Want to protect classified government documents?
Tuck them in old bound volumes of legislative committee proceedings. Nobody will ever find and read them, guaranteed.
Unfortunately, however, people in government have a bizarre fetish for stamping every document SECRET or TOP SECRET in bold red letters at the top. Which presumably makes the person doing the stamping feel important.
And which all but guarantees the TOP SECRET document that isn’t really TOP SECRET will always get read first.
And, sometimes, kept.
That was Donald Trump’s dilemma, Tuesday afternoon, as his entourage piloted their way to Miami’s federal courthouse for his arraignment: he had succumbed to the seductive power of TOP SECRET-stamped documents. He had taken some 13,000 government documents when he was kicked out of the Oval Office, prosecutors allege, and more than 300 of them bore classified markings. Like TOP SECRET.
Trump’s problem isn’t that he was sloppy with allegedly sensitive government information. No less than Hillary Clinton did likewise, a few years back, and she was admonished by the FBI for “extremely careless handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
The former President’s problem is this: he took secret stuff with him when he left town, and he hid them all when politely asked to send back the secret stuff. Hell, Trump even – prosecutors say – hid his stash of classified documents in gilded bathrooms and ballrooms and bedrooms at his Mar-a-Lago compound from his own lawyer. His own lawyer!
Why? Why would he (allegedly) do something so deeply, profoundly dumb as that?
It could be that he actually believed he had already declassified them by “thinking about it,” which he has claimed presidents can do. It could be that he was convinced that the obscure Presidential Records Act – which I guarantee you he has never read, and never will – permitted him to hold onto classified information.
Could be. More likely, methinks, is that holding onto those documents – many spilling out onto the floor of a Mar-a-Lago bathroom, photos of which were helpfully attached to the indictment on 37 counts – made him feel important. It made him feel powerful.
That, certainly, seems to be the legal theory of the taciturn federal prosecutor, Jack Smith, who previously worked at The Hague and squashed war criminals like they were June Bugs. That Trump – according to the indictment he grimly received on Tuesday afternoon – showed the classified documents to Mar-a-Lago guests and said: “See, as president, I could’ve declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
Still a secret.
Ouch. That’s mens rea and actus reus right there in two pithy sentences, folks: Trump allegedly admitted he took secrets, and he knew they were secret. Boom. Gotcha.
The prosecution Donald J. Trump is facing in Miami isn’t like the one he is facing in New York City. The latter is seamy and sordid, involving alleged hush payments to a whackadoodle porn star, and a novel legal theory that seeks to magically transform state misdemeanors into federal felonies. It’ll fail.
The Miami prosecution is very, very different. Most of the time, those caught stealing U.S. government information plead guilty, because the cases are virtually impossible to defend.
If Trump had sent the classified stuff back to Washington, it wouldn’t have mattered that it was more than two years after the fact. He would’ve gotten away with it, as Hillary Clinton did.
But Trump willfully – and, yes, allegedly – took steps to hide the fact that he had TOP SECRET stuff. That’s his big, big problem. Never the break in, always the cover up: it’s the cover up that always gets you. (Take note, Justin Trudeau.)
As he contemplates possibly running for President from a cot in a jail cell, Donald Trump may well finally understand one truth. It’ll make his predicament feel way worse.
Namely, most of the government documents always stamped SECRET?
They just aren’t.