COMMENTARY | TRUMP Indicted: Classified Documents Withheld– Arrogance or Idiocy?

This s a photo of Kevin Seraaj, journalist and publisher of the Orlando Advocate
Kevin Seraaj, publisher, Orlando Advocate

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump the first to be indicted on federal charges

Former president Donald Trump has made history again, this time as the first former president in U.S. history to be charged with federal crimes.  The 37-count indictment is a result of Special Counsel Jack Smith’s months-long investigation into Trump’s intentional mishandling of classified documents.  It includes 31 violations of the Espionage Act. 

by Kevin Seraaj,

Donald Trump has been indicted, formally charged with willful retention of national defense information; conspiracy to obstruct justice; withholding a document or record; corruptly concealing a document in a federal investigation; scheming to conceal; and false statements and representations.

Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, in a televised statement, urged the public to read the indictment in order to understand “the gravity of the crimes charged.” 

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Jack Smith
Special Prosecutor Jack Smith has formally charged Donald Trump under the Espionage Act

“The men and women of the United States intelligence community and our armed forces dedicate their lives to protecting our nation and its people. Our laws that protect national defense information are critical to the safety and security of the United States and they must be enforced,” Smith said. “We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”

One set of laws that apply to everyone.

While this ideal has never been fully realized in this country– at least insofar as black-white relations are concerned– the principle is no less salutary.  

Like every president before him, Trump was trusted to safeguard the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.  The indictment says he didn’t.  He  is accused of  willfully and illegally hoarding sensitive national security info in direct violation of the laws he swore to protect and uphold.  

In what has become classic Trump style, the former president points to others to deflect attention from his own transgressions.   Joe Biden had classified documents at home, and so, too, for that matter, did former VP Mike Pence.  

Trump insinuates that his behavior should not be criminalized because Pence and Biden were not criminally investigated.  

The operative word here, though, is “oops.” While representatives for both Biden and Pence say the classified documents they took home were voluntarily turned over to investigators as soon as they were discovered, that is not the case with Trump.  The former president seemed not to understand that whatever protection he had from being prosecuted was lost once he left office.  Either that, or his ego and arrogance simply elevated him above the law.

This principle– that there is one set of laws for everyone– would have worked in his favor if he had just said “oops,” and handed over the documents.  But he repeatedly ignored the requests of authorities to give up the classified materials, and these actions elevated the conflict that he caused with DOJ. It was borderline idiocy to believe he would be successful in retaining classified government secrets when his social media rants kept the matter in the public eye.

The National Archives and Records Administration knew he had classified documents.  Astoundingly, Trump repeatedly resisted all efforts get the documents back. His representatives finally returned 15 boxes of records in January 2022, after months of going back-and-forth.  About 184 documents were said to have had classified markings on them.

FBI and Justice Department investigators served a subpoena on the former president 4 months later, in May 2022, for classified documents still in his possession. Lo and behold, another three dozen records showed up, causing investigators to wonder  just how many more documents Trump had.  

A Trump representative swore that  a diligent search of the Trump property had been done, but any credibility the Trump group had at that point was  pretty much gone.  It was beginning to look like Trump’s continuing failure to fully comply was a deliberate act of obstruction.

Then, last August, FBI agents served a search warrant on Mar-a-Lago, and sure enough, another 33 boxes containing classified records were seized. 

In this batch of files were top-secret documents hidden away in a storage room and in a desk drawer mixed in with Trump’s personal belongings. Some of these records were said to be so sensitive that some of the investigators themselves needed upgraded security clearances to review them.

Why not simply turn the documents over?  

According to the New York Times: “They’re mine,” three of Mr. Trump’s advisers said that he stated repeatedly when he was urged to return boxes of documents, some of them highly classified, [sought by] the National Archives.”

But that’s ego talking.  Documents are marked “classified” to protect government secrets– not Trump secrets.  According to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the three main levels of classified information are:

  • Top Secret: information would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if there were an unauthorized release.
    • Secret: information that would, with unauthorized release, be expected to cause “serious” damage to the national security. 
    • Confidential: information that is determined to have the potential to cause danger to the national security with unauthorized release.

An even cursory reading will make clear that the common denominator here is “national security” — which should probably take precedence over a claim that “they’re mine.”

The “one-set-of-laws” principle demands that Trump be treated like everyone else who has willfully hoarded classified documents– people like NSA contractor Harold T. Martin, who took classified documents and hoarded them in his home and his car. He was prosecuted for willful retention of national defense information.  

People like Kendra Kingsbury, an employee of the FBI’s Kansas City Division in Dodge City, Kansas, who stole classified documents and kept them in her home for years. She was prosecuted under a two-count indictment for stealing and retaining classified documents.

People like Yen Cham Yung, a top FBI agent who worked in Chicago’s organized crime division. He took classified documents home and secretly kept them there. He was prosecuted for taking classified documents and keeping them “in an unauthorized location.”

If Trump had not been indicted, the government should apologize to them.  

Of course, Trump’s base core of supporters don’t care if he deserved what he’s now facing or not.  Republicans have by and large bought into the notion that Trump can do whatever Trump wants. Like their god-king, they are quick to repeat the mantra that authorities are on a “witch hunt:”

“WITCH HUNT!!! They KNOW they can’t beat Trump at the ballot box, so Biden has WEAPONIZED our entire federal government against him,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, who previously served as Trump’s White House doctor. “This is a DARK DAY in American history, but we’ll get the last laugh. Trump will be BACK in the White House!!”

But really– a witch hunt is bad only when there are no witches.

Photo of Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made Florida’s congressional map far more favorable to Republicans and decimated black districts. This may have violated the state constitution. Now he’s after black education (Flickr)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and a number of congressional Republicans continue their walk behind Trump’s proverbial “I’m being mistreated” bandwagon, saying the DOJ, specifically, has been “weaponized” against him.

“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis tweeted. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary [Clinton] or Hunter [Biden]?  The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”

DeSantis’ hypocritical criticism is disingenuous.  He conveniently ignores his own use of the governmental apparatus for personal push-back– like suspending Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren– elected by the people– for saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion.  Or attempting to strip entertainment giant Disney World of its city status because it voiced an opinion different from his on the subject of “Don’t Say Gay.” Or cutting black history classes because educators believe it to be more expansive than he thinks it should be.

This is the state of the Republican Party in the Age of Trump. And the former president benefits from the unapologetic hypocrisy that characterizes today’s GOP.  

Republicans used to talk a lot about patriotism and “law and order,” but now, rather than condemn the criminality of the former president’s conduct, Republican “lawmakers” focus on what they label the nefarious intentions of law enforcement agencies.  Law and order be damned.

“The Merrick Garland indictment of @realDonaldTrump is a blatant and disgraceful political hit job. As President, Trump could declassify anything he wanted,” tweeted Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving.

That’s what you call a “half-truth,” and it is incredulous to hear Republican lawmakers misstate the law.  Trump himself said that as president he could declassify material “even by thinking about it.”  Preposterous.

National security attorney Bradley P. Moss says that while a sitting president does have significant declassification authority, a detailed process must be followed. This process ends in a declassification order that must be memorialized, with all affected agencies notified. The individual documents then have to be re-marked to show they’re no longer considered classified. Talk about “fake news.”

Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans unfortunately mirrrors that of the majority of GOP lawmakers.  It is not likely to suffer much as a result of the filing of the indictment.

Trump, his congressional gang, and the classified documents fiasco– a matter of arrogance or idiocy? 

Maybe a little bit of both.