“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men even when they exercise influence and not authority.”
So wrote John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer who lived from 1834 to 1902. No better contemporary example of Baron Acton’s statement exists than Donald Trump. The same Trump who having falsely promoted the Big Lie that he was denied re-election due to massive voter fraud. The same Trump who directed a failed attempt to overthrow the government and install himself as president-emperor. The same Trump who stole multiple classified government documents and removed them to an insecure facility in his Florida mansion.
In the same fashion that he has conducted his entire life, Trump is now fighting desperately to stop the Department of Justice from indicting him for that theft. He is using the courts, aided by a judge he appointed, and issuing threats of violence if he is held accountable for his actions.
Word is that Trump pre-paid millions of dollars to induce a lawyer to represent him, given his long history of refusing to pay lawyers and others who worked for him.
This saga has many parts. I will try to simplify them.
Let’s be clear about a few things at the outset. Trump made no mere “mistake” in removing top secret and other classified documents from the White House during his last days there. He meant to take them, meant to keep them and, most likely, meant to use them for personal profit. The documents and folders are clearly marked with classifications. No person with reasonably normal vision could have mistaken the nature of those documents.
Second, there is no evidence that Trump declassified the documents while he was president. None. Zero. There are elaborate procedures for declassifying documents and an evidentiary record of such actions would have been created. That record has not been produced because it doesn’t exist. The declassification defense is just another Trumpian lie being used by Trump’s lawyers to obfuscate and delay. Remember this question of declassification as you read on. It is the punchline of Trump’s latest “joke’s on you.”
None of this should surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the past five years.
Trump has shown time and again that he lacks respect for American institutions and the checks and balances that preserve our democracy. Trump’s interests are entirely transactional and acquisitive. His conduct in office repeatedly showed a complete lack of concern for national security. He regarded the documents from his presidency as belonging to him – his private property notwithstanding the federal laws on preservation of records. Indeed, Trump clearly did not regard the law, any law, as applicable to him. As he famously said, “I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.”
Third, Trump is no longer the President of the United States. His lawyers are as confused about that reality as Trump himself. Forms of address matter and referring to Trump as “The President” or “President Trump” is misleading. Trump is not the president. His term ended January 20, 2021. Of that there is no doubt.
Fourth, and finally, one of the basic tenets of legal argument is that you should not try to prove too much. I will explain below how that principle undermines Trump’s position.
The timeline is well known:
January 6, 2021 – Donald Trump, unable to establish a legal basis for remaining in office, sends a violent mob to stop the government from certifying the election of Joe Biden
January 20, 2021 – Joe Biden inaugurated as 46th President of the United States – Trump leaves the White House with many boxes of materials
Months pass – some classified documents are returned, others are withheld, and their existence denied
August 5, 2022 – Search Warrant approved based on showing of probable cause to believe multiple serious crimes committed
August 25 – Court order approving release of redacted search warrant affidavit
The Search Warrant Affidavit
The original affidavit for the search warrant makes clear:
(1) DOJ is conducting a “criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records;”
(2) after some boxes of documents were returned, it became clear that “there is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified NDI or that are Presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the [Mar-a-Lago] in an unauthorized and insecure location. There is also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at [Mar-a-Lago];”
(3) there was also “probable cause to believe that the locations to be searched at [Mar-a-Lago] contain evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violationof18 U.S.C. §§ 793(e), 1519, or 2071;”
(4) “Classified information of any designation may be shared only with persons determined by an appropriate United States Government official to be eligible for access, and who possess a “need to know;”
(5) “highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified;”
(6) repeated requests for return of classified documents were made for more than six months before the National Archives was informed that 12 additional boxes of records were found;
(7) the initial 15 boxes of documents contained 184 documents bearing classification marks;
(8) Trump’s lawyer told DOJ the former president “has absolute authority to declassify documents;” [but did not say that he had in fact declassified them]
(9) a Trump administration official publicly claimed, without proof, that Trump had declassified all the documents at Mar-a-Lago;
(10) DOJ thus concluded that “probable cause exists to believe that evidence, contraband, fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed in violation 18 U.S.C. §§ 793(e), 2071, or 1519 will be found at [Mar-a-Lago].”
The Less-Redacted Search Warrant Affidavit
Following more legal filings, a less-redacted version of the search warrant affidavit was filed and publicly released. After comparing the two versions, very few new facts were revealed:
(1) the June 3 release of documents to DOJ was by prior arrangement with Trump’s attorney who represented in writing that there were no more classified documents remaining at Mar-a Lago;
(2) the June 3 release contained an additional 38 documents with various levels of security classification;
(3) Trump’s lawyer did not claim that the documents had been declassified;
(4) DOJ soon learned about, and obtained, security camera footage covering the storage room in Mar-a-Lago but the affidavit material discussing that footage remains redacted.
