Three Questions at the Start of an Intelligence Review

Why? Why? Why not?

There’s been a lot of focus on the narrow legal battles over the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago, but sometimes stepping back to look at the big picture helps bring the conflict into focus. As a legal matter and a political matter, Trump, his lawyers, and his apologists are trying to make the claim that this is just a dispute about documents, like overdue library books. The passion with which the DOJ went after them since receiving the referral from NARA last February, especially the ferocity of the legal arguments and filings over the last two weeks, demonstrates how wrong the DOJ believes that framing to be.

I agree with the DOJ.

The documents are not really what is being fought over — the battle is over the damage  (hypothetical or actual) done to our intelligence services, our national defense, and our broader foreign policy by Trump’s possession of these documents at Mar-a-Lago. The documents are the first puzzle pieces the intelligence community [IC] has to put together, to fill in the whole picture and plan a way forward.

To understand why, let’s parse out what an intelligence review might look like. What follows is not based on any insider sources at the DOJ, ODNI, or any other federal agencies, but on my own experience (long ago) with classified materials and the general experiences of others I know with deeper and more recent work in classified matters, as well as analyzing other cases where classified materials were stolen from the government and passed along to foreign governments.

An intelligence review is designed to look at three things: what got exposed, to whom, and what dangers does that pose to intelligence sources, methods, and broader foreign policy objectives? These are all backwards-looking questions, to understand how this could have happened in the first place. They also serve as the starting point for forward-looking actions, as we and our allies pivot our overt and covert foreign policy approaches in a new context. Think of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British scientist who passed US and British nuclear secrets to the USSR in the 1940s. A backwards looking intelligence review ultimately identified him as the spy and spotted the flaws in our security procedures, and a forward looking review pivoted the US and British policy toward a world with nuclear powers who opposed each other.

In the current case, the IC review begins with three interrelated questions:

  1. Why did Trump take government documents to Mar-a-Lago in the first place?
  2. Why these documents?
  3. Why not those other documents?

The second and third questions begin to move toward an answer to the first question, so let’s start there. Broadly speaking, I see five possible answers, each of which poses different dangers.

1: Vanity

If this is the answer to that first question, we would expect to find that Trump took documents that made him look good, that pointed to actions that he believed he could claim credit for, or that simply let him feel powerful because he knows stuff very few others know. Think of these as Extreme Presidential Souvenirs. These would be documents that shout to the world, “Look at how great Trump is . . .”

Danger: Simply having documents like this in his possession would likely not be enough for Trump’s ego. Trump’s ego would demand that he show them to others, so that they would know how great Trump is. The level and kind of danger depends on who the “others” are, and who they might have spoken to about what Trump showed them.

2: Fear

In this scenario, the IC review would see that Trump took documents that would help cover up his failures and/or possible crimes, such as a full transcript of the “Perfect Phone Call” with Zelenskyy. These would be documents that whisper in Trump’s ear, “This could get you into trouble. You better hide this . . .”

Danger: These are the documents least likely to be shared by Trump, so in that respect they are safe. On the other hand, they become prime material for blackmail if unfriendly parties realize he has them. Trump’s nightmare is getting a phone call about these documents, threatening to expose the documents to the “wrong” people. “I’d like you to do me a favor, though . . .”

3: Greed

Given Trump’s proclivity to monetize anything he can for his own personal gain, it is hard to imagine that Trump would not be looking at anything that crossed his desk to see how he might make money on it. (“Hmmm . . . I’m doing some traveling? OK, which of my properties are closest, and how much can I charge the Secret Service for staying there?”) Documents that showed him something that would let him make money would be particularly tempting to Trump. Think of this as corporate espionage, or a twisted form of insider trading. Perhaps he received knowledge of foreign government’s as yet unannounced plans to develop certain properties overseas, and figured he could jump in, buy the property first, and then get bought out for a profit. Or maybe he would buy the property next to the future development and cash in when the government project became public and went forward, driving up the value of what he purchased. Perhaps these were not projects led by foreign governments, but by US corporations acting abroad whose plans were picked up as part of a signals intelligence surveillance program aimed at less-than-friendly nations. Documents like this would be calling out to his wallet, telling him “Hey, you can really use this . . .”

Danger: Suppose Trump acts on this information in some way, and the foreign government in question starts wondering “Did Trump merely get lucky in choosing to invest right where our project was going in, or did US spies give him the information?” Questions like that might lead to the exposure of human assets (sources) and signals intelligence capabilities (methods), which in turn could lead to those sources being shut down/arrested/killed, those signals intelligence methods being countered, or either the sources or methods being turned and used to feed false information to the US.

4: Corruption

As bad as #3 is, this scenario is the IC nightmare: Trump took documents that he knows other foreign governments, perhaps some of our greatest enemies, would love to have, and then deliberately passed them along to those governments. It might be to get revenge on Biden and the Dems for beating him in 2020. It might be to sabotage the work of the current administration and cause great public political problems for the Dems, to enable his return to the White House in 2024. It might be that some foreign adversary has compromising information about Trump or holds a private loan to Trump, his family, or his Trump Organization, and that country demanded classified information from Trump in exchange for not revealing the compromising information they hold or for not calling in the loan he could not immediately repay.

