Reading the 44-page indictment document prepared by Special Prosecutor, Jack Smith, one question kept recurring to me: what was Donald Trump thinking? How could he justify or explain placing himself repeatedly in dire legal situations?
Where was the sense of self-preservation, of covering his own backside when he moved the valuable boxes to Florida and later refused to cooperate with the FBI and Justice Department in their official recovery work?
It is important to note that if Trump handed over the boxes when they were requested, more than likely the whole affair would have ended with a reprimand.
Listening to Trump’s wild attempts to explain his egregious behavior with top secret documents, are we hearing about pathological actions, entering a world where disordered and even mad behavior is deemed acceptable?
It is impossible to fathom why the former president insisted on following a bizarre and perilous course with the official files involving all kinds of chicanery, including blatant lying to government investigators. Where was the cuteness and sharp brain that his admirers claim he possesses? They think of Trump as a brilliantly devious businessman who can outsmart his opponents at home and abroad.
Surely, if instead of being out-front giving orders in this matter, he handled it by staying in the background and getting one of his cronies to carry the can, he could claim ignorance or misunderstanding or point the finger at some fall guy, just as he did with Michael Cohen when he was under pressure dealing with his porn star dalliance.
Trump’s term as president ended on January 20th, 2021. In leaving the White House he arranged for scores of boxes containing classified documents to be transported to his residence, the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.
This location operates as an active social club which hosts events for thousands of members and guests. The indictment states unambiguously that Mar-a-Lago was not an authorized location for the storage of classified documents, and Mr. Trump, stripped of his presidential powers, was barred from possessing any official information deemed confidential.
These boxes of classified papers were stored in various locations in his club, including in a ballroom catering for live events, a bathroom with a shower area, an office space, and indeed in Trump’s bedroom. According to the indictment, their easy availability to others, including foreign spies or their proxies, clearly put at risk “the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods.”
Moving all those valuable documents from a controlled environment and their perfunctory placement in various accessible locations in Mar-a-Lago makes no rational sense.
What was he thinking? Did the legal implications cross his mind? What was the possible benefit for him?
The plot thickens. On March 30, 2022, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the unlawful retention of classified documents in Mar-a-Lago. A federal grand jury was empaneled to assess the situation the following month. That grand jury issued a subpoena requiring Mr. Trump to hand over all classified documents.
Amazingly, he tried to obstruct the FBI and grand jury and to conceal his continued retention of confidential papers by resorting to dangerous tactics. First, he suggested to his attorney that he should lie to the FBI and grand jury. Second, he considered a partial camouflage by providing just some of the documents while claiming he was co-operating fully or, finally, worst of all, by causing a certification to be submitted to the grand jury and FBI affirming falsely that all the documents were produced. On May 11th, 2022, the grand jury issued a subpoena requiring the production of every document with classification markings in Trump’s possession.
On May 23rd Trump attorneys told him that to comply with the court order they needed to search for documents. Mr. Trump, however, wanted to find some way to disregard the subpoena. “What happens if we don’t respond at all? It is better if there was no document.” These questions suggest a mind dancing with derangement.
Did he reflect at this point on his precarious legal situation and decide that he could somehow disregard the subpoena? What was going on in his mind as he contemplated ways of dealing with his predicament? Was there no internal loud voice crying out to stop digging in the quagmire?
When Trump’s attorney returned to Mar-a-Lago to review the documents on June 2nd he found that Walter Nauta, Trump's personal aide, had removed approximately 64 boxes - at the ex-president’s direction - from the room where they were stored and brought them to Trump’s residence.
Nauta later returned 30 documents to the Storage Room where they were reviewed by one of Trump’s attorneys. He located 38 papers with classification markings and secured them in what came to be known as the Redweld folder.
Trump’s attorney handed over this folder to the FBI. Another Trump lawyer signed off on papers that asserted that they had responded fully to all FBI demands as set out in the subpoena. She claimed that “a detailed search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida.” Later, she admitted that she had not reviewed any of the relevant documents, a shocking revelation by any attorney, especially in a high-profile case.
Earlier that day, NAUTA loaded several of Trump’s boxes on the aircraft that flew the ex-president north for the summer. A month later the FBI and grand jury received surveillance video showing the removal of these boxes.
The following month, August 8th 2022, the FBI executed a search warrant of Mar-a-Lago and seized no less than 102 classified documents, 17 of which were marked “Top Secret.”
Donald Trump is in serious legal trouble not only because of his indictment by Jack Smith but in two more upcoming cases involving election interference in Georgia and his dominant role in the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, 2021.
And he is easily leading the Republican field for the presidential nomination of that party.
We are surely facing eighteen months of political drama. Polls show that Trump’s standing with independent voters has been damaged by his cavalier attitude to the country’s secrets.
Why did a man who surely should have known better get ensnared in purloining and showing off files dealing with America’s top national secrets? Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – also a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination – suggests that the former president’s actions were driven by his overwhelming need to show that he is still a powerful and consequential man.
“I think it is much more likely a trophy he walks around with, saying look I have got these.”
Is Trump that callow and pretentious that this crisis, which may well result in him serving a jail term, was driven by fanciful self-absorption and an out-of-control ego?
Gerry O'Shea blogs at wemustbetalking.com