Former President Donald Trump has raised plenty of full-throated objections to the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago club for classified government documents.
But he’s never said why he grabbed those files in the first place.
That unanswered question now hangs like a thundercloud over the intensifying legal and political dispute that could, for the first time in U.S. history, send a former president to prison: What did Trump want all those documents for, anyway?
“You don’t just throw top-secret documents into a box and then ship them to Florida,” Robert Deitz, who worked as general counsel to the National Security Agency under former President George W. Bush, told VICE News. “What on earth was he thinking?”
Whatever Trump’s motivation, he’s now at risk of losing his freedom for taking those files. Trump faces a criminal investigation for possibly violating the Espionage Act and other serious crimes, after government officials spent months trying, and failing, to get all the records back. The feds finally relied on an FBI search of the Palm Beach club earlier this month after a grand jury subpoena failed to get the job done.
Trump’s trove featured more than 184 classified documents, including some containing national security information related to intelligence gleaned from human spies and secret surveillance efforts.
When a batch of 15 boxes worth of files were returned by Trump’s lawyers in January, the National Archives were alarmed to find sensitive, highly classified records jumbled together in a disorganized heap with “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, [and] personal and post-presidential records.”
With so little clarity, and Trump’s future hanging in the balance, here are three theories that could explain Trump’s thinking:
Theory No. 1: Trump wanted leverage
Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen spent years at Trump’s elbow learning his former boss’s weird ticks and thought patterns, and said that he thinks Trump collected the files with a goal in mind.
“I believe Trump held on to these classified documents as a way to extort the country and to use them as leverage in the event he is to be indicted and convicted by the DOJ,” Cohen told VICE News.
Prior to the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump faced criminal investigations in Georgia and New York, and a Congressional probe into his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
But if Trump’s big plan was to use the documents to keep himself out of trouble, it backfired spectacularly. Independent lawyers increasingly think Trump is likely to be criminally charged in the Mar-a-Lago episode.
National security lawyer Bradley Moss thinks the affidavit released by federal prosecutors last week is enough to conclude that Trump will probably be criminally charged, because it shows the feds informed Trump’s team that the documents needed to be returned.
Trump has long boasted of his business acumen, and it’s conceivable that he had some other use in mind for the documents besides somehow attempting to make himself legally bulletproof.
His critics have accused him of trying to turn a national security issue to his personal advantage before.
Trump got himself impeached, for the first time, in 2019, after allegedly attempting to withhold military aid to Ukraine while pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” and launch an investigation of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
The Democrats who voted to impeach Trump accused him of effectively selling Ukraine out to Russia. Trump was later acquitted by the Senate thanks to Republican support. Russia invaded Ukraine in February, two years after that impeachment vote.
Theory No. 2: Trump’s a pack rat
Trump is known to have a childlike obsession with collecting knickknacks.
His office in Trump Tower was littered with random sports memorabilia, including a shoe once worn by basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, football helmets, and boxing belts.
At least some of the items returned to the National Archives could have been stuff that Trump just thought was kind of cool.
That might include the famous “love letters” Trump received from North Korea’s brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un, and the letter that former President Barack Obama left in the White House desk for Trump in accordance with presidential custom. Boxes pulled from Mar-a-Lago were reportedly filled with some totally random-sounding junk, like a raincoat, golf balls, and a razor.
One of the more quizzical items retrieved by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago was a document identified only as “Info re: President of France.”
It’s not clear whether Trump might have taken intelligence on Macron’s personal life with him to Mar-a-Lago.
Theory No. 3: Trump’s hiding something
There’s another, more nefarious explanation: Trump might have been trying to keep something out of the hands of his enemies.
It’s undeniable that Trump has spent years fighting like hell to keep some things secret. He battled up to the Supreme Court in a failed effort to hide his tax returns from New York prosecutors. More recently, he lost another Supreme Court fight to shield his presidential records from a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
This may be the least likely theory of all, primarily because many documents Trump had access to would also have been retained by other parts of the federal government.
And if he really wanted to make records disappear, he had well over a year to get rid of them after stepping down from the presidency in January 2021. So the odds that he left such documents lying around to be recovered by the FBI this August, seemingly, may be quite low.
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