According to a search warrant inventory that was unsealed on Friday, the FBI found 11 sets of classified documents, ranging from "confidential" to "top secret," when it searched former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach last Monday. The top-secret documents included some that were labeled "SCI," or "sensitive compartmented information," an especially restricted category derived from intelligence sources.
On the face of it, Trump's handling of these documents, which he took with him from the White House when he left office in January 2021, raises national security concerns at least as serious as those raised by Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state. Trump has long maintained that Clinton's mishandling of classified material when she ran the State Department was egregious enough to justify sending her to prison. But in his case, he says, the documents at Mar-a-Lago, despite their labeling, were not actually classified.
How so? According to a statement that Trump representative John Solomon read on Fox News after the search warrant and inventory were unsealed, Trump had a "standing order" as president that automatically declassified material he moved from the Oval Office to his residence at the White House. That explanation raises additional questions about Trump's seemingly cavalier treatment of sensitive information, which I'll get to later. But first let's compare what Clinton did to what Trump did.
"If I win," Trump told Clinton during a debate a month before the 2016 presidential election, "I'm going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there's never been so many lies, so much deception. [There's] never been anything like it, and we're going to have a special prosecutor. When I speak, I go out and speak, the people of this country are furious. In my opinion, the people that have been long-term workers at the FBI are furious.…We're going to get a special prosecutor, because people have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you've done. And it's a disgrace and honestly, you ought to be ashamed."
Trump added that "you'd be in jail" if it were up to him. That theme was a staple of Trump's campaign rallies, where his supporters would chant "Lock her up!" at the mention of Clinton's name.
In July 2016, when then–FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI had not found enough evidence to justify criminal charges against Clinton, he reported that 110 messages in 52 unsecured email chains had been "determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received." He said "eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification."
By comparison, the FBI's list of items seized at Mar-a-Lago includes five mentions of "various" or "miscellaneous" top-secret documents, three mentions of "miscellaneous secret documents," and three mentions of "confidential documents." We don't know how many documents were in each set or the precise nature of the information they discussed. But five sets of top-secret documents could easily contain more sensitive information than eight email chains that may have referred to top-secret material only briefly and/or in passing.
Comey said Clinton's treatment of "very sensitive, highly classified information" was "extremely careless." On its face, that judgment could support charges under 18 USC 793, which encompasses "gross negligence" in the handling of information "relating to the national defense"—a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But Comey concluded that was not enough to justify prosecuting Clinton:
Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case….In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice.
The Mar-a-Lago search warrant was based on U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart's determination that there was probable cause to believe the FBI would find "items illegally possessed" in violation of three statutes, including 18 USC 793. Although Trump has not been charged with any crime and may never face prosecution, his conduct arguably included some of the aggravating factors that Comey mentioned.
To start with, there is some evidence to support the inference that Trump's alleged mishandling of classified material was "intentional and willful." In January, after the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) raised concerns that Trump had improperly removed documents that were covered by the Presidential Records Act, Trump's representatives turned over 15 boxes. Noticing that some of the documents were marked as classified, NARA referred the matter to the Justice Department, which obtained additional documents from Mar-a-Lago under a grand jury subpoena in June. Around the same time, The New York Times reports, "a Trump lawyer" gave the Justice Department "a written declaration" saying "all the material marked classified in the boxes had been turned over."
Judging from what the FBI says it found last week, that was not true. The FBI presumably presented evidence to that effect, possibly based on a Trump insider's tip, in its search warrant affidavit (which, unlike the warrant itself and the inventory, remains sealed). That apparent misrepresentation may help explain why the search warrant cites not only 18 USC 793 but also 18 USC 1519, which makes it a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to knowingly conceal "any record, document, or tangible object" with "the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence" a federal investigation. Such concealment, if proven, would qualify as "efforts to obstruct justice," another aggravating factor that Comey mentioned.
Because the volume, contents, and exact location of the documents seized by the FBI are uncertain, it is not clear whether the records at Mar-a-Lago amounted to "vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct," another Comey criterion. The difficulty of assessing that question underlines how little information we have about the documents that were seized.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the few Republican politicians who does not hesitate to criticize Trump, notes that "we still have a lot of unanswered questions" about the search. "Transparency was and is critically important," Hogan told ABC News on Sunday. Although unsealing the warrant and the inventory was "a step in the right direction," he said, we will continue to see "division and angry rhetoric from both sides" until we have a clearer idea of the FBI's justification for the search.
