Why the Trump Dump of Documents from Mar-a-Lago Matters Bigly

By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This story starts with a big “IF.” It is IF the reports this week about the documents harvested from Trump’s resort mansion, Mar-a-Lago, are accurate about the documents recovered, then the former president is guilty of a truly massive crime or, in the very least, gross negligence of the highest order.

However, we have to start with the “IF” because we all remember how the FBI fabricated far smaller claims about Trump colluding with Russia, which turned out to be lies. In short, the FBI lies, and it appears to lie with impunity because no one in the FBI who was at the center or that caldron of scathing lies has been imprisoned for trying to use the government to take down the government’s own sitting president in a political coup. Such is the state of the union.

That is said as a MAJOR caveat to this story because intelligence gathering in the US has deservedly lost all respect since the days of fake yellowcake ads (as I’ll deservedly call them because the “intel” was mere propaganda for the sake of justifying the Cheney-Bush war on Iraq) were trotted out by US intelligence to persuade the US populace to support the intended war in Iraq. Remember, the WMD that never presented any threat to the US even if they did exist. After the main attacks in the war were over, they proved not to have existed at all, other than as a few rusting tin-can rockets of low-range capability in their best day, except, of course, these particular rockets were far past their best day with no capability at all because they were found buried under sand like the relics of ancient Egypt. They had more sand in their orifices than a swimmer tumbled in the waves of a very sandy beach.

So, with all of that said about the state of political decay in the US that has led to repeat abuse of its intelligence services by both major parties, let’s look at the latest breaking news about the huge document dumps out of Mar-a-Lago. IF true, this is likely one of the most egregious abuses of power and risks to the sovereignty of the United States by any US president ever. And, on the surface, the number of serious government agencies and judges, involved, including the current president, Joe Biden, make it look like it COULD likely be true that former President Trump absconded with Top-Secret documents.

“What does it matter?” the Donald’s supporters will ask. “He was the US president, and he says he declassified them, as he had the right to do.” That is one argument his supporters will be inclined to grasp. The alternate argument to assuage themselves is that “He was the president, so it was his right to move them wherever he wanted.” Or “He has executive privilege so he doesn’t have to show what he took.”

All of those arguments are mere gossamer to cover the worst security breach in US history, IF Trump did remove the documents, as they are described in the latest reports, to Mar-a-Lago. Let’s consider each point as to how truly serious this matter is if all is as reported.

How secret are the Mar-a-Lago documents?

In a word, “very.”

eWe are not talking mere “Top-Secret” documents here. Those would be extremely significant to be concerned about on their own, but some of these documents are REPORTED to be (and, yes, I’ll emphasize “REPORTED” because all reporting in the mainstream media on matters of this kind during Trump’s presidency was as tainted with bias and as devoid of true investigation as all of those abuses of US intelligence agencies were). Top-Secret “Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI).” What this means is they are the cream off the top of all top-secret documents — the creme de la creme. They are SO top-secret that even people who have top-secret clearance cannot view them unless they are among a select group within the group who have top-secret clearance:

A Top Secret clearance entails the most rigorous vetting since breaches of this classification level can significantly damage the United States.... The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) defines SCI as classified information “concerning or derived from intelligence sources, methods or analytical processes that is required to be protected within formal access control systems established by the DNI.”

Veteran.com

In other words, SCI documents are not to be transported off of the mandated formal access control systems intended to protect the information.

There are three national security clearance levels: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Work deemed Critical Sensitive requires a Top Secret clearance. Special Sensitive work requires access to Sensitive Compartmented Information and therefore a Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance.

GSA – Technology Transformation Services (TTS)

Here is the key point:

SCI clearance investigations involve an additional screening process. Not everyone with a Top Sectet (TS) clearance has SCI access. You’ll only be eligible for SCI screening if you have specific duties requiring access to this information.

Veteran.com

Obviously, the president of the United States is entitled to see everything. That’s not the point at all. The point is that any president who would declassify information that is the most potentially damaging to US security if put in the wrong hands and take it off of its formal access control systems and store it in a closet is the most dangerous and untrustworthy president this nation could ever have. If the information was classified so even most people with top-secret clearance cannot see it, then it certainly should not have been declassified with the wave of a hand and no formal process so the president can take it from the system and move it Mar-a-Lago.

