Top secrets at Mar-a-Lago

The institution of the presidency in the U.S. has been harmed to an extent that few would have imagined

September 13, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:17 am IST

An aerial view of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

An aerial view of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida | Photo Credit: AP

A poorly executed break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC in June 1972  and the subsequent destruction of 18 minutes of taped evidence forced President Richard Nixon to resign in August 1974.

The contrast of August 8, 2022 could not have been starker, when special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, with a lawful search warrant and found top secret and sensitive documents. The search and seizure were unprecedented. In a tone of injured innocence, Mr. Trump said later, “All that they had to do was just ask” — even though that is precisely what the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Justice Department have been doing for over a year.

Classified documents amid magazines

The timeline is troubling. In January, NARA retrieved 15 boxes of White House records that had been sent to Mar-a-Lago instead of NARA, as required by law. The documents included a letter to Mr. Trump from his predecessor as well as Mr. Trump’s self-described “love letters” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But when NARA found classified documents too in the boxes, it informed the Justice Department, and the FBI got involved. Subsequent court filings revealed that the FBI found 67 documents marked “confidential”, 92 as “secret” and 25 as “top secret”. The Justice Department got a grand jury subpoena in May, demanding any classified materials that were still at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Trump’s lawyers turned over some subpoenaed documents in June. This was followed by the FBI raid in August in which the agency took away 25 more boxes and found that some documents had the markings of the highest levels of security classifications. What officials found especially galling was that these documents were found amid newspapers and magazines. This makes even a lay person wonder about Mr. Trump’s motives or extreme carelessness.

Except for staunch supporters of Mr. Trump, conservatives in the Grand Old Party and right-wing media houses are seeing the near-end of a game that the former President has been playing for close to two years, i.e., keeping alive not only the bogus theories about the 2020 presidential election, but also public interest should he decide to contest in 2024. In a frantic attempt to raise the noise threshold, Mr. Trump and his lawyers demanded that a special master be appointed to ensure a fair assessment of the documents, including potential attorney-client privilege papers, taken away in the raid. The Trump-appointed district judge, Aileen Cannon, agreed to the demand, but this does not matter. Proper procedure was followed earlier too, in cases involving Mr. Trump’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Michael Cohen. Further, the Justice Department had already put in place a review team. The issue is not of attorney-client privileges, but of top secret national security documents having been possibly handled by persons without proper authorisation or, worse, having been seen by people, including foreigners, trooping in and out of Mar-a-Lago. The responsible folks associated with the Trump administration are watching the developments with unease, unlike the political hacks who are waiting to extract mileage from these events, for the midterms of 2022 or 2024.

When the hanging chads of Florida worked in favour of George W. Bush in 2000, it was reported that Democratic staffers in the White House were so upset that they left messages disparaging Mr. Bush on signs and in telephone voice mail and knocked keys out of computers, especially the ‘W’. In Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, Maggie Haberman wrote that during Mr. Trump’s last days as President, toilets in the White House were clogged with papers and torn notes. Mr. Trump called the claims “fake”, “categorically untrue” and “simply made up”.

What the revelations mean

Revelations of the bizarre happenings during the Trump presidency are unlikely to end soon. The former President apparently used to take “boxes” from Mar-a-Lago whenever he travelled. Some give him the benefit of doubt. They say he wanted to “show off”, which seems very much in line with his character. But others, such as Mr. Cohen, are not willing to be so generous. Mr. Cohen says Mr. Trump may have already given away top-secret information while travelling around the world and has posited that he would try to use the classified information to “ensure that he doesn’t spend the rest of his natural life behind bars charged with treason.” Either way the institution of the presidency in the U.S. has been harmed to an extent that few would have imagined.

Sridhar Krishnaswami was a former senior journalist based in Washington for 14 years and covering North America and the United Nations. Views are personal

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