Note again that the Trump counsel letter asserting the president’s “absolute authority” to unilaterally declassify documents stops short of asserting that Trump actually declassified any of the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. One of the most illuminating aspects of the arguments made by Trump’s lawyers is how careful they are to avoid asserting as fact that he declassified any of the seized documents while in office. They make much of his presumed powers to declassify but never say he did so. [Hint: this will soon become one of the most blatant deceptions of a willing dupe, the Trump-appointed judge to whom the case was assigned]
The Raid on Mar-a-Lago
DOJ subsequently raided Mar-a-Lago and took possession of many additional classified documents that Trump’s representatives had claimed were not there.
In keeping with prior Trump practice, a lawsuit was filed to delay the criminal investigation of Trump by seeking appointment of a Special Master to review all the documents. A Trump-appointed judge agreed, over DOJ’s strong objections, to appoint the Special Master and ordered DOJ to stop its criminal investigation.
Trump’s Judge Issues Bizarre Decision to Delay Criminal Proceedings
The judge’s order that reads more like a political polemic than a sound judicial evaluation of the competing claims about the documents. But it’s worth noting some of the findings made by the judge:
- “based on the volume and nature of the seized material, the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff has an interest in and need for at least a portion of it”
- Despite that statement, the court’s decision applied to all the seized documents
- Trump would be “deprived of potentially significant personal documents, which alone creates a real harm”
- Trump made no effort to show a particularized need for any of the seized personal materials that had been haphazardly stored in the Storage Room at Mar-a-Lago for many months, even after he knew DOJ was interested in them
- Trump might suffer “unquantifiable potential harm by way of improper disclosure of sensitive information to the public”
- No evidence was cited by the judge as to what “sensitive information” of a personal nature was in the documents and Trump cited none
- “[Trump] has claimed injury from the threat of future prosecution.” This finding is astonishing. Judge Cannon is completely off the rails here – the threat of criminal prosecution is present in every criminal investigation and is, indeed, the purpose of document discovery which in this case was being conducted pursuant to a grand jury subpoena. If this threat were grounds for a Special Master review, such a review would be automatic in every criminal investigation, and it’s not.
- “As a function of Plaintiff’s former position as President of the United States, the stigma associated with the subject seizure is in a league of its own. A future indictment, based to any degree on property that ought to be returned, would result in reputational harm of a decidedly different order of magnitude…. the Court takes into account the undeniably unprecedented nature of the search of a former President’s residence.” Here the judge gives up all pretense and declares that Trump, as a former president, should have privileges accorded to no other citizen under criminal investigation.
- This point is further established by the court’s later reliance on “[Trump’s] inability to examine the seized materials in formulating his arguments to date – the documents had been requested multiple times over many months during which Trump had ample opportunity to evaluate what he had. His failure to act should not confer an advantage in an argument about the equities of the situation.
- The judge further cites “Trump’s stated reliance on the customary cooperation between former and incumbent administrations regarding the ownership and exchange of documents.” The judge claims to be unaware of the Fact that the Trump administration for an extended period refused to cooperate in the transition to the Biden administration. This cannot be true unless Judge Cannon has been living under a rock for the past few years. The refusal to cooperate was widely reported for an extended period.
- Apparently determined to ignore the Fact of the classified markings on hundreds of seized documents, Judge Cannon treats everything as Trump’s personal material: “this is not a situation in which there is no room to doubt the immediately apparent incriminating nature of the seized material.”
- Finally, the judge declares that the possibility of Trump’s having an interest in the comingled personal items seized is sufficient to warrant a Special Master for ALL the documents, including those marked classified! Trump’s decision to mingle the documents and later decline to examine them when demanded by DOJ is thus used as an excuse to give Trump a litigation advantage against the government.
This opinion will likely be the subject of law school examinations in future years as indicative of how judicial bias can undermine the rule of law. It almost certainly would receive a failing grade at any creditable law school if presented in answer to an exam question.
DOJ’s Motion for a Partial Stay
DOJ filed a motion for a stay of Judge Cannon’s order only as regards the classified documents and the ongoing criminal investigation related to the unlawful removal and improper storage of those documents. As to the seized classified documents, DOJ argued, among other points, that,
[Trump] does not and could not assert that he owns or has any possessory interest in classified records; that he has any right to have those government records returned to him; or that he can advance any plausible claims of attorney-client privilege as to such records that would bar the government from reviewing or using them.
[Trump], however, has no right to the “return” of classified records, which are not “his” property.… Classified records also are not “personal” to [Trump] and would not reveal any sensitive personal information.…. Accordingly, [Trump] has no cognizable “individual” interest in any classified records (or in having a special master review those records), and he cannot be “irreparably injured” if such records are not returned to him.