President Trump made no reference at all to lowering its classification. His own stated defense was that he had issued a carte-blanc declassification for all material he chose to take to Mar-a-Lago. Nothing important enough to be the cream off the top of the cream should go through some carte-blanc declassification that cannot even be called a “process.” Since the president made no mention of merely lowering its classification, he must have declassified it completely or he is extremely sloppy in his wording of such critical matters. That means I can read it. You can read it. Anyone can read it because if we can read, we and share it. That means Iran can read it; Russia can read it; China can read it; North Korea can read it. It is DECLASSIFIED. Yet, only days before he took it to Mar-a-Lago is what the most secret info the US holds. Might that not merit a little prescreening than just the eyes of the president before the president makes his decision to declassify it?

That would be INCREDIBLY irresponsible IF the president did as HE says he did, and this is what actually corroborates the news reporting more than anything. President Trump, himself, said that he declassified the material on a standing order before it was taken to Mar-a-Lago. That means the reports of classified material at Mar-a-Lago are TRUE. He could not declassify something that was not first classified. He did this, he says, just so he could read the documents in his own home.

That brings us to the second part of this argument: “The president has the right to move classified documents wherever he wants to.” Even if moving them to Mar-a-Lago was to be regarded as some sort of de facto declassification, as President Trump claimed, so they were technically no longer classified upon being moved, how incredibly irresponsible is it move them to such a low-security place? Whether you have the right or not, it is peak irresponsibility. Remember, these documents are so top-secret that even many people with top-secret clearance are not allowed to see them without passing additional screening to get the SCI designation. There is TS, and then there is TS-SCI. And these he kept in a CLOSET!

It means the president made a judgment call to remove the most dangerous US-held information from its access-controlled system (likely as print-outs that can be photographed in that they were capable of being stored in boxes and are referred to as “pages”) from one of the most secure buildings on earth — the White House — and take them to his far less secure private mansion. Of course, Mar-a-Lago has security. An ex-president lives there with secret service protection, but it has nowhere near the layers of security the White House has, which are built right into the White House. They did not rebuild Mar-a-Lago to make it a fortress matching the White House. Moreover, the documents had to be transported, adding further risk at each step along the journey.

Yet, all of that is nothing compared the next step: Trump didn’t just move the documents there while president in residence and then take them back to the White House whenever he returned (such as taking a few documents in a locked brief case that is as highly guarded as the president himself to study them while away from the White House); he moved reams of documents in mere cardboard boxes and kept them there years afterward locked in a CLOSET! Not even a guarded closet! Just a locked closet. In a building that is a mere resort, where access is easily gained just by paying a lot of money to stay there.

Let’s be realistic here: if someone offered Trump a million dollars to spend a weekend at Mar-a-Lago, do you genuinely believe he’d turn them down? He’s in the hospitality business to the rich. He doesn’t vet all of his clients at Mar-a-Lago for Top-Secret SCI clearance before letting them stay at Mar-a-Lago! So, how hard would it be for Russia to arrange for a friendly oligarch or any sophisticated spy it has in the US to book a stay at Mar-a-Lago as the president’s invited guest or as the invited guest of a Mar-a-Lago member or as someone who is already a member at Mar-a-Lago? From there, how hard is it to break into a closet in the middle of the night and spend three hours snapping photos of documents so you can leave with no hint you were even there — nothing missing?

“Oh, really difficult,” you might say. “Mar-a-Lago has security cameras.” Look, I’m not asking whether it is something I could readily do. I probably couldn’t break into my neighbor’s shed without getting caught; but do you really think Mar-a-Lago is a fortress that even a good bank heister couldn’t break into, much less a top spy of the Chinese government, known for its prowess at gaining secret US government information?

We’re talking true, peak stupidity here — abject negligence from a US president — IF Trump actually moved the nation’s most vital secrets to Mar-a-Lago and left them stored there, even when he’s not in residence for years in an unguarded locked closet with nothing but security cameras to protect it and maybe a secret-service agent who stalks the halls once an hour when the president is in residence.