Danger: Beyond the damage done to sources, methods, and US foreign policy objectives created by disclosing the classified information in these documents, this scenario is worse. It weakens our relationships with our allies and harms our position in the world, simply by indicating we can’t keep secrets and by making us weaker through whatever is revealed. Should Trump have provided classified intelligence deliberately, it only gives those folks more leverage over Trump, which they would use to push for more information and more favors. Once you’ve turned over classified information to a hostile power, those folks own you forever. “Nice resort you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that foreign governments might lean on Trump to use his family to further their goals. “You need to have Jared talk to his friends in the Middle East, and convince them to . . . “

5: Some/all of the above

Trump might have taken some documents to feed his ego, others to hide them, and still others to try to monetize their contents. He might have taken some for his own reasons, and others because he was pressured to do so by hostile powers. The permutations are . . . troubling.

Danger: some/all of the above.


On top of these five possible explanations of Trump’s motives, one other thing is absolutely certain. Documents like those that were seized by the DOJ would have been catnip for the intelligence agencies of other nations. Once word got out that Trump had taken highly classified documents out of the WH (or once folks even suspected he had done so), all manner of foreign spies no doubt became very interested in Mar-a-Lago – much more than they had been during the Trump administration itself. It’s hard as hell to get into the WH and take classified materials, or to plant electronic surveillance devices inside the WH. Mar-a-Lago, on the other hand, is a relative sieve, especially after Trump left office and the security around Trump was much more directed to protecting his person rather than protecting all the stuff around a sitting president. At Mar-a-Lago these days, you pay your membership fee, and walk right in for a grand tour. Whatever the reason Trump chose to take these documents, even if he simply wanted to hold onto them as presidential souvenirs and he does nothing with them otherwise, should foreign agents copy them or steal them from Mar-a-Lago, that’s almost as bad it as it gets for the US.

Danger: Exposing whatever classified information to the prying eyes of our adversaries not only exposes sources and methods of our intelligence services, but provides our adversaries with insight into our strengths and weaknesses, depending on what the intelligence said. It also opens Trump to blackmail, as noted above in scenarios #2 and 4. “Well look what we found at your home. It sure would be terrible if the FBI were to discover that you were so sloppy with security that we were able to waltz right in and take them.”

To sort out the likelihood of each of these scenarios and the specific dangers posed, those conducting the IC review will do a couple of things. First, the leaders of the intelligence agencies are likely going back to the original creators of these documents, to tell them they were found in unsecured locations at Mar-a-Lago, and therefore (a) the creators need to assess what the specific danger would be if this particular document were to be exposed, and (b) the creators should look around to see if they have any signs that these documents had been shared already. The former is to measure the hypothetical damage, while the latter is to assess the likelihood that this is not hypothetical. Did spies suddenly go quiet, or did the quality of their information suddenly become different? Did satellites that used to provide good, regular photos of intelligence targets begin to provide much less good intelligence? All the while, the IC reviewers know that this is likely even worse.


If any of this information came to the US IC through our partnerships with other friendly nations (like Five Eyes or NATO), that means going to the intelligence folks in those countries who trusted us with their secrets and telling them that their trust was misplaced, at least while Trump was in office. They are the folks who need to assess the danger that exposure of this information would create, and who would have to see if there were signs that this information had already been shared. Of course we would promise to do whatever we could to assist them in that analysis, but that’s like telling a shopkeeper that you will help sweep up the shards of all the broken crystal after your kid threw a bowling ball into the display case.

Danger: It’s bad enough if our secrets get exposed, but if we let their secrets get exposed, that’s going to make them less likely to trust us in the future. As I said before, this is why having career diplomat William Burns as head of the CIA was a stroke of genius by Biden, and why Burns and the rest of the IC is no doubt bending over backwards to help Garland get this right, and bending farther over backwards to help our allies get this fixed.


This is why the analysis of what was taken and trying to determine Trump’s motive(s) is the starting place. It leads to other critical questions like these:

  • What does Trump’s selection of documents — classified and unclassified — tell us about what is going on?
  • Were the documents tucked away by Trump over a long period of time, or did they all get tucked away in a specific, relatively short time period?
  • And what else was tucked in the drawers, file folders, and boxes next to these classified documents? Are there notes or letters that appear to have been written based on the content of the classified materials?

Depending on what this initial analysis reveals, the reviewers will begin to talk to the counterintelligence people in their agencies, especially if there is some concentration of subject matters or particular time frames involved.

  • Have you noticed any unusual behavior in known foreign agents around those time frames?
  • Was there any unusual signals traffic between foreign agents here and their bosses back home?
  • Were there any new agents who arrived here, who have a particular focus to their work that meshes with the subject matters of the documents Trump took? What actions have they taken?

To dig into all this, the analysts will be looking at other information and also be in contact with the folks in the field who are managing the human sources or electronic surveillance methods, to see what insights they might have. They know that decisions will need to be made about protecting or extracting sources who might be in danger, shutting down electronic surveillance already in place (pull out/relocate bugs and cameras if possible, re-direct satellite orbits, change communications frequencies, reprogramming software, etc.), and otherwise working to replace these sources and methods in some way to avoid further exposure. They hope to restore secrecy to the people and programs, and restore quality to the intelligence that might have been harmed through exposure.

While all this covert review work is going on, the FBI will no doubt be doing an ordinary shoe-leather investigation into the folks who have been going in and out of Mar-a-Lago over the last 18 months after the security of the resort was scaled back to simply protect the former president. They will be looking at guests and staff alike, trying to see what can be learned from videos, logs of visits, work schedules, and in some cases interviews. They will be looking at the White House document handling, especially after December 18, 2020 when the head of the White House Office of the Staff Secretary resigned and no one was named to take his place — even in an acting capacity — until January 20, 2021. They will be doing deeper domestic investigations of any new foreign agents that were identifies by the IC analysts.

