WASHINGTON (AFP) — An early morning FBI raid on an upmarket Palm Beach estate. Unsecured crates of top secret Pentagon and CIA documents at a site of regular open parties that foreign agents have sought to infiltrate.
A former president apparently defiant that he can do anything he wants with US secrets, even disclosing them to foreign officials.
For supporters, the case of Donald Trump and the documents is political — President Joe Biden’s vendetta against his once and future White House rival.
But for secrets-obsessed Washington, the possible loss of control of highly classified intelligence is a nightmare, requiring that Trump be shut down.
Ten months after federal agents burst into Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s ornate Florida home, in a search for classified papers, the Justice Department has indicted him on 37 counts of violating secrets laws as well as obstructing the investigation — charges that run up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The unprecedented criminal charges against a former US president could well have been avoided: Trump was given multiple chances to hand over the documents.
But he did not.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” Trump told one of his lawyers after the FBI subpoenaed the documents, according to the indictment.
Secrets in the shower
Trump left the White House in January 2021 with crates of mementos, photographs, clothing and Oval Office papers, all loaded onto trucks and shipped to Mar-a-Lago.
The papers though were supposed to stay: White House documents by law are the property of the National Archives, and classified files must remain unaccessible to those without security clearances.
In May 2021 the National Archives discovered that there were significant records missing from what the exiting Trump administration turned over.
In January 2022, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago. They discovered among them more than 100 classified files.
Some were stamped with the highest secrecy levels, “Sensitive Compartmented Information” and “Special Access Program” — documents that could reveal the country’s most closely held secrets and sources.
That brought in the FBI counterintelligence department, which deals with the leaks of state secrets.
They then subpoenaed Trump to return any other classified documents he might have in his possession.
After a check of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s attorneys handed over a narrow envelope with all they found to the FBI counterintelligence chief, formally attesting that that was all that was left.
But surveillance video obtained by the FBI weeks later showed Mar-a-Lago workers moving boxes of documents from a basement storage room.
That brought the August 8, 2022 FBI raid that stunned the nation.
Trump wasn’t present as they combed Mar-a-Lago, seizing thousands more documents, including dozens more with high classifications.
The indictment Friday said Trump had kept files on nuclear secrets, war plans, arms programs, and national vulnerabilities haphazardly at the club — in his personal office, on a ballroom stage, in a bedroom, and in a shower.
50 million documents a year
For Trump loyalists, the issues are minor — a president who simply sought to keep some papers that marked his four years in the White House, or who made a common mistake.
Indeed, since the Mar-a-Lago raid classified material has been discovered in files that Biden took with him in 2017 after his term as vice president ended, and at the home of Mike Pence, who was Trump’s vice president.
But both voluntarily reported and handed over the documents.
Critics say the problem is the fruit of Washington’s out-of-control classification system. Every year, some 50 million documents are reviewed to be designated “confidential,” “secret” or “top secret,” yet only a fraction merit it.
“It’s the safe thing to do bureaucratically,” Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution security expert, said last year.
Trump’s stance on the other hand has challenged institutional Washington, where access to secrets is political power, protecting classified documents is a holy duty, and misuse a crime.
For example, on June 1 former air force intelligence officer Robert Birchum was sentenced to three years in prison for taking hundreds of classified files to his home. He never shared them with anyone.
When he took office in 2017, Trump showed open disdain for the US intelligence community and played fast and loose with the secrets he learned in regular briefings.
In an Oval Office meeting he told visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about fresh intelligence acquired from Israel on an Islamic State plot.
And he posted on Twitter a top secret reconnaissance photograph of an exploded Iranian rocket, against aides’ advice.
The casual approach persisted after the White House.
The indictment said Trump showed top-secret military documents twice to acquaintances at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.
“This is secret information,” he allegedly told one visitor.