The federal indictment of Donald Trump was unsealed yesterday. The entire 49-page document is available online and I spent the morning reading it over a couple of cups of coffee You can read it too at this link, and if you’re a Trump supporter or someone who thinks that the charges are politically motivated, I highly recommend that you take the time to skim through it. Suffice it to say that Donald Trump is in serious trouble.
We’ve been listening to denials and rationalizations of why Trump had mountains of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago for almost a year now. If the allegations in the indictment are correct, Donald Trump has made fools of his defenders. A great many of the claims that have been made on Trump’s behalf over the past 10 months have been blown apart by the special counsel’s investigation.
The indictment begins by noting that “over the course of his presidency, Trump gathered newspapers, press clippings, letters, notes, cards, official documents, and other materials in cardboard boxes.” These boxes also contained “hundreds of classified documents.”
These documents included “information regarding the defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.” To be clear, these were very sensitive national security documents.
When Trump left office, he was no longer authorized to possess these documents. Nevertheless, he allegedly “caused scores of boxes, many of which contained classified documents,” to be moved with his personal effects to Mar-a-Lago. The indictment notes that Mar-a-Lago was an “active social club” and was “not an authorized location for the storage, possession, review, display, or discussion of classified documents.”
When the boxes arrived, they were allegedly stored in a haphazard manner. Initially, the boxes were placed in Mar-a-Lago’s White and Gold Ballroom. A photo in the indictment shows scores of boxes stacked on the stage. In March 2021, they were reportedly moved to the business center.
In April 2021, the boxes were moved again because employees needed to use the business center as an office. This time, they were stacked in a bathroom and shower in the Mar-a-Lago Lake Room. This is the location of the now-famous photograph of boxes of documents piled in a bathroom that, interestingly, has a chandelier.
In May 2021, Trump allegedly ordered the boxes moved to a storage room. The indictment notes that this room, located on the ground floor at Mar-a-Lago, “could be reached from multiple outside entrances, including one accessible from The Mar-a-Lago Club pool patio through a doorway that was often kept open.” This move was made in June 2021 and photos show at least 80 boxes stacked in the storage room.
On December 7, 2021, another day that will become infamous, Trump’s aide, Waltine “Walt” Nauta, discovered that the pile had toppled. He took a photo that visibly contained classified documents and texted it to other Trump employees. The indictment reproduces the photo with sensitive content blurred.
Nauta is a former naval enlisted man from Guam who served as Trump’s valet in the White House. After retiring from the Navy at the end of Trump’s presidency, he was hired by Trump as an aide and “body man” at Mar-a-Lago.
The boxes of documents did not stay in the storage room. The indictment also notes that Trump took some of the boxes to his club in Bedminster, New Jersey. This location was also not authorized to house classified documents.
In addition to stacking boxes of classified documents willy-nilly around his properties, Trump also allegedly showed the documents to unauthorized personnel on at least two occasions. One was the incident that I discussed on Friday that was caught on an audio recording.
The indictment includes a transcript of that July 2021 meeting in which Trump met with two biographers and two staff members. In the transcript, Trump discusses a “plan of attack” that apparently had been JCS Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s plan to attack Iran during a 2020 diplomatic crisis between the US and Iran. CNN reported that those present included Mark Meadows and Margo Martin, a staff communications specialist.
In the transcript of the recording, Trump acknowledges that the document is “like, highly confidential” to the laughter of those present. Trump and the staffers discuss the need to declassify the document before it can be included in the book, and Trump says, “See, as president, I could have declassified it, now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
In another meeting, in August or September of 2021, Trump met with a representative of his political action committee at Bedminster. Trump allegedly showed his guest a classified map of a different country, probably Afghanistan, and said not to get too close because he [Trump] should not be showing the document.
At that point, the indictment creates a timeline for the government’s attempts to have the boxes of documents returned. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) began asking for the documents in May 2021. Several times, NARA warned Trump’s representatives that if they did not cooperate, the matter would be referred to the Department of Justice.
Between November 2021 and January 2022, Nauta and another Trump employee allegedly began moving boxes from the storage room to Trump’s personal residence. Text messages from this time period indicate that Trump was aware of these activities and was actively involved with the move and accessing the boxes, which were then stored in Pine Hall, the entrance room to Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago.
Throughout this time period, NARA was trying to get an answer on how many boxes there were and to facilitate their return. In January 2022, 15 boxes were returned to NARA. When these boxes were found to contain classified materials, the matter was referred to the DOJ. The FBI opened a criminal investigation in March and a grand jury was convened in April.
The FBI interviewed Nauta in May 2022 about the boxes. Nauta gave “false and misleading” answers in which he denied being aware of boxes being moved to the residence, knowing how many boxes there were, and said that he didn’t know where the boxes were stored previously.
On May 11, the grand jury issued a subpoena for all of the classified documents in Trump’s possession. On May 23, Trump met with two of his attorneys to discuss the matter.
The attorneys report that Trump said he didn’t “want anybody looking through my boxes” and asked, “What happens if we don’t respond at all or if don’t play ball with them?”
Ultimately, Trump agreed to allow an attorney to return to Mar-a-Lago on June 2 to search for documents that were covered under the subpoena. Trump wanted to be present and changed travel plans in order to be there. The indictment alleges that Nauta moved about 64 boxes from the storage room to the residence at Trump’s direction before the attorney made his search. Another 30 boxes were moved at around noon on June 2.
The lawyer, who can be identified through other reports as Evan Corcoran, arrived later that day and found 38 classified documents. These documents were segregated and placed in a folder secured by clear duct tape. Corcoran contacted the DOJ to arrange their return. He also drafted a certification, ultimately signed by a third attorney, Christina Bobb, that Mar-a-Lago had been searched and that all classified documents were being turned over.
