Former U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he makes a visit to the Cuban restaurant Versailles after he appeared for an arraignment in connection with allegations he kept classified documents after leaving office, June 13, 2023, in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Alon Skuy/Getty Images)
Anyone who has read or watched a crime drama knows that criminal investigators look for means, motives, and opportunities when evaluating suspects.
In the case of former President Donald Trump, charged last week on 37 counts of federal law violations in his mishandling of classified documents, the means and opportunities are pretty clear.
During his time in the Oval Office, Trump acquired sensitive materials, including those pertaining to “nuclear weaponry in the United States” and the “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country,” along with White House intelligence briefings that detailed the military capabilities of the U.S. and other countries, according to the indictment.
Despite numerous requests from the National Archives to return the materials upon leaving office, the former president kept some of them. From time to time, he showed some documents to visitors at his various residences.
Because some of the documents contained information important to national security, the former president was charged with violating the Espionage Act.
According to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, classified documents are the property of the United States. Presidents can possess and, under certain conditions, declassify them while in office, but not after leaving office.
As we have seen, high-ranking federal officials, including Joe Biden when he served as vice president and former Vice President Mike Pence, kept classified materials after serving in the government. However, when the violations were discovered, Biden and Pence returned the documents.
Furthermore, a federal judge ruled that, by allegedly instructing his lawyers to mislead federal officers seeking the materials, Trump forfeited the attorney-client privilege. Therefore, Special Counsel Jack Smith was able to use notes of the former president’s conversations with his lawyers, along with testimony of Trump aides, as evidence.
Legally speaking, this is an open-and-shut case. Unauthorized persons with classified materials must return them to the government. Either they do or don’t.
Moreover, Trump cannot claim ignorance of federal law and procedure. At least one taped conversation between Trump and visitors who were shown documents revealed that the former president knew that he no longer had declassification authority and that the government wanted the secret materials back.
If not for legal reasons, then, but instead for history and curiosity’s sake, the question remains: Why did Trump keep the documents? What was his motive?
Here are four theories, ranging in intent from innocuous to devious.
First is the pack-rat hypothesis. According to New York Times reporter and Trump mouthpiece Maggie Haberman, the former president hoards all kinds of materials that have meaning or interest to him. He is sloppy with his possessions, hoping someday to go through them but often never getting around to it.
Second, there is the trophy theory, offered by GOP nomination rival Chris Christie. As Christie’s story goes, Trump kept the documents around to show his supporters how important and powerful he was—and in his mind, still is.
“Because, remember something, he can’t believe he’s not president,” said Christie. “He can’t believe he still doesn’t get these documents. And he needs to display to everybody down at Mar-a-Lago, or up in Bedminster during the summer, that he still has some of those trappings.”
Third is the art-of-the-deal approach. Argued strongly by New York Review of Books editor Fintan O’Toole, Trump took the materials as potential trade currency.
O’Toole declined to specify which kind of transactions, but the former president instinctively knew that the secrets he possesses had value to others, which he could turn to his advantage.
One such deal might have been an exchange of documents for Trump’s promise that he would not run again for political office.
As presented by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow to howls of criticism from her Twitter followers, Trump could bargain with Smith now in order to stay out of prison.
To be clear, no evidence has yet been presented of Trump exchanging access to top secret materials with Russia, Saudi Arabia, another country, group, or shady character in return for money or favorable treatment.
On the other hand, given how Trump haphazardly stored boxes of the documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence, it would not be necessary for him to physically hand over classified materials to Saudi or other officials.
To Trump supporters, whether Trump’s reasons for keeping classified documents were pure or corrupt is beside the point. What really matters is that the Biden administration is persecuting their man for political reasons.
Though discerning the underlying motives of suspects and prosecutors makes for good TV drama, remember that motive has no bearing on the government’s case against Trump.
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