August Surprise

Photograph Source: Jack Boucher – Public Domain

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

― Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951

FBI agents have seized 11 sets of classified documents during a raid of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida seaside resort home, according to documents released by a federal judge. The sweep marked an unprecedented move against a former president.

The documents included information about nuclear weapons, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported. Trump said in a statement Friday the nuclear weapons issue was a “hoax,” his commonly used description about information he didn’t want to go public. He suggested the FBI planted the evidence, the Post said. He, of course, gave no details. So, who believes him?

The existence of the documents was uncovered during the search even though an unidentified Trump lawyer signed a written declaration stating that “all material marked as classified” had been returned to the government, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The declaration, it said, indicated Trump or his team “were not fully forthcoming with federal investigators about the material.” The discovery of possible cheating may explain why potential obstruction, a crime, was a reason the Justice Department sought a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, the Times said.

Does the existence of more classified documents at the sprawling mansion, despite the signed declaration, mean Trump or his cronies lied to the government? Trump was a known liar during his four years in office.

There was no indication whether the documents referring to nuclear weapons involved U.S. or foreign systems, or both. The disclosure immediately raised questions about why Trump took such intelligence information from the White House. The stories appeared first as an exclusive in The Post and then the Times.

The FBI retrieved four sets of top-secret documents, three of secret documents and three of confidential documents, according to the search warrant. Some were marked as “classified/TS/SCI,” shorthand for “top secret, sensitive compartmented information,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Absent from the documentation was any information about the content of the confiscated documents, obviously because they are classified. Trump approved release of the information Thursday night.

Judge Bruce Reinhart of the Southern District of Florida, an area that includes Mar-a-Lago, released the documents Friday at the request of Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. They included a list of everything taken, including material about French President Emmanuel Macron.

“Some of what was in Trump’s possession is mind-boggling,” the Post quoted Javid Ali, a senior National Security Council official in the Trump administration.

The disclosure of such an extraordinary decision to use an FBI raid to retrieve information from the private home of a former president followed the signed declaration and what reportedly was Trump’s team having ignored a grand jury subpoena this spring connected to the investigation.

The subpoena first was disclosed by John Solomon, a conservative journalist who is one of Trump’s representatives to the National Archives, the newspapers said. The agency sought the return of the documents and asked the Justice Department for help after its pleas for the information were ignored.

The archives are required to store materials like these under the Presidential Records Act, implemented in 1978, four years after Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as a result of Watergate. It says those materials are government property, not those of a president.

Republican officials, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and Trump’s followers on social media initially strongly criticized the FBI’s raid Monday as an abuse of power by the government. Trump branded it another in a series of witch hunts against him.

Fox “News” host Mark Levin described the FBI raid as “the worst attack on this republic in modern history, period.”

Worse than the 9/11 terrorist attack that destroyed the twin towers that killed about 3,000 Americans? Worse than the attempted overthrow of the government Jan. 6, 2021?

As if on cue, extremist Navy veteran Ricky W. Shiffer, 42, of Columbus, Ohio, armed with an AR-15 rifle, tried to attack the FBI office in Cincinnati but was killed later in a shootout after a vehicle chase and an hours-long standoff with state police.

Trump’s critics skewered him in online commentaries, leveling some wild accusations against him for his motive in unlawfully taking classified material home.

FBI agents searched for several hours through Mar-a-Largo’s basement, Trump’s office and at least part of his residence, the Times said.

An affidavit accompanying the search warrant contains information about what the FBI was looking for, but neither Trump nor the Justice Department proposed releasing it, the Post said. News organizations have requested the document and Judge Reinhart has given the government until 5 p.m. EDT Monday to respond to the motions, it said.

Trump, defending his actions, said on social media that the documents were “declassified” and that the FBI “didn’t need to ‘seize’ anything. They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago,” the Post reported.

The FBI didn’t break in to Mar-a-Lago.

Sitting presidents can declassify information within a formal process. But some declassifications require approval from other government officials.

The warrant sought all “physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation of three potential crimes.” That, the Post reported, included part of the Espionage Act “outlawing gathering, transmitting, or losing national defense information.”

The Espionage Act of 1917, enacted two months after the United States entered World War I, “prohibited obtaining information, recording pictures, or copying descriptions of any information relating to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

Trump, fervently admired by those Americans who speak his falsified Everyman language and regard him as a savior from what they perceive as society’s coastal elites, has a reputation for escaping accountability for his actions. The House impeached him twice but the Republican Senate saved him, mainly for his remarkable ability to attract votes.

That and how his endorsements of other politicians would win elections for them made him a political powerhouse to be sought after for approval.

Whether Trump’s supporters will stage demonstrations or violence if Trump is arrested following their heated language on social media, including death threats, remains to be seen. Also, what effect will this issue have on whether Trump decides to run for re-election in 2024, as he has hinted he would.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.