The indictment notes that this certification was false because Trump and Nauta had moved and concealed boxes from Trump’s own attorneys. Trump later took some of the boxes with him when he flew to Bedminster for the summer.
On August 8, 2022, the FBI served a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. Despite the certification by Trump’s attorneys, agents found 27 classified documents in Trump’s office and another 75 in the storage room.
The charges against Trump include 31 counts of willful retention of National Defense Information (a list that details the documents is included in the indictment) and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Both Trump and Nauta are charged with conspiracy, withholding a document or record, corruptly concealing a document or record, concealing a document in a federal investigation, engaging in a scheme to conceal, and making false statements or representations.
The indictment explodes a number of myths propagated by Trump’s defenders. Claims that the documents were over-classified and not really sensitive are disputed by the indictment and its list of documents. Further, claims that Mar-a-Lago contained a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) and that the documents were secure on the property are undercut by the photos and details of how lackadaisical storage of the boxes really was. It should also be noted that a Chinese woman who might well have been a spy was convicted of trespassing at Mar-a-Lago in 2019.
There was also the notion that Trump had declassified the documents in question. As Maury Povich might say, “The audio recording of Trump’s own words determined that was a lie.”
Further, unlike Mike Pence and Joe Biden, Trump not only failed to cooperate with authorities in returning the documents, he actively obstructed and undermined attempts to have NARA and the FBI secure the documents. There is also no evidence that Pence and Biden accessed the documents found in their possession, much less showed them to unauthorized guests.
Rather than being an operation that was focused on “getting” Trump, it seems that every effort was made to allow Trump to return the documents in a “no-harm-no-foul” manner. The fact that Trump refused to cooperate with the government is no one’s fault but his own.
The case is all the more shocking because of the way Trump came to power. Trump’s 2016 victory can be traced in large part to Hillary Clinton’s problems relating to her own mishandling of classified information. In his campaign, Trump made numerous references to Hillary’s offenses and many of these quotes are sprinkled throughout the indictment.
So what now? There is ample evidence that Trump not only broke the law by mishandling classified documents but that he obstructed attempts to rectify the situation without engaging in legal proceedings. Washington Post reporter, Josh Dawsey, also notes that Trump was not charged for any of the documents that were returned prior to the grand jury subpoena. The point here is that Trump has no one to blame but himself for the trouble that he is in.
And Trump is in a considerable amount of trouble. The unlawful retention charges carry a maximum 10-year sentence for each count. The conspiracy charge is up to 20 years and each false statement charge is up to five years.
The evidence in this case, which includes photos, audio recordings, and text messages is much stronger than the state cases in New York and Georgia. Points of law and evidence can be questioned in those cases, but the feds have Trump dead to rights.
Nevertheless, some, like Erick Erickson, think that prosecuting Trump is a bad idea, worrying about a tit-for-tat with Republican prosecutions of Democrats, saying, “Justice at the cost of the world burning down was not worth pursuing.”
[I’m adding this post-publication, but I have to point out that Erickson is being disingenuous. We all remember Republican investigations of the Obama Administration and, as a matter of fact, Trump’s DOJ did investigate Hillary. The probe was closed without finding criminal wrongdoing. There is also an ongoing federal investigation of Hunter Biden and a special counsel probe into Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents. I’m sure Republicans would not be reticent to prosecute Obama, Hillary or the Bidens, no matter how divisive it might be, but the difference is that Trump was caught red-handed.]
But this idea is flawed in itself. First, Trump’s indictment is by a special counsel investigation, not a politically-motivated prosecutor. Second, as Erickson himself admits, “Trump has no impulse control and brought this on himself by withholding documents after claiming he turned them all in.”
The question is how can the government not prosecute such an egregious and willful violation of the law, especially one that could have a serious impact on not only American national security but the security of our allies as well?
To not prosecute would undermine the equal application of the law. It would send a message to politicians that, if you are popular and powerful enough, you won’t be held accountable, even if you purposely and blatantly violate the law. For lack of a better word, it would be “swampy.”
It will be up to Erickson and other Republican pundits to tell the truth to their followers. The evidence against Trump is massive and incontrovertible. It just needs to come out and it will come out. The question is whether Republican voters will see it and believe it.
I have had my differences with Erickson, but I believe that he is an honest man. I believe that he will tell his listeners the truth. I can’t say that about most other Republican pundits, politicians, and media outlets.
I can see one way out of the crisis that does not involve “crossing the Rubicon,” as Erickson put it, or inflaming political passions. Trump could seek a plea bargain and admit his transgressions in exchange for a lighter sentence or probation. Such a deal would have to include provisions that if Trump reneged on his admission of guilt that he would face a stiff sentence. Ideally, it would also include an agreement to exit politics permanently.
I don’t have any illusions that Trump will admit guilt even though the evidence and his own words show him to be as guilty as sin. He could spare America a serious and potentially bloody crisis, but he won’t do that. Because America is not Donald Trump’s primary concern.
Making America Great Again is secondary to preserving Donald Trump’s power and ego. That’s why we have arrived at this particular point in history and that is why this cup will not pass from us.
RUSSIA KILLS TRACTOR: In an amusing story, the AP reports that Russia claimed to have destroyed a German Leopard 2 tank operated by Ukraine. An analysis of the video showed the destroyed vehicle to be a tractor, however.
As the article notes dryly, “The vehicle struck by the Russian missile has four large wheels and sits high off the ground. Leopard 2 tanks are low-slung and have treads, like a bulldozer.”
Tank or tractor? You make the call.
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