So, was that ‘nuclear’ document at Mar-a-Lago classified?
Every critical thinker, when presented a news report about a Donald Trump scandal, should approach the report with two unvarying truths present in his mind:
First, Donald Trump is completely unbound by ethics, prudence, or concern for others, and so he is capable of almost any perfidy.
Second, the news media lost all of their ability to shoot straight and hold their fire once Trump won, and so an initial report about Trump’s sins could be anything from completely overblown to total fabrication. Remember Alfa Bank, the “pee tape,” removing the MLK bust from the White House, or a million other stories that yielded gasps and credulity on Twitter and cable news before being debunked.
So, craft yourself a lens forged of these two elements — Trump’s bottomless vice and the media’s lack of self-governance — through which to view the latest Trump bombshell:
“Material on foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities seized at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago,” reads the Washington Post headline.
“Some seized documents were so closely held, only the president, a Cabinet-level or near-Cabinet level official could authorize others to know.”
The reaction to this story is predictably over the top.
BREAKING: Yes, Trump stole nuclear secrets. And US defense intel so sensitive that the president was one of the only people to know about it.
Indict him. Try him. Convict him. Lock him up.
— Tristan Snell (@TristanSnell) September 7, 2022
Set aside the “spy” stuff, and for a moment set aside Trump’s “I declassified everything” defense. Keep in mind that Trump had no right to keep any of these documents as ex-president because they didn’t belong to him, even when he was president.
But now, let’s dive into the Washington Post piece with a very specific question in mind:
“Did the FBI find nuclear secrets at Mar-a-Lago?”
The follow-up question is, “Did the FBI find any sensitive documents about nuclear weapons at Mar-a-Lago?”
The answer to both questions, from the latest Washington Post piece, is, “We don’t know.”
Stick with me here.
Yes, the headline mentions “Material on foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities,” and the subhead says that “some seized documents” were super-duper top secret, but neither text states that the nuclear documents were among those super-duper top secret documents.
Now, let’s check out the lead paragraph of the story:
“A document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was found by FBI agents who searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and private club last month, according to people familiar with the matter, underscoring concerns among U.S. intelligence officials about classified material stashed in the Florida property.”
Finding the document “underscor[es] concerns … about classified material stashed” at Mar-a-Lago, that’s sensible. If you know there are nuclear-related documents and you know there are top-secret documents, then you might fear there are top-secret nuclear-related documents there. But this paragraph very carefully avoids saying this is the case.
Before we go on, you may be wondering, “How could nuclear-related documents found in a White House not be classified or sensitive?” In fact, many White House records are briefing papers or news clips given to the president for his information. For instance, if an aide printed off and handed to the president this fact sheet on France’s Nuclear Inventory, that would be a “document describing a foreign government’s nuclear capabilities,” but not classified or sensitive.
What’s more, if an aide emailed Trump an article about the U.K.’s nuclear reductions, that email would be a presidential record, and there’s a really good chance it would be classified but certainly not sensitive. The famous Hillary Clinton-era case of overclassification was an email passing along a news article about the U.S. drone program, with no additional comment.
There’s a vast universe of nuclear-related documents that Trump could have that are either unclassified or not sensitive or both. Returning to the Washington Post story, what does it say about the sensitivity or classification of the nuclear-related documents the FBI was dishing about?
“Some of the seized documents detail top-secret U.S. operations so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are kept in the dark about them.” Well, again, “some of the seized documents” doesn’t mean “some of the seized documents about nuclear bombs.”
Here’s the closest the Washington Post story comes to calling the nuclear-related documents classified or sensitive:
“The FBI has recovered more than 300 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago this year: 184 in a set of 15 boxes sent to the National Archives and Records Administration in January, 38 more handed over by a Trump lawyer to investigators in June, and more than 100 additional documents unearthed in a court-approved search on Aug. 8.
“It was in this last batch of government secrets, the people familiar with the matter said, that the information about a foreign government’s nuclear-defense readiness was found. [Emphasis added.] These people did not identify the foreign government in question, say where at Mar-a-Lago the document was found or offer additional details about one of the Justice Department’s most sensitive national security investigations.”
But this last batch of documents seized from Mar-a-Lago wasn’t all “government secrets” — importantly, the FBI seized the personal documents Trump had intermixed with classified documents — making this sentence too vague to parse.
Again, maybe Trump did walk off with our spies’ handiwork on China’s nuclear arsenal and left it in a desk drawer. He’s capable of that sort of carelessness. But maybe he held on to a Le Monde column about France’s nuclear arsenal.
The best course of action, for all responsible commentators and politicians who have witnessed both Trump and the media beclown themselves, is to hold fire until we have more facts.