Discover more from Letters from an American
June 9, 2023
At 3:00 today, Washington D.C., time, Special Counsel Jack Smith delivered a statement about the recently unsealed indictment charging former president Donald J. Trump on 37 counts of violating national security laws as well as participating in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Although MAGA Republicans have tried to paint the indictment as a political move by the Biden administration over a piddling error, Smith immediately reminded people that “[t]his indictment was voted by a grand jury of citizens in the Southern District of Florida, and I invite everyone to read it in full to understand the scope and the gravity of the crimes charged.”
The indictment is, indeed, jaw dropping.
It alleges that during his time in the White House, Trump stored in cardboard boxes “information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.” The indictment notes that “[t]he unauthorized disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military, and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods.”
Nonetheless, when Trump ceased to be president after noon on January 20, 2021, he took those boxes, “many of which contained classified documents,” to Mar-a-Lago, where he was living. He “was not authorized to possess or retain those classified documents.” The indictment makes it clear that this was no oversight: Trump was personally involved in packing the boxes and, later, in going through them and in overseeing how they were handled. The employees who worked for him exchanged text messages referring to his personal instructions about them.
Mar-a-Lago was not an authorized location for such documents, but he stored them there anyway, “including in a ballroom, a bathroom and shower, an office space, his bedroom, and a storage room.” They were stacked in public places, where anyone—including the many foreign nationals who visited Mar-a-Lago—could see them. On December 7, 2021, Trump’s personal aide Waltine Nauta took two pictures of several of the boxes fallen on the floor, with their contents, including a secret document available only to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, spilled onto the floor.
The indictment alleges that Trump showed classified documents to others without security clearances on two occasions, both of which are well documented. One of those occasions was recorded. Trump told the people there that the plan he was showing them was “highly confidential” and “secret.” He added, “See, as president I could have declassified it….Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
This recording undermines his insistence that he believed he could automatically declassify documents; it proves he understood he could not. In addition, the indictment lists Trump’s many statements from 2016 about the importance of protecting classified information, all delivered as attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whom he accused of mishandling such information. “In my administration,” he said on August 18, 2016, “I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law.”
The indictment goes on: When the FBI tried to recover the documents, Trump started what Washington Post journalist Jennifer Rubin called a “giant shell game”: he tried to get his lawyer to lie to the FBI and the grand jury, saying Trump did not have more documents; worked with Nauta to move some of the boxes to hide them from Trump’s lawyer, the FBI and the grand jury; tried to get his lawyer to hide or destroy documents; and got another lawyer to certify that all the documents had been produced when he knew they hadn’t.
Nauta lied to the grand jury about his knowledge of what Trump did with the boxes. Both he and Trump have been indicted on multiple counts of obstruction and of engaging in a conspiracy to hide the documents.
Eventually, Trump had many of the boxes moved to his property at Bedminster, New Jersey, where on two occasions he showed documents to people without security clearances. He showed a classified map of a country that is part of an ongoing military operation to a representative of his political action committee.
Trump has been indicted on 31 counts of having “unauthorized possession of, access to, and control over documents relating to the national defense,” for keeping them, and for refusing “to deliver them to the officer and employee of the United States entitled to receive them”: language straight out of the Espionage Act. Twenty-one of the documents were marked top secret, nine were marked secret, and one was unmarked.
These documents are not all those recovered—some likely are too sensitive to risk making public—but they nonetheless hold some of the nation’s deepest secrets: “military capabilities of a foreign country and the United States,” “military activities and planning of foreign countries,” “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country,” “military attacks by a foreign country,” “military contingency planning of the United States,” “military options of a foreign country and potential effects on United States interest,” “foreign country support of terrorist acts against United States interests,” “nuclear weaponry of the United States,” “military activity in a foreign country.”
Smith put it starkly in his statement, “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. Violations of those laws put our country at risk.”
On Twitter, Bill Kristol said it more clearly: “These were highly classified documents dealing with military intelligence and plans. What did Trump do with them? Who now has copies of them?” Retired FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi noted that there is a substantial risk that “foreign intelligence services might have sought or gained access to the documents.”
There is also substantial risk that other countries will be reluctant to share intelligence with the United States in the future. At the very least, it is an unfortunate coincidence that the Central Intelligence Agency in October 2021 reported an unusually high rate of capture or death for foreign informants recruited to spy for the United States.
Since Trump supporters have taken the position that Trump’s indictment over the stolen documents is the attempt of the Biden administration to undermine Trump’s presidential candidacy, it is worth remembering that Trump’s early announcement of his campaign was widely suspected to be an attempt to enable him to avoid legal accountability. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith precisely to put arms length between the administration and the investigations into Trump.
Smith noted today, “Adherence to the rule of law is a bedrock principle of the Department of Justice. And our nation’s commitment to the rule of law sets an example for the world. We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone. Applying those laws. Collecting facts. That’s what determines the outcome of an investigation. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“The prosecutors in my office are among the most talented and experienced in the Department of Justice. They have investigated this case hewing to the highest ethical standards. And they will continue to do so as this case proceeds.”
Smith added: “It’s very important for me to note that the defendants in this case must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. To that end, my office will seek a speedy trial in this matter. Consistent with the public interest and the rights of the accused. We very much look forward to presenting our case to a jury of citizens in the Southern District of Florida.”
Likely responding to MAGA attacks on the FBI and the rule of law, Smith thanked the “dedicated public servants of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with whom my office is conducting this investigation and who worked tirelessly every day upholding the rule of law in our country,” before closing his brief statement.
The indictment revealed just how much detailed information Smith’s team has uncovered, presenting a shockingly thorough case to prove the allegations. Trump’s lawyers will have their work cut out for them…although the team has shifted since this morning: two of Trump’s lawyers quit today. The thoroughness of the indictment also suggests that Trump and his allies might have reason to be nervous about Smith’s other investigation: the one into the attempt to overturn results of the 2020 election.
Some of Trump’s supporters are calling for violence. After Louisiana representative Clay Higgins appeared to be egging on militias to oppose Trump’s Tuesday arraignment, Democratic senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) issued a joint statement calling for “supporters and critics alike to let the case proceed peacefully in court.” Legal scholar Joyce White Vance noted that it was “extremely sad for our country that this isn’t a bipartisan statement being made by leaders from both parties.”