Trump’s Secret Documents Case Just Got Worse For Him

Prosecutors now claim they can prove his motive, answering a major question in the case.
Former US President Donald Trump sits inside the courtroom for the third day of his civil fraud trial in New York on October 4, 2023
Former US President Donald Trump sits inside the courtroom for the third day of his civil fraud trial in New York on October 4, 2023. (Photo by MARY ALTAFFER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since investigators pulled a pile of sensitive government documents out of former President Donald Trump’s infamously chandeliered bathroom, a question has loomed over the resulting criminal case: Why on Earth did Trump want those documents, anyway? 

Now, prosecutors claim they have the answer. They haven’t publicly explained what it is. But they say they’re confident they can prove it in court. 


That matters, because Trump’s intent is far from an academic question. Legal experts have long said that while the criminal case against Trump for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by bringing boxes full of classified documents all the way to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida looks strong, it appeared to have a significant hole at its center—in the shape of Trump’s motive. 

Juries like to know why someone committed an alleged crime before they vote to convict. And Trump’s behavior seemed so baffling—he seemed to be taking such huge risks, for an unclear payoff—that the lack of a clear explanation for his behavior could leave lingering questions in jurors’ minds about precisely what happened. 

“It’s always easier when you can prove intent, than when you can’t, even in a crime that doesn’t require intent,” said former Watergate prosecutor and one-time General Counsel of the U.S. Army, Jill Wine-Banks. 

“I think you could make the case without asserting a motive,” she said. “But it’s sure better with it.” 

Special Counsel Jack Smith’s team wrote in a recent court filing that they intend to prove in court why the documents were moved from the White House to Florida, and “what Trump intended in retaining them.”  


“Motive is not an element in a crime, but motive is a gift to any prosecutor who’s trying to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. “Jack Smith suggesting he has the motive for why Trump retained the documents is incredibly crucial for this case. We have to stay tuned for what the exact motive is, but I doubt Smith would gratuitously put in a motive sentence if he didn’t have the goods.”

Trump is also facing a raft of other legal trouble. That includes criminal cases in Washington D.C. over his role in attempting to reverse his defeat in the 2020 election, in Georgia for alleged racketeering while trying to claim electoral victory in the Peach State, and in New York City for allegedly falsifying business documents related to a hush money scheme in a sex scandal with a porn star. 

Trump has pleaded not guilty in all cases, and repeatedly denied all wrongdoing. Trump has since turned his legal battles into a key theme of his presidential campaign, and claimed the indictments are all part of a broad witch hunt against him. 


Prosecutors have previously hinted at one possible motive in the documents case in Florida, although only in vague language: The idea that Trump may have thought he could use the documents for some kind of leverage. 

That may have been what Trump had in mind when he allegedly displayed a secret war plan to visitors while claiming that the document “wins” his case against General Mark A. Milley, who had appeared in an article in mid-2021 that Trump perceived as critical of him. Trump seemed to think the war plan made Milley appear to be war-mongering against Iran, rather than stopping Trump from war-mongering, as the article had suggested. 


“Isn’t that amazing?,” Trump allegedly asked a roomful of people without security clearance, including a writer, a publisher, and a couple aides. “Totally proves my case.” 

Leverage has also long been the top suspicion in this particular case of Michael Cohen, Trump’s estranged former attorney and fixer.   

Cohen served by Trump’s side for years and had plenty of time to study his former boss’ ticks. After the FBI first searched Mar-a-Lago for documents last year, Cohen told VICE News that he believed the most likely explanation was that Trump probably wanted to be able to use the files as political and legal bargaining chips. 

“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 last year.