On Friday, a federal magistrate judge in Florida ended at least some of the speculation about the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate by Justice Department officials and F.B.I. agents. Documents unsealed by the judge showed that, during the raid earlier this week, agents had discovered and removed four sets of top-secret documents and seven other sets of classified documents from Trump’s home. One group of documents was described as “classified TS/SCI documents,” an acronym for “top secret/sensitive compartmented information”—one of the highest levels of secrecy that exists in the U.S. government.
The search warrant unsealed by the judge sought “all physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed” in violation of three criminal statutes, including the Espionage Act, which prohibits “gathering, transmitting, or losing” information relating to the national defense, and carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison. All three of the potential offenses cited in the warrant are felony crimes. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that some of the documents pertained to nuclear weapons, an account the former President dismissed as a “hoax.” But the events of the past week raise the possibility that officials have finally found misconduct by Trump for which he can be held legally accountable.
A former Trump staffer said on Friday that Trump had the power as President to declassify top-secret information, and he could mount a defense in court that he did so before removing the documents from the White House. But senior officials who have been investigated, in the past, for improperly handling classified information—including David Petraeus, a C.I.A director during the Obama Administration, and Sandy Berger, a national-security adviser during the Clinton Administration—eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for unlawfully removing secret documents.
The political implications for Trump remain to be seen. Trump’s base, of course, will believe that the Justice Department and the F.B.I. are falsely accusing him. But, for everyone else, a sense of exhaustion with Trump’s antics feels inevitable. The credit goes to an unlikely figure—Attorney General Merrick Garland. In an unexpected news conference on Thursday, Garland announced that he was asking for the warrant to be unsealed. It was a way of puncturing Trump’s bluster about the raid. Garland also defended the men and women of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. “I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” he said. Garland was measured in his tone. He was balanced and fair. He did not smear Trump, nor did he publicly accuse him of any crimes. It remains unclear if Trump will be prosecuted. But Garland stood up for the rule of law and also respected the rule of law.
In the days ahead, Trump—as he has done so effectively in the past—will deflect and dissemble. One of his initial defenses on Friday was to falsely claim in social-media posts that President Barack Obama had taken tens of millions of government documents after leaving office: “What are they going to do with the 33 million pages of documents, many of which are classified, that President Obama took to Chicago?” A statement from the National Archives and Records Administration refuted Trump’s assertion. The archives said that roughly thirty million pages of unclassified records from Obama’s eight years in office were transferred to a National Archives facility in the Chicago area and that they continue to be maintained by the agency. “Former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration,” the agency said.
The exposure of Trump’s lies is not new. During his four years in office, Trump was regularly shown to make false claims, exaggerate achievements, and smear enemies. But he was also careful to avoid crossing certain legal thresholds and to generally obey the advice of his lawyers. The Mueller report, for example, revealed that Trump was saved from patently obvious obstruction of justice when top aides—particularly White House counsel Don McGahn—declined to carry out his orders or managed to restrain him. When Trump withheld four hundred million dollars in aid from Ukraine as leverage to demand an investigation of his likely Democratic opponent, he kept his language vague in phone calls with President Volodymyr Zelensky, which helped him deny wrongdoing.
The classified documents collected by the F.B.I. agents at Mar-a-Lago, as well as the work of the January 6th committee, show that Trump was increasingly reckless at the end of his Presidency. Former Trump Administration officials have testified that the President’s behavior changed after he lost the election to Joe Biden in November, 2020. Warnings from White House lawyers that had previously reined Trump in were no longer effective. Whatever guardrails remained were cast aside.
For Americans who wish to look, their worst fears about Donald Trump are being confirmed. He recklessly handled some of the country’s most important secrets, including, apparently, information related to nuclear weapons. Tens of millions of Americans, undoubtedly, will continue to believe his conspiracy theories. But the steady compilation of facts by the January 6th committee, the Justice Department, and the F.B.I. is creating a post-November, 2020, record of negligence that exceeds Trump’s actions earlier in his tenure. The Mar-a-Lago search warrant showed that Trump has grown more rash, thoughtless, and heedless—and more unfit than ever for the Presidency. ♦