Trump Claims Personal Ownership of Government Records
That should have been the end of it, but, as usual, Trump continued to argue. His response to DOJ’s motion for partial stay characterized the case as a “document storage dispute” in which “the Government wrongfully seeks to criminalize the possession by the 45th President of his own Presidential and personal records.”
That utter nonsense stands right alongside Trump’s continued lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Trump’s lawyers then argued that Trump had the right, and by implication only [no evidence], had exercised the right to convert federal government classified documents into his personal documents:
The [Presidential Records Act] accords any President extraordinary discretion to categorize all his or her records as either Presidential or personal records …. the former President has sole discretion to classify a record as personal or Presidential….
At best, the Government might ultimately be able to establish certain Presidential records should be returned to [the National Archive]. What is clear regarding all the seized materials is that they belong with either President Trump (as his personal property to be returned pursuant to Rule 41(g)) or with [the National Archive], but not with the Department of Justice.
Trump’s position at that point is that he simply cannot be criminally liable for mishandling documents of the highest secrecy classifications because … well, because he was president and well, he could, like he said, do whatever he wanted. Further, Trump’s argument is that the next president is powerless to uncover documents, including highly classified ones, that are evidence of a crime committed by the former president. That is not and cannot be the law.
If you’ve been following the “reasoning” closely, it has perhaps dawned on you that if Trump has the rights he claims to have – to convert secret government documents this personal property at will – then all other presidents must have had the same rights. Thus, for example, President Clinton could now assert personal ownership over documents that were classified during his presidency and compel their disclosure. Same for presidents Bush II, Carter, and Obama.
Trump’s argument, in addition to inconsistency with statutory and case law, proves too much and thereby violates a cardinal rule of advocacy. It should have been rejected outright.
Trump’s opposition to the DOJ motion for a partial stay also violates at least two other principles of advocacy. For example, he argues “the Government’s stance assumes that if a document has a classification marking, it remains classified irrespective of any actions taken during President Trump’s term in office.” But Trump’s team, following in the footsteps of the incompetents who failed in more than 60 attempts in the courts to change the outcome of the 2020 election, does not allege, yet alone prove, that he took any steps to declassify the seized documents while in the White House. Even if it were true that he had the powers he claims, he would have to show they were exercised. They weren’t and his lawyers know it. Their argument is pure sophistry.
The second, and closely related problem, is that Trump’s lawyers appear to believe he is still President of the United States. They refer to him in their legal papers as either the “former president” or as “President Trump,” whichever suits their claim of the moment. This is more sophistry. Trump is no longer president and has not been since January 20, 2021. He cannot, therefore, continue to exercise the powers granted to the president under the Constitution.
Consider for just a moment what the situation would be if Trump were right. President Biden would decide X policy as a matter of national security. Trump would countermand that policy, claiming he had the right to exercise the powers of the presidency indefinitely. Preposterous on its face.
Equally fatuous is Trump’s claim that he has the right to indefinitely restrict access to his “Presidential records” as defined in the Presidential Records Act. Putting aside that the statute cannot be construed to permit a president to conceal documentary evidence of a crime, the argument ignores 44 USC sec. 2202 that says, “The United States shall reserve and retain complete ownership, possession, and control of Presidential records….”
Whatever else Trump may be, he is not the United States.” And his claim that “there still remains a disagreement as to the classification status of the documents” lacks even the rudiments of a viable argument. Matters are not “in dispute” just because one party, without factual basis, claims they are. We know that Trump has made a lifetime practice of bald-faced lying but his attorneys are subject to a higher standard, as is the judge. They should be particularly sensitive to this because of the many failed attempts to overturn the 2020 election without evidence to support their outlandish claims.
Trump’s Judge Rejects DOJ’s Motion for Partial Stay
DOJ’s Reply In Support Of Its Motion To Stay Pending Appeal thoroughly eviscerates Trump’s claims that the Presidential Records in dispute are his personal property. Nonetheless, and unsurprisingly, Trump’s handpicked judge rejected DOJ’s position by giving full credence to Trump’s claim that “the record suggests ongoing factual and legal disputes as to precisely which materials constitute personal property and/or privileged materials …; and there are documented instances giving rise to concerns about the Government’s ability to properly categorize and screen materials.” The judge also continued to give controlling weight to Trump’s bootstrap argument that he “has not had a meaningful ability to concretize his position with respect to the seized materials.”
The judge should have said that Trump chose not to do so when the opportunity was readily available during the months of haggling with the government about whether he had classified documents and, if so, which ones. Instead, apparently because Trump is entitled to special treatment under the judge’s conception of the law, Judge Cannon simply gives Trump yet more opportunities to delay justice, opportunities no other citizen would have been granted.