And then there’s the investigation that NARA is probably already trying to complete: what other documents from the Trump White House were not turned over?

This is all very time consuming and expensive. You don’t want to do this if it isn’t necessary, but you absolutely have to do it if these sources and methods are likely to have been (or actually were) blown. Only when the Why?, Why?, and Why not? questions have been answered can the forward looking work really begin in earnest.

There’s a lot more that can be inferred about what an intelligence review would contain, but one thing is certain. The panel of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and Special Master Raymond Dearie are focused on what Judge Cannon does not want to recognize: this is not a case about misfiled documents, but a national security case in which documents hold the key to assessing the dangers posed and actual damage done to our nation, so that the current government can begin to address it.

145 replies
  1. Lika2know says:

    I read recently that one of the first things done by the owning agency is to determine if the document still needs to be classified, and at what level.

    It makes sense to me as this would allow them to avoid spending resources and energy on content that is no longer so risky,

    • Peterr says:

      Documents like the detailed itinerary of a presidential trip are an example of how classification may or may not change over time.

      Ahead of the trip, details about the specific schedule are likely held very closely (route and method of travel, timing, etc.), to help the Secret Service keep the president safe.

      After the trip, the route and timing is unclassified, as the road has already been traveled and the danger of any attack along the way has passed. The details about the method of travel, however, might remain classified because the president may use that method on a future trip.

      Ahead of the trip, the briefing book would contain information about the people the president will be meeting at each stop, and the purpose of the meeting. There will be drafts of speeches, banquet toasts, and other presidential remarks as well. If there are negotiations as part of this, the book would identify the other side’s likely negotiating postures and our prepared replies to the proposals they might make. All of this is kept secret at one level or another.

      After the trip, the speeches, toasts, and other remarks would be declassified, as they have already been made in front of cameras. The background materials, however, would remain classified, as this is likely not the last time the president will deal with these folks, and the same goes for the negotiating materials.

      And this is a simple example.

    • Raven Eye says:

      It certainly isn’t simple to declassify even a mundane classified report. The link goes to one of my favorites:

      https ://www .cia. gov/readingroom/document/05508656

      It’s an interesting read on it’s own, if you’re a bit of a critical infrastructure nerd. But look carefully at how the markings are managed. Then look at what is still redacted in this Cold War report from 1982, and consider the level of coordination/consultation required in that declassification. And this report was “only” SECRET in it’s original form.

      [FYI – link “broken” with blank spaces inserted to prevent accidental click through by community members. We don’t need the traffic back from CIA let alone have them identify relationships between community members and this site, do we? /~Rayne]

    • Tassy says:

      I must ask again… don’t they need to go through every one of Trump’s properties with a fine toothed comb? Documents could be anywhere!

        • obsessed says:

          Trump being in a waking state should be sufficient probable cause that a crime is being committed or planned. But with regard to Bedminster or Trump Tower what would be the minimum you’d actually need? A witness who has seen classified documents there recently? What about a discovery in the course of the above-described investigation that a specific document not found at Mar-a-Lago has been missing since before Jan. 20, 2021? If the judge were convinced that Trump probably stole it, and that it’s not at Mar-a-Lago, would that be sufficient to assume that it’s at one of the other residences? I’m guessing it’s probably not. And I’m guessing that they couldn’t use an operative to try to infiltrate the staffs at the other residences because they’d open themselves up to Trump’s accusations of “spying” on him? Ugh … what a mess.

        • Ravenclaw says:

          One *could* argue that all those folders marked classified with no documents inside implies that the documents exist and remain in the possession of TFG, probably in one of his other properties. Maybe not a strong argument to put before a federal judge in a politically sensitive case, but I bet it would be enough to get my summer cottage searched (if I had one).

  2. Fraud Guy says:

    I’m lucky that I have only done similar reviews to determine how a fraudster was able to defeat our screening methods and steal merchandise, so that the back to front to back chain was short, easily understood, and could lead to prompt action. I can imagine the anger, angst, and worry with the additional layers of secrecy, bureaucracy, and urgency to deal with.

    • Peterr says:

      And the Greed category as well – the arrangements to stay at Trump properties on as many presidential trips as possible, using as many rooms as Trump can get filled.

      There was also the aborted push in 2019 to have the 2020 G7 meeting at Trump’s Doral property, which was in desperate need of guests and income even before COVID hit. Thanks to the reticence of the Germans and others to travel to a superspreader state at the time, the inperson meeting was canceled.

  3. Rugger9 says:

    Any place where Individual-1 spent any significant length of time (i.e. Bedminster and Trump Towers) top my list of places to check the security, because if TFG spent significant contiguous time in place he would doubtless have some of these items in his hands. M-a-L was famously bad for security, but I doubt TT or B-NJ were any better. Those places didn’t happen to have the news of shady characters running around.

    The other thing to consider is how Individual-1 was able to so completely flout the rules regarding the handling, without anyone apparently raising the alarm or finding ways to ‘edit’ what he saw to keep the serious bits out. The juicy stuff (i.e. Macron’s thing, whatever that is) had to stay in so Individual-1 would not realize be was being put in a bubble. I’ve not seen anything in the IC scuttlebutt on this, and FWIW all of those who released docs will need to pay the consequences starting with firings and prosecutions. If they want to throw Individual-1 under the bus so much the better, but prosecutions now would encourage future compliance to classified management.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I agree that we need a detailed review of the way Trump was able to keep these documents, and mete out consequences to those who failed us.