We do know that the Justice Department was concerned about the security of the documents months before the search. In a June email, according to the Times, Jay Bratt, chief of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the department's National Security Division, asked Trump lawyer M. Evan Corcoran to replace the padlock on a room where boxes of government documents were stored at Mar-a-Lago with a more tamper-resistant model. "Mr. Trump's team complied," the Times says.
The Justice Department also "subpoenaed surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago recorded over a 60-day period, including views from outside the storage room," the Times reports. According to "a person briefed on the matter," that footage "showed that, after one instance in which Justice Department officials were in contact with Mr. Trump's team, boxes were moved in and out of the room." The significance of that fact, like much about the search, remains unclear.
The third statute cited in the search warrant is 18 USC 2071, which applies to someone who "conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys" U.S. government records—a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Like the obstruction statute, that provision does not hinge on whether a document is classified. It would apply, for example, to the "executive grant of clemency" for Roger Stone that the FBI found at Mar-a-Lago and might apply to various other unclassified items, such as the "leatherbound box of documents" and binders of photos that are also listed in the search inventory.
18 USC 793 likewise does not mention classification, referring only to information "relating to the national defense." But that phrase would be intolerably vague unless it was qualified in some way, and in practice prosecutions are limited to cases involving classified material.
Here is where Trump's defense comes in. "The very fact that these documents were present at Mar-a-Lago means they couldn't have been classified," his office says. "As we can all relate to, everyone ends up having to bring home their work from time to time. American presidents are no different. President Trump, in order to prepare for work the next day, often took documents including classified documents from the Oval Office to the residence." In light of that practice, the statement says, Trump "had a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken into the residence were deemed to be declassified." It notes that "the power to classify and declassify documents rests solely with the President of the United States."
Without denying that point, Trump's critics argue that such a policy would be highly irregular and careless. "Whatever POTUS' 'powers' might be to declassify docs," former FBI agent Asha Rangappa says on Twitter, "there are good policy and practical reasons…to follow a process, and for that process to be documented and reflected on the document markings themselves."
Rangappa says "accountability" requires that declassification of a given document be justified by a rationale dealing with the national security implications, which "allows for objections from others if the reasoning is based on an incorrect premise." She also cites the need to protect intelligence sources from "blowback." In addition to "being dangerous and bad for [national security]," she says, automatic declassification of any documents that the president happens to remove from the Oval Office would cause "confusion and inefficiency and distortions in our intelligence collection, foreign policy, and defense efforts."
If "Trump telepathically declassifies hundreds of docs on his way out," Rangappa adds, President Joe Biden "can telepathically reclassify them immediately, too. See how stupid this gets? Markings would mean nothing. No one would know how to store things."
Accepting Trump's argument that any documents at Mar-a-Lago were ipso facto declassified, notwithstanding markings to the contrary, that information would be legally available not just to him but also to the general public, assuming there was no other statutory justification for restricting access. Unless classification decisions are utterly arbitrary or were clearly wrong with regard to every document that Trump retained, that seems like a pretty reckless way to handle sensitive material. But it would be of a piece with Trump's behavior as president, which reportedly included tearing up and flushing documents that were supposed to be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.
The issues that critics like Rangappa raise go beyond the question of criminal liability. Let's say Trump's purported "standing order" means he is in the clear under 18 USC 793. Let's also stipulate that meeting the mens rea requirements for convicting him of obstruction or "willfully" concealing documents that belonged in the National Archives would be a tall order. Trump's behavior and excuses for it nevertheless provide further evidence, in case any was needed, that he is not the sort of person who can be trusted to hold any position of political power, let alone the presidency.
Back in 2016, when Trump was intent on making his opponent look bad, he claimed to be moved by the concerns of "long-term workers at the FBI," who he said were "furious" that Clinton got off with a wrist slap for recklessly endangering national security. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Trump dismisses the FBI's avowed concerns as transparent excuses for the partisan "witch hunt" that supposedly has victimized him throughout his political career. One need not be a fan of the FBI to see that Trump's view of what qualifies as shameful and disgraceful is based on no principle beyond his petty personal interests.