryGOP) August 31, 2022
Mr Trump has accused the department of staging the photo.
“Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see,” he wrote on Truth Social this morning. “Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!”
As I understand it, had the documents been legitimately declassified they would have been returned to whatever agency had classified them to begin with and reissued without the designation. And there would have been a record of this. Also, the POTUS’s powers to request declassification do have some limits. And I don’t think the DOJ was claiming that’s how the documents were found. They were demonstrating how the documents were just shoved into random boxes with non-classified stuff.
At key moments in the Mar-a-Lago saga, you could squint at emerging revelations and conclude that Donald Trump himself might not be directly implicated. Perhaps his aides botched the transfer of documents to the National Archives. Or perhaps they failed to fully account for documents when archives officials came knocking, and fumbled things again when the FBI followed suit.
The key takeaway from the Justice Department’s latest filing in the case is that this notion is getting impossible to sustain. The new filing implicates Trump himself in the hoarding of national security secrets more directly than anything yet.
He was keeping classified stuff in his home office mixed with personal keepsakes like the framed Time magazine cover in the box. That’s proof he knew good and well he was keeping classified stuff, unless somebody can document he never actually used his office. It’s hard to imagine, as Greg Sargent says, that Trump wasn’t intentionally involved in putting that stuff in his office, including his own desk. Obstruction, anyone?
Back to Greg Sargent:
Here’s a really critical point in the filing: Investigators executed the search because that evidence of those still-stored documents pointed to obstruction, i.e., obstruction of the ongoing FBI investigation into the hoarding of documents.
That strongly suggests Trump held classified documents even after his lawyers swore on his behalf that a full search had been executed, and that some were held in his office as part of that effort to obstruct, says former FBI counsel Andrew Weissmann.
“Is it really the case that for 18 months, nobody, including counsel, ever discussed this with the president or took direction from him?” Weissmann asked rhetorically, noting that the filing says some of these documents were “interspersed with personal items.”
Weissmann told me prosecutors can now ask the court for permission to subpoena Trump’s lawyers, in order to directly ask whether Trump authorized the original statement misleading investigators about classified documents still held at Mar-a-Lago.
See also Aaron Blake’s analysis of the difference between the Clinon email flap and Trump’s current mess. Yeah, they’re way different.
That leaves us with the mystery of why Trump was hanging on to this stuff. I offered my best guess a few days ago. Today David Von Drehle offered an explanation similar to mine. Drehle says he had observed that Trump took jumbled piles of documents with him just about everywhere and used them as props.
He described interviewing Trump on his private plane during the 2016 campaign. On the seat next to Trump was a large stack of papers. Trump complained that “they” made him read things, but during the flight all he did was occasionally pluck a paper from the pile, look at it quizzically, and put it back. The only things in the pile that engaged his interest were photographs, such as one of Michael Jackson. One suspects a photo of Michael Jackson was not a pressing business or campaign concern in 2016. Trump just liked showing it off. He knew Michael Jackson, you know.
The most plausible explanation comes from former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who stopped apologizing for her old boss on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021.
Grisham noted that Trump simply has a thing for paper — heaps of it, the more jumbled, the better. He even hauled boxes of assorted materials with him when he traveled on Air Force One. “There was no rhyme or reason — it was classified documents on top of newspapers on top of papers people printed out of things they wanted him to read. The boxes were never organized,” Grisham told The Post. “He’d want to get work done on long trips so he’d just rummage through the boxes. That was our filing system.”
He didn’t have any sort of work process or discipline; this was just a long-standing habit of how he made a show of working. And as I wrote in my earlier post, he may have wanted to keep the classified stuff because that made him feel he was still POTUS. There have also been some suggestions that some of the documents contained dirt on various people (Emmanuel Macron’s sex life? Does anyone care?).
So we’ll see if the judge goes through with appointing a special master. If this judge has any brains and self-preservation instincts at all, she’ll say no.