      I recall reading that the documents that can only be reviewed in a SCIF were supposed to be returned to the creator immediately after review. If true, that raises the question directly: how did Trump manage to keep them? Who let him have them.

      Then there’s the question of how he got them out of the White House. Did no one look in the boxes? Why not. I’m hardly the only one pointing out that we needed to count the silverware when that guy got kicked to the curb.

      • bbleh says:

        As to para. 2, who’s gonna tell the President “sorry, sir, you can’t keep that”? Generally speaking, I’d assume at most they’d suggest a document would better be kept elsewhere and could be fetched any time s/he needed it, but if the President insists, then that’s almost certainly that. The WH is a very secure facility. And all that would go triple for this guy: anybody who suggested he shouldn’t do what he wanted likely would be summarily fired.

        And as to para. 3, the reporting I’ve seen is that he packed those boxes himself and wouldn’t let anyone else look in them. And I would guess the same went at Mag-a-Lardo, based on the refusal of his attorneys to let the FBI look in them. Per other comment, I’d say nobody knows what was in them originally (except maybe the first foreign agent who snuck in and looked through them). And of course, NARA was after him almost immediately about a bunch of things they knew were missing, so there were records of some of what he had, but I can’t imagine something didn’t slip through the cracks here and there, especially after the depopulation of the WH began in December ’20.

        • matt fischer says:

          I agree that anyone who tried to wrest classified documents from Trump’s small hands during his term would have been impotent to do so, due to a POTUS’ inherent authority. My hope is that persistent attempts were made nonetheless, and that all such attempts were fully documented.

        • paul lukasiak says:

          Agreed — “because he is President” was the only reason anyone needed, and this was doubly true during the last days of Trump’s administration, when just about the only people still hanging around were his most sycophantic loyalists.

          The questions i’d like to see answered are “what happened in 13 months between Trump leaving office, and NARA sending the DoJ a referral? Did no one at all alert the DoJ/intel community that Trump had routinely failed to return classified materials after being presented with them? What happened with the logs that were kept of SCIF restricted documents, that showed highly sensitive materials were removed but never returned? Did no one in the Intel Community say anything about what those logs showed, once “because he is the President” was no longer an implied threat should anyone make a fuss.”

      • Badger Robert says:

        Thanks to Peterr for an excellent post.
        Ed’s question has also been on my mind. The FBI should now be preceding with in the interviews to determine the when and the how and the who, in producing this assemblage of documents. That is the part that is inseparable from questions about what were the contents and what did the proper custodian do when he/she did not get the document back.
        Who was co-operating with Trump and constitutes a continuing risk, and who was intimidated and could be intimidated again?

      • GlennDexter says:

        I’ve been thinking that an indictment if indicated might not occur if something in the Top Secret category has been shared.
        How could the DOJ reveal the importance or detail of the information without also revealing what it contains?

        • Drew in Bronx says:

          Marcy has discussed elsewhere the question of prosecutors finding “Goldilocks documents” in these cases, i.e. neither “too hot”-too sensitive for revealing under any circumstances, nor “too cold”-seemingly inconsequential and boring to a jury, so that they wouldn’t see the harm.

          Of course if the damage has already been done, that could move a ‘too hot’ document into the Goldilocks category. Some other documents could be shared with a jury but not the public and prosecutors have to decide how much risk to take.

          I do still wonder whether Trump will be offered a plea deal to keep from the mess a trial will cause. Of course, the smartest analysis is that Trump is too stubborn to take a plea. Mostly I agree, but if Trump’s lawyers are pretty certain that he would get convicted on all charges AND those charges are so severe that he couldn’t be kept out of prison otherwise (even given the deference Trump would probably get even if convicted), Trump might decide to plead to mishandling documents and being restricted to Mar a Lago or some such rather than opting for an orange jumpsuit.

    • KM Williams says:

      “The other thing to consider is how Individual-1 was able to so completely flout the rules regarding the handling, without anyone apparently raising the alarm-”

      Perhaps all the bending-over-backwards by the Fed Gov was to try and keep Trump from spreading damaging information he had. Blackmail of the Executive Branch would be right up his alley. He may have hoped to evade investigation or any charges by keeping Secret documents up his sleeve.

    • matt fischer says:

      Maybe I’m missing part of your point, Rugger9, but there’s no doubt that alarms were raised (that was reported for years). What evidence is there that those entrusted with the security of classified documents didn’t at least try to do their jobs to the best of their ability? That Trump apparently found a way to abscond with many documents simply does not count.

      At risk of being a broken record, talk of rules not being enforced while Trump was President shouldn’t ignore the fact that the incumbent is vested with plenary authority over the Executive Branch.

      Trump could assert a need-to-know over any Executive Branch document, and could handle such documents in any matter he deemed fit, without there being anyone else in the Executive Branch to stop him. (The other two branches didn’t stop him either.)

      Fortunately for the United States, his authority ended at noon on January 20, 2021. May we soon be rid of him and survive his aftermath.