It is no wonder the FBI wants to see ALL security footage of everyone who went in and out of that closet in recent years to see what damage might have happened. Will it see that documents were removed from the closet and taken to who-know-where? Will it see the boxes never returned that were removed, and how will it know what documents remained outside of the boxes if they were replaced or that they’re the same boxes and not just an endless parade of US new documents passing through the closet? Will it see any known double-agents working for Iran whom the CIA closely monitors? Did some of the maids have access to the closet? Did Trump attorneys with no security clearances at all pore over all the documents for hours on end, gaining knowledge they have no right to know — maybe even the kind where we say, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you?”

The National Archives weighs in

The following excerpts come from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regarding the the boxes of documents they originally obtained from Mar-a-Lago:

NARA had ongoing communications with the former President’s representatives throughout 2021 about what appeared to be missing Presidential records, which resulted in the transfer of 15 boxes of records to NARA in January 2022. In its initial review of materials within those boxes, NARA identified items marked as classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials….

Just the News

So, in the first take of documents back in January, the National Archives states to Trump’s own lawyers, they found the most sensitive of all classifications in the boxes turned over. Unless the news sources are lying and the letter is not from NARA, we have official word about these being highest-security documents. Hence, the “raid” to find the rest of what was missing, though Trump and his attorney claimed months ago he had turned over everything.

President Trump tried, subsequent to turning the boxes of documents over, to block access by the FBI to those documents that were provide to the National Archives in January. In other words, he tried to keep the documents sealed, even though the president has tried to claim he declassified ALL of them. If he’s not lying about declassifying, why keep them sealed after you’ve made them viewable to anyone in the world? He claimed executive privilege, which is the main point the NARA letter addresses, stating his claim has no legal merit.

NARA informed the Department of Justice about that discovery, which prompted the Department to ask the President to request that NARA provide the FBI with access to the boxes at issue so that the FBI and others in the Intelligence Community could examine them.

Subsequently, the letter notes, the Biden White House authorized release of the information in the boxes that were handed over to the FBI.

Trump’s claimed to the world that the fact that he turned over fifteen boxes in January shows he worked closely with the National Archives. That’s total rubbish. If Trump had worked closely with them, there would not have been the additional twenty boxes containing highly classified documents that the FBI seized on August 8. Those boxes, too, would have been turned over with the original fifteen boxes that were turned over in January. Here we were eight months later finding more boxes filled with many more top, top-secret documents than were found in the first go-around.

“Oh, but these don’t hold nothing,” someone will try to argue on Trump’s behalf about all the boxes found — such as, say, even Trump Jr. who mocks the whole operation. If they don’t hold anything of importance, why has Trump had is attorneys try so very hard to avoid turning them over with the original fifteen and why are his attorneys now trying to claim executive privilege to keep anyone from seeing what is the original fifteen boxes — an argument NARA says is null?

NARA acknowledges that typically such information is held with restricted access, but points out that such restrictions may be overridden by the current sitting president, as follows:

Although the Presidential Records Act (PRA) generally restricts access to Presidential records in NARA’s custody for several years after the conclusion of a President’s tenure in office, the statute further provides that, “subject to any rights, defenses, or privileges which the United States or any agency or person may invoke,” such records “shall be made available . . . to an incumbent President if such records contain information that is needed for the conduct of current business of the incumbent President’s office and that is not otherwise available.” 44 U.S.C. §

The Biden White House required granting access to the FBI back in April within seven days, and Trump and his attorneys refused. The “current business,” of course, is investigating whether Trump illegally moved classified documents out of the White House as president, and whether as someone who is no longer president continued to hold them in a manner that is against the laws governing how those documents must be handled.

Those conditions are satisfied here. As the Department of Justice’s National Security Division explained to you on April 29, 2022:

There are important national security interests in the FBI and others in the Intelligence Community getting access to these materials. According to NARA, among the materials in the boxes are over 100 documents with classification markings, comprising more than 700 pages. Some include the highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program (SAP) materials.

Now someone strongly wanting to support Trump at all costs, might say that Biden only wants the documents to hang Trump; so, of course, Trump is doing all he can to hide them. It’s just another witch hunt; but NARA goes on to explain, quoting the DoJ,

Access to the materials is not only necessary for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation, but the Executive Branch must also conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps. Accordingly, we are seeking immediate access to these materials so as to facilitate the necessary assessments that need to be conducted within the Executive Branch.