The effect of Judge Cannon’s rejection is remarkable. He went to some lengths to describe the various investigative steps still open to DOJ while repeatedly foreclosing any reliance on the content of the seized classified documents. Worse, his decision means that the Special Master will have to decide whether the government properly classified the seized documents.
The decision gives no hint of how the Special Master is to make such determinations, but it seems certain this will require extensive inputs from the intelligence community, leading to further delays in the criminal investigation into which the judge has inserted the court. When the Special Master’s report becomes available, Trump will almost certainly challenge each adverse finding, leading to more opinions from the judge and appeals. Neither the Special Master nor the judge have any particular expertise in the decisions they will be making.
Among the on-going investigative actions permitted by the judge’s order are “as indicated in the September 5 Order, the temporary restraint does not prevent the Government from continuing “to review and use the materials seized for purposes of intelligence classification and national security assessments.” This logical inconsistency perfectly illustrates the travesty of the judge’s decision: the seized documents can somehow be used for further intelligence classification even as the Special Master, and eventually the judge himself, decide whether the documents were properly classified.
Another stunning misrepresentation by Judge Cannon resides in this remarkable statement:
“there has been no actual suggestion by the Government of any identifiable emergency or imminent disclosure of classified information arising from Plaintiff’s allegedly unlawful retention of the seized property. Instead, and unfortunately, the unwarranted disclosures that float in the background have been leaks to the media after the underlying seizure.”
The judge is more concerned about leaks from the government than about the national security implications of leaving the classified documents in Trump’s control.
In a final attempt to show his even-handedness, Judge Cannon notes:
Lastly, the Court agrees with the Government that “the public is best served by evenhanded adherence to established principles of civil and criminal procedure,” regardless of the personal identity of the parties involved …. It is also true, of course, that evenhanded procedure does not demand unquestioning trust in the determinations of the Department of Justice.
The problem here is that it is not the determination of the Department of Justice that are at issue. It is the determinations of the agencies that classified the documents in the first place. Rather than giving any presumption of validity to the government’s classifications, and without any attempt by Trump to show that the classifications were defective or overridden by an actual presidential decision, the judge has inserted the judiciary into a process it is incompetent to evaluate. The opinion reads like a sophisticated but unmistakable MAGA polemic on the evils of the federal government.
Hey, Judge – Fooled Ya!
Rather than spend more time analyzing the DOJ arguments against the judge’s bizarre and illogical decision, let’s leap ahead to the final step in which Trump, through his lawyers, springs the trap on Judge Cannon.
The judge’s order denying DOJ’s motion for a partial stay was issued September 15. The Special Master wasted no time thereafter. A letter from Trump’s lawyers states: “On September 16, 2022, Your Honor invited the parties to the above-captioned litigation to provide a docketed letter with suggestions regarding the agenda for tomorrow’s hearing.” Then this:
the Draft Plan [set out by the Special Master] requires that the Plaintiff disclose specific information regarding declassification to the Court and to the Government. We respectfully submit that the time and place for affidavits or declarations would be in connection with a Rule 41 motion that specifically alleges declassification as a component of its argument for return of property. Otherwise, the Special Master process will have forced the Plaintiff to fully and specifically disclose a defense to the merits of any subsequent indictment without such a requirement being evident in the District Court’s order.
The appropriate response to this astounding claim should be:
claims regarding declassification have been waived and no further action regarding them is required. The stay is lifted as to the classified documents and DOJ is free to use them in its criminal investigation as it chooses. Trump’s counsel have been more than a little too cute in their attempt to manipulate and delay these proceedings and the pending criminal investigation. Neither the Special Master nor the court will countenance further obfuscation. The Special Master is relieved of any duty to consider the classification of the classified documents. At a later date the court will consider whether Trump’s counsel should be sanctioned for their attempt to manipulate this proceeding for purposes of delay.
Recall that the presence of classified documents in the materials removed by Trump was known as early as February of 2022. https://wapo.st/3BPYXMs It is now late-September and Trump’s lawyers have exposed their delay strategy in the starkest terms. They baited Trump’s appointed judge who took the bait. Now he looks like just another sucker who was played by Trump. Trump’s loyalists in the White House have been lying and dissembling about Trump’s theft of classified documents for more than a year. Last year they claimed the boxes contained nothing but newspaper clippings. https://wapo.st/3Sesd4u
It’s past time for either the district court judge and/or the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to declare an end to the Trump charade. It should not take long to confirm that the purloined classified documents are authentic and that, by itself, should be sufficient for the grand jury to indict Trump on multiple criminal counts.