      • Rugger9 says:

        No, Individual-1 never had ‘plenary’ authority on classified docs, NDI or restricted information (which by law belongs strictly to the NRC who must explicitly approve any declassification). That’s a MAGA-apologist stance, Trump already lost at the 11th CA with that argument, and we don’t tolerate BS like that here. Go back to watching Faux.

        • matt fischer says:

          I would prefer you address my points rather than casting aspersions. Please name whom you expected to contradict Trump’s authority over the control of those documents while he was incumbent.

        • matt fischer says:

          Please correct me if I’m off base, but I don’t really think I’ve stated anything controversial.

          I simply asserted that practically speaking there was no one within the Executive Branch with the power to stop Trump from performing misdeeds.

          That was especially true when his actions could conceivably have been interpreted as him executing the prerogatives of his office.

          I guess I should add an obvious point, because Rugger9 seems intent on mistaking my larger point, that Trump appears to have simultaneously broken the law while executing those prerogatives.

        • massappeal says:

          I’m no expert, but just from following the news it seems pretty clear that there were numerous people within the executive branch “with the power to stop Trump from performing misdeeds.”

          First, there were the people and situations where there were legal constraints on Trump’s actions. Again, I’ll let my betters discuss and debate what those laws are, what those situations were, and which times others in the executive branch did or did not act, effectively or ineffectively, to stop Trump from breaking the law.

          Then there are all the misdeeds that are legal that others could, and sometimes did, prevent Trump from accomplishing. One example: the confrontation in the Oval Office when the entire DOJ leadership threatened to resign if Trump appointed Jeffrey Clark as attorney general.

          It’s an axiom in some organizing and political circles that “people tend to give away power more than it’s taken”. There were numerous occasions during his presidency (another example: on Jan. 6 when the Secret Service forced him back to the White House after his speech) when Trump’s appointees and other executive branch officials exercised their power to prevent “misdeeds.” It’s to their lasting shame, and the country’s lasting damage, that more of them didn’t do it more often.

        • matt fischer says:

          I take your point.

          The power to which you refer is distinct from the specific authority I was trying to address: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

        • Ken Muldrew says:

          A better example is the Zelensky call. Trump was found to be acting against the interests of the United States. His behavior was reported and an attempt was made to bring him in to line.

          He was *not* stopped.

        • bidrec says:

          I agree with you based on my experience and a couple of books; one fiction, The Caine Mutiny; and the other non-fiction, The Arnheiter Affair. Disagreeing with President Trump would be mutinous.

      • Tom R. says:

        The comment by by matt fischer is mostly correct. If we add the proviso that we are talking about non-nuclear classified documents, it becomes fully correct. WaPo is reporting that
        a document containing foreign nuclear information was seized, but the lion’s share is non-nuclear. In contrast, the pugnacious reply is mostly incorrect.

        In fact:

        — The sitting president does have plenary authority over non-nuclear classified documents, as specified in Sec. 1.3(1) of the Executive Order. In particular, he can classify and declassify stuff. Perhaps more to the point, even without declassifying anything, the sitting president can authorize himself to carry classified documents from his office to his residence.

        — The NRC has no authority over the vast majority of classified documents. Their authority is limited to nuclear Restricted Data.

        — Even within the nuclear realm, decisions do not “strictly” belong to the NRC. The statute (§§ 2162 and 2164) provides a role for the DoD and the president, as well as the NRC.

        — In practice we wind up with the Cartesian product of the classification “level” (defined by the Executive Order) and the Restricted Data “category” (defined by the Atomic Energy Act). This is spelled out by DoE here.

    • zentropy says:

      If we’re really lucky, all of this was “sugar-trap” material; knowingly fed to Trump during his time in office to see if he’d leak it, and verifiable through other intelligence means. That may explain why they had “reason to believe” he had documents at MAL; they saw evidence that certain specific elements made their way into the food chain.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        I believe Trump used his platform with Hannity strategically. His words about the “Russia Hoax,” the “Ukraine Hoax” and “spying on my campaign” indicated that among the documents we (or FBI) will find the Carter Page FISA warrant and whichever other papers Trump believes prove his grievances had factual basis. He wants them back the way a toddler wants his baby blankie, for comfort (or as Peterr puts it, ego). He is aggrieved! He is Plaintiff!

        His insistence that the FBI “planted evidence,” however, strikes me as purely strategic. Knowing the public will learn that investigators found truly bad things, Trump has previewed his defense (pre-indictment, probably not on advice of counsel): “They”/Biden’s DOJ put it there themselves just to make “President Trump” look bad. In other words, he is doing the planting–of an idea that makes him “innocent.”

        He sounded incoherent. He sniffled. Don’t be fooled. He is stuffing as much delicious cake into himself as he can, gambling that there will always be more where that came from, Judge Dearie notwithstanding.

  4. Southern Exposure says:

    Who pays for all of this work and review? It will certainly run into the tens of millions given IANAL and I appreciate all of the collective wisdom on this site. Does the government need a criminal conviction where they recover these costs through fines and/or restitution or can they launch a separate civil suit (something along the lines of “even though we did/didn’t find evidence that your actions resulted in the exposure of these documents, the resources expended to determine that were extensive and were the result of your negligent handling of those documents”)? Thanks in advance for entertaining the question.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Of course this is coming out of the budgets of the agencies making up the IC. But there is some ancillary value in doing this kind of review, and I bet it’s a regular part of their SOPs.