And there you have it. Bottom line. Outside of any claim that this is just another witch hunt like the ones I mentioned up front, there is clearly ALWAYS a legitimate interest on the part of ANY White House to ascertain exactly what top-secret information was so absurdly exposed to high risk, whether by complete declassification of the nation’s highest secrets for all eyes to see (a defense made by Trump that he has provided no evidence for, and which would be just as bad on his part if he could prove it). It also has the clear obligation to see if all documents were truly declassified. ANY White House has the obligation to ascertain, as well, what documents that remained fully classified were stored in a locked closet for years without even an armed guard in order to determine what secrets might now be well known to any enemy government. It has every obligation to try to track who went in and out of the closet to see if any top, top-secret documents might have been criminally handed over to others by someone no longer president if he provided access to people without classified clearance. Any incumbent president would be delinquent in his own responsibility for the nation’s security — a president’s number-one duty — if he didn’t chase down everything he could find out about what happened with those top, top-secret documents.

But Trump tries to stall such a vital investigation on the basis of executive privilege, so NARA addresses that claim as well:

We advised you in writing on April 12 that, “in light of the urgency of this request,” we planned to “provid[e] access to the FBI next week….”

It has now been four weeks since we first informed you of our intent to provide the FBI access to the boxes so that it and others in the Intelligence Community can conduct their reviews. Notwithstanding the urgency conveyed by the Department of Justice and the reasonable extension afforded to the former President, your April 29 letter asks for additional time for you to review the materials in the boxes “in order to ascertain whether any specific document is subject to privilege,” and then to consult with the former President “so that he may personally make any decision to assert a claim of constitutionally based privilege….”

Accordingly, I have consulted with the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel to inform my “determination as to whether to honor the former President’s claim of privilege or instead to disclose the Presidential records notwithstanding the claim of privilege….”

The Assistant Attorney General has advised me that there is no precedent for an assertion of executive privilege by a former President against an incumbent President to prevent the latter from obtaining from NARA Presidential records belonging to the Federal Government where “such records contain information that is needed for the conduct of current business of the incumbent President’s office and that is not otherwise available.”

Clearly, the ONLY way an incumbent president can ascertain what highest-security documents of the US government were exposed to external eyes by being stored in a closet is for him or his delegates to see what documents were held there. No other documentation will suffice. To know what people could have readily broken into and photographed, one has to know what the documents say. What spies are at risk of being known by name in China or Russia or Iran because they are named in paper documents that could have been photographed by the many people who went in and out of that storage closet? What government account information and passwords and protocols might have been gained that all need to be changed to prevent access to vast treasury funds or nuclear weapons? There is no way of knowing without reviewing all of the documents. Is it incumbent upon an incumbent president to just take the ex-president word for it that none of the top secrets were all that important? That’s absurd.

The argument here that Trump cannot claim executive privilege over Biden on these matters is straightforward and was set out by the Supreme Court long ago, says NARA:

To the contrary, the Supreme Court’s decision in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977), strongly suggests that a former President may not successfully assert executive privilege “against the very Executive Branch in whose name the privilege is invoked.”

It’s an argument that should be obvious even by common sense.

In Nixon v. GSA, the Court rejected former President Nixon’s argument that a statute requiring that Presidential records from his term in office be maintained in the custody of, and screened by, NARA’s predecessor agency … would “impermissibly interfere with candid communication of views by Presidential advisers….”

The Court specifically noted that an “incumbent President should not be dependent on happenstance or the whim of a prior President when he seeks access to records of past decisions that define or channel current governmental obligations.”

NARA concludes:

The question in this case is not a close one. The Executive Branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the Federal Government itself, not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the National Security Division explained, to “conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.”

No matter how much one hates Biden, it is clearly incumbent on any head of the executive branch to know what top, top-secret documents were stored in a mere closet for years and were transported by who-know-what-means and by who-knows-whom on a journey of a thousand miles.

In fact,

Ensuring that classified information is appropriately protected, and taking any necessary remedial action if it was not, are steps essential to preserving the ability of future Presidents to “receive the full and frank submissions of facts and opinions upon which effective discharge of [their] duties depends.”

