Fun and Games with Classified Documents

The front page of today’s New York Times reads as follows: “U.S. Feared Trump Files Put Spies At Risk.”  See, https://twitter.com/BeschlossDC/status/1563532783947247623/photo/1

That headline heightens the topic of conversation among Spirited Reasoners concerning the documents found at Mar-a-Lago.  Previously, the main issue concerned the legitimacy of the FBI raid; i. e., whether Donald Trump was really keeping Top Secret and other Classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. The new-and-revised issue can be phrased as follows: “What exactly were Donald Trump and his cronies planning to do with those documents?”

Possible answers to that question run the gamut from “naughty-but-harmless” on the one hand, to “extremely damaging to U. S. national security,” on the other. Let’s consider a few possibilities along that spectrum.

One “naughty-but-harmless” scenario paints the former President as merely a trophy gatherer and showoff. “Hey guys,” he says to his buddies at the height of a party. “Look at these cool Top Secret documents. How about this one? You know, the one that was sent to me after my historic visit to North Korea.”

One tick up the seriousness spectrum might be described as the “Watergate redux” scenario. “Hey, guys,” he says to his lawyers. “Can’t you find some dirt in these boxes that we can use against the Democrats?”

Still more serious would be what I would call the “blackmail scenario.”  “Hey, guys, can’t you threaten these world leaders with exposure of their personal misdeeds if they don’t start helping me get reelected?”

Any reader of spy novels could imagine numerous additional scenarios—all harmful to the United States—in which classified documents could be used to heighten Trump’s own personal power while weakening that of the nation. What one cannot imagine is any legitimate purpose for such documents finding themselves at Mar-a-Lago in the first place.

More than one news story paints Trump’s attorneys as out of arguments and therefore grasping at straws. For example, if they argue “executive privilege” then they are admitting government documents were being kept at Mar-a-Lago in violation of the Presidential Records Act. (They wind up with the same legal problem when the argue that Trump waved a magic wand and deemed them all unclassified. To make either argument they have to admit that the seized documents were U. S. government documents.)

Given the lack of valid legal arguments on the part of Donald Trump, Spirited Reasoners can expect him to play an odd game of chicken. In such a game, he would argue that the documents are nothing more than personal papers, thus forcing the Justice Department to divulge classified information if it wants to prove that claim false.

One last scary thought: Even though the FBI seized the paper documents to protect the national security of the United States, it remains possible that a Trump operative copied (digitally or otherwise) one or more of those documents before they were seized. Let’s hope not.