      • Southern Exposure says:

        Can this money be recovered through civil action against Trump if his criminal penalties (assuming conviction) are insufficient to cover it. Or if he is not convicted, if negligence (the civil kind, not the criminal kind) could be proven if that actionable to recover the costs from Trump?

  5. bbleh says:

    A really nice rundown of the … really scary and dangerous situation that idiot and his equally idiotic enablers have put the country in.

    (And FWIW, my bet is on door #5, and I consider it a virtual certainty that even TFG himself does not know what he squirreled away over four years, since he operates primarily on impulse and instinct, which means in turn we likely NEVER will know the full extent of what has or may have been compromised.)

    • Mary McCurnin says:

      There might have been humans in the WH that knew exactly what Russia or other countries wanted. I wonder how much work has been done by the current administration to clean up this mess.

  6. Bobby Gladd says:

    “we likely NEVER will know the full extent of what has or may have been compromised.”

    More broadly, I am skeptical that we will ever know the extent of all of the taxpayers’ money Trump, his family, and his inner circle have stolen during his time in office (and afterward).

    It is all rather depressing.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Superb summary, effortlessly readable, with an important ending:

    The panel of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and Special Master Raymond Dearie are focused on what Judge Cannon does not want to recognize: this is not a case about misfiled documents, but a national security case in which documents hold the key to assessing the dangers posed and actual damage done to our nation, so that the current government can begin to address it.

    Until we know differently, we have to assume the damage is continuing. Fixing it, in part, depends on the goodwill of our foreign counterparts and the continuing service of some of Trump’s appointees. The former is uncertain, the latter, perilous. And that’s before we get to Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.

    The cost of fixing this and the lost opportunities we’ll have to live with make Trump’s prior grifting on the US taxpayer seem like the cost of a packet of bubblegum. If Ron DeSantis wins in 2024, all this will be shoved down the memory hole, and he’ll blame the Democrats for it.

    • Peterr says:


      And your “fixing it” comment is spot on, though I’d add one more thing to it that needs to be fixed. Persuading someone in a foreign country to cooperate with us and feed us intelligence has always been a tricky thing to pull off, but after the last four years and this document mess at Mar-a-Lago, recruiting sources like these will be exponentially harder. The best outcome right now is that these potential sources will turn to the Germans, Brits, Canadians, etc. instead of to the US. The worst outcome is that they won’t be sources to anyone at all in the West, all because of this mishandling of secrets by Donald J. Trump, erstwhile president.

      • KM Williams says:

        “The worst outcome is that they won’t be sources to anyone at all in the West, all because of this mishandling of secrets by Donald J. Trump, erstwhile president.”

        There is also the (fairly accurate) impression that nobody in the US Government ever tried to stop Trump doing these potentially treasonous criminal actions, or admits to being aware of what he was up to, during or after his stint in office.
        It took 18 months after Trump left office for the FBI to finally search for these documents, so far in only one location. I can imagine another country thinking “What incompetent fools these Americans are!” Or worse.

        • P J Evans says:

          NARA has been trying to get them back for most of the last 18 months – the FBI wasn’t called in until this year (but before June).

        • timbo says:

          I agree with you. Many other countries have a different legal standard that applies to these sorts of things, and different governmental institutions built up over time, etc. Our Federal system, built up and ripened over time, is unique in the world basically.

          Perhaps a Napoleonic legal system better for the US do you think? Or, perhaps we should go with a parliamentary legislative body as opposed to our House and Senate law generating bodies? And let’s not forget that there are many places in the world that are run by dictators, one party rule, etc, the so-called strongmen that Trump sometimes plays at emulating… Which of these do you favor? Or do you have your own unique ideas to present on how this could have moved quicker and still have maintained the delicate balance of rules and laws built up over time? Which institutions need more checks in our society? And which less?

      • notjonathon says:

        There may be worries about the British government as well, given that the Tories (at a minimum) have gone full kleptocracy, and once they have stripped the UK of its assets, the politicians may well start looking for other sources of income.

    • Becker says:

      If Ron DeSantis wins in 2024 our democracy will experience greater peril than it did under Trump. He is trump, but more disciplined, patient and smarter. Therefore even more dangerous.

      • Valerie Klyman-Clark says:

        But is he though? The brouhaha he created with The Mouse (what Did ever happen with his punishing Disney for their supposed “wokeness”?) And the migrant plane stunt? Is that horror really and truly playing well to the GOP’s base?

        • bjet says:

          But is he punishing Disney. It’s not DeSantis who is “more disciplined, patient and smarter. Therefore even more dangerous” than Trump on that side of the political matrix here (I refuse to speak credulously of “polarization”). That dynamic was painfully obvious in the summer of 2015.

    • Tom R. says:

      A lot of the damage is already done, and is simply not fixable at any price, for the reasons that Peterr spelled out.

      I would add that prediction markets suggest that Spanky has about a 33% chance of returning to office in 2½ years, as selfish and reckless as ever, bearing an enormous grudge against the entire intelligence community.

      If I were a US intelligence officer or asset, I would be sprinting toward the exit.

    • Chirrut Imwe says:

      “Superb summary, effortlessly readable” – I could not have said it better myself. Thanks, Peterr – excellent job!

    • rip says:

      Cannon and the rest of that type of people will act like they never read commentary such as this. They’ll pretend that their FedSoc blinders are perfect.

      However, everyone that knows them, including family/children, may not be blinded to these types of misdeeds. May not help in the next 10 years, but will be a factor later on.