How many people are going to defect from their country to bring top-secret information to the president of the United States from their own government about a planned attack against Washington, DC, if they know the US is just going to store the information in an outhouse or a locked closet? It doesn’t matter whether that specific information was found at Mar-a-Lago. It only matters that this is how that kind of information is stored.

In other words, whether it regards info provided to Washington about a planned attack on Washington, or info about a planned US assassination of a leading terrorist in Iran or whatever it might be, the US government has an obligation to know what might have been leaked and who might be at risk because they are named in the documents. Those people who have provided such information may need to be protected, may need new identities, may need to be withdrawn from the nations they are in and will want to know they are protected if such information has been improperly handled. I’d be nervous if I was a spy operating for the US in North Korea and knew I had provided info regarded as top-secret by North Korea about its nuclear program to the US government and that it was held in a closet at Mar-a-Lago for a year, two years, three…. Who knows when Trump moved it there?

Clearly, Trump is not cooperating with the National Archives, or twenty additional boxes would not have been found in the recent search on August 8, and as NARA notes,

The only end that would be served by upholding the “protective” [executive privilege] assertion here would be to delay those very important reviews.

Important at a level where people’s lives could depend on it? Maybe, maybe not. But how can the current government know if it has no idea what information Trump is holding back that he removed from the White House? It may even be information that the incumbent president no longer has any access to at the White House. Maybe it was moved in copied form and deleted from the special processors it was stored on. Who can know without seeing what it is? If a president wants something deleted, he can surely delete just as easily as he can declassify. That’s just another step or two: declassify it, then cop it, then immediately delete the original.

And all of that was BEFORE additional documents reportedly containing additional classified information were found. Subsequently…

The New York Times reported that roughly 300 classified documents had been retrieved from the Mar-a-Lago “raid” that was or wasn’t a raid, depending on one’s definition.

Mediaite

Add that to all the classified material found by NARA in the first dump of boxes out of Mar-a-Lago that yielded over 100 classified documents, and the supposedly helpful Donald Trump who was working all along with the National Archives, has now been found to have been in the possession of roughly 400 classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. But, no big deal. The FBI should just leave him alone, right? They shouldn’t even look into that, right? Just a witch hunt.

Several sources said that when the archives were trying to get documents back, it was the former president, Donald Trump, who personally reviewed the boxes in deciding what to return. That means he also decided what not to return.

Trump’s hands were directly on it. This latter part was said with respect to the original fifteen boxes that were, according to Trump, cooperatively turned over. The latest dump clearly was not cooperatively turned over back in January, and it contained by far the most top, top-secret documents.

Whether the president had the legal right to move the documents is not even the main concern here:

U.S. officials in the national security community expressed shock and concern at the former president’s cavalier treatment of classified material. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said they were astonished at the “recklessness” of the move….

It can take up to a decade to declassify certain information, said one former defense official who still holds a security clearance, so the fact that Trump took hundreds of pages of classified material is “one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.”

Now, of course, all the information may have been information that would implicate Trump in wrongdoing, or it may have been information that would implicate all the right people who misused the FBI to dog Trump of their own wrongdoing. There could be ulterior motives as to why the FBI wants to dig into this. Or it may all be information that might, as I noted above, implicate US informants from other governments and put them or their families in grave danger. But how will anyone know without the FBI digging into it? The problem we are in is that the agencies that are supposed to be the watchdogs have already disgraced themselves so thoroughly that they look as guilty as those they are supposedly watching.

So, when one person from the FBI comments,

“There’s not gray area here. I’m just appalled,” the person said.

Well, there is one gray area. The FBI, itself.

It was reported earlier this month that some of the documents in Trump’s possession related to nuclear weapons and “special access program” materials, as Wall’s letter reveals. But at the time, Trump’s GOP allies held their fire until they could hear directly from NARA.

At least one Republican lawmaker noted that this specific scenario would be problematic.

“I mean, if he had actual special access programs — do you know how extraordinarily sensitive that is? That’s very, very sensitive. If that were actually at his residence, that would be a problem,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

So, this is a matter to be taken with utmost seriousness. Unfortunately, those investigating have their own behinds to cover with respect to their own nefarious actions against the ex-president. That is what you wind up with when corruption runs so deep and when government agencies are misused for political purposes. But here we are.

Liked it? Take a second to support David Haggith on Patreon!