  8. The Original Alan says:

    Add to that list: Documents about projects Trump wants to continue or resume in the future.

    In other words, Trump had some balls in the air when he got voted out, so he took that material home so he can continue that work when he has an opportunity.

    [I am letting your comment through with the proviso you change your username one more final time because you are NOT the original Alan as your comments only go back to 2018. You may remain Alan-somethingorother provided you salt the name Alan with a minimum of four more letters and the resulting name is unique. /~Rayne]

  9. Marji Campbell says:

    Excellent analysis, and agree, this is really dangerous scary stuff. I think it’s #5, all of the options, but I was surprised that you didn’t mention that he might get paid yugely to sell secrets to others. Also, I think I read somewhere but haven’t seen it since, that someone reported that he liked to wave around the TS docs to show off at MaL. This is all so freakin strange!

    • Clare Kelly says:

      “3: Greed

      Given Trump’s proclivity to monetize anything he can for his own personal gain, it is hard to imagine that Trump would not be looking at anything that crossed his desk to see how he might make money on it.”
      (This piece)

  10. RJames says:

    No mater what happens as we go forward, I think perhaps the greatest damage has already been done. I don’t see how we go back to where we were with our security allies. Any future cooperation has got to now be tainted with the knowledge of what has already happened.

    • Peterr says:

      I wouldn’t say the greatest damage, but damage has certainly been done, quite apart for whatever might have been revealed. How we respond will help determine whether that damage gets repaired or it spirals down the drain. If we don’t handle this well, that will make the earlier damage even worse. For instance, imagine that among the disclosures was the identity of a CIA agent who handles the collection of intelligence from a deep source within a hostile government. . . .

      Worst case: Suppose our agent also has contacts with her counterpart in an ally’s intelligence service. If we *don’t* tell our ally that our agent may have been compromised, theirs may get rolled up by the hostile government when they come for ours, and our allies [plural!] will be pissed as hell.

      Best case: Suppose we tell our ally about our about-to-be-blown agent, and also tell them about our deep source within the hostile government. Together, we arrange to pull our agent out while at the same time (unknown to our blown agent) arrange with the source to report to a new contact of our ally’s intelligence service over to them before we yank our agent out and they pull their possibly blown agent out as well. Trusting our ally with a deep source is not something anyone does lightly, but it would be seen as a strong gesture of cooperation that might help heal some of the nonsense set in motion by Trump.

      • RJames says:

        I also wonder if any legislative remedies, which could also go a ways in ameliorating the situation, would possible at this time. Any real changes would be an admission of the seriousness of what Trump has done and I don’t see Republicans getting on board for that.

        • punaise says:

          Rummy got this right, although in the service of grand misdeeds:

          “…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know….”

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Rumsfeld was also known to write on official documents, as in his notation on one of the torture memos where he dismissed the notion of forced standing as torture by claiming that he himself stood for (IIRC) 8-10 hours a day. I can remember his handwriting as if I just saw it yesterday.

    • Rayne says:

      We the public don’t know that other countries have had similar intelligence failures. Jeepers, look at the UK with former PM Johnson slipping his security team in 2018 to go off to a party in Italy with former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. You think FVEYs’ intelligence community as a whole might not have been quietly freaking out about this event?

      • RJames says:

        I have no doubt that there have been other failures that the public know nothing about. However, I lament that this is our failure and a very public one at that.

      • Tom-1812 says:

        In May of 2008 Maxime “Mad Max” Bernier was forced to resign as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Stephen Harper’s government after he left a package of classified NATO briefing notes at the home of his ex-girlfriend, Ms. Julie Couillard. Apparently, Bernier didn’t even realize the documents were missing until five weeks later when Ms. Couillard arranged for a lawyer to return the missing file. Ms. Couillard was well-known for her past relationships with members of the Rockers, an affiliate club of the Hell’s Angels in Montreal. Bernier is now head of the far right-wing People’s Party of Canada

  11. Elvishasleftthebuilding says:

    I have seen nothing anywhere in all of these discussions about the wonderful TurboScan program. During the pandemic, using Turbo Scan I was able to scan pristine copies of documents and process them – send them to people around the world. It takes about 5 minutes to scan and send a 10 page document. If I wasn’t a luddite, I’m sure I could go faster.

    We do know that Trump has a smart phone and is good at using it – probably better than me. It would seem to be pretty self evident that a lot could have been scanned and a lot could have been sent with very little trouble . . . whether this would be detectable is another question. I am a little surprised that the FBI would not attempt to seize his phones – but perhaps that would be ratcheting things up more than is justified.

    • Peterr says:

      The FBI would need probable cause that a specific crime — sharing classified materials — had been committed, and that evidence of the crime would be on that phone. They may fear that this has happened, but having evidence of that is another story.

      • Retired guy says:

        Another speculation on potential copies: say perhaps summer of 2021, the dead season at MAL, when the former guy (and SS) was away, facility managers sent the staff home for a holiday weekend except for security. Two guys could be let in with a couple suitcases, methodically scan the classifieds and other material, and depart with a hard drive. It could be a very small number of people involved for a few hours; all you would need is someone loyal to organize it with TFGs approval.

        Some of Peterr’s awful alternatives might indicate this level of preparation. .

        By summer 2021, TFG would have known NARA was trying to get stuff back, and the potential for related investigations. The fight to get his documents back might just be misdirection, an excuse to complain and be in the news, as well as marketing what he has had to a worldwide audience.

        I have no evidence this happened. However, If a person had a bunch of documents that contained valuable information, and people were trying to take them away, making a backup is sensible practice. Doing this with classified documents would clearly illegal to any normal people involved, though.

  12. Pacific says:

    Given past reports of Trump using nonpublic information as leverage to coerce others to take certain actions or to refrain from taking certain actions, it is possible Trump collected government secrets for use as leverage.

  13. Tom-1812 says:

    This is the time of year when the squirrels and chipmunks in my neighbourhood begin burying stashes of acorns in their scattered underground burrows and hidey-holes for the coming winter. I have a mental image of Trump doing the same thing with his stolen documents, using them as a hedge against possible future financial and/or legal catastrophe. Not a major cache of documents as at MAL, but a few files here and a few files there secreted away and spread across his various properties for Trump to retrieve in case of emergency in order to trade for money or influence.

    • RJames says:

      Easier to move around than gold and harder to trace than currency. A few choice documents could be folded up and put in an envelope. You could stash that at any safe deposit box(es) in the world.

    • Badger Robert says:

      The investigation will try to pinpoint what else is still missing. The FBI is going to be asking many custodians, what else was not returned to you? People will be under enormous pressure to not become part of the conspiracy to violate 18 USC 793.

    • Bobster33 says:

      Your comment focuses on the places where these scattered acorns are stashed. What about the people who may have obtained copies? I can imagine TFG giving Roger Stone or Paul Manifort copies. When you add in the next part, the real fun begins.

    • LaMissy says:

      Estimates vary, but seem to indicate that squirrels forget where they’ve buried their tasty nuts somewhere between 10%-50% of the time. Given Trumpy’s recent interviews in which he asserted he recently had dinner with Mark Zuckerberg at the WH and he’d declassified douments by thinking about it, one must wonder whether TFG’s range isn’t in the upper levels.

  14. Paulka says:

    Excellent analysis, but I think you are missing a likely alternative-blackmail. It is highly suspect, the way many of the republicans have acted/reacted to Trump’s actions. Given that is nearly a given that Trump has cameras in all of his various hotel rooms and history of possible blackmail (I believe I read the other day that Trump blackmailed or tried to blackmail Christie Todd Whitman over her son getting drunk in a Trump hotel room), I would imagine that it is highly likely that some of the documents contain compromising information on some political figures. Admittedly the source being official USG documents, makes this a little less likely, but the possible pocket pardon of Stone would imply some pressure Trump can put on Stone.

    • Valerie Klyman-Clark says:

      Kompromat was the very first thing that sprang to mind when I heard about the cache. Lil’ sumpin’ sumpin’ in there about Kevin, Lindsey, Ted, et al? Might go a ways in explaining their 180s regarding TFG, but what do I know. It does seem like more than power and money at stake from where I’m seated in the peanut gallery.

      • dadidoc1 says:

        Please include Senator James Lankford on your kompromat list. He was all set to certify the alternate slate of electors until it was clear that Vice President Pence was still alive and the coup had failed.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        I had kompromat (including extortion and blackmail) in Peterr’s corruption category. Aren’t these the tools of corruption?

    • JohnJ says:

      Since Bush the lesser, many politicians have abruptly done a 180 on their former positions publicly, to the point of absurdity, to suddenly tow the party line.

      I have suspected blackmail has become a common tool of the republican party for years.

  15. pdaly says:

    Great break down of the approach to this intelligence review.

    I agree with others who suspect (no proof to date) that Trump squirreled things away at his other properties. But for now, limiting discussion to documents from Mar-a-Lago: 3 tranches were liberated from MAL and returned to NARA: a large one in Jan 2022, a small one in June 2022 and then the most recent one 8/8/22 when the FBI removed the remaining (we hope) documents with a legal search warrant.

    I wonder if Trump regretted the losses in Jan and June? Or is there a pattern to documents that were returned early vs retrieved by the FBI later?

    Was Trump involved in pruning the returns of those documents in Jan 2022 and June 2022, so that the 8/8/22 tranche of documents represent a Trump-curated concentrated collection of NDI records?
    Or if one assumes Trump was selling secrets, then maybe some of the 8/8/22 tranche of documents contain documents that had yet to be monetized, whereas previously returned documents already had served their purpose or had aged past a useful date?

    Finally, destruction of documents would be part of the intelligence review. I imagine Trump would not let survive any document in his possession that proved Trump’s lies. No risk of sharing in that case, but how the intelligence services can determine whether a document was merely destroyed as opposed to given away, I have no idea.

    • RJames says:

      As to destruction of documents, I can’t for the life of me understand why he kept empty folders, assuming their contents were no longer around.

      • pdaly says:

        True. It suggests the documents were being used (if not destroyed), or, more alarming, that someone found the folder and made off with the documents while leaving the folder behind.

        • P J Evans says:

          More likely, once they were out of the folder, he couldn’t figure out which folder they went in. (And he may not have understood why they have folders. Remember, he’s never worked for a business that wasn’t owned by his family.)

        • Kennygauss says:

          Sorry Rayne if wrong username
          I am astounded that high class docs could be so readily available to anyone!

          [I assume you’re sticking with Kennygauss here forward. It’s on you to remember your username; you may have difficulty reverting to another older name. Thanks. /~Rayne]

        • JohnJ says:

          Autofill once exposed my real name here.
          Not a big deal to me, as long as nobody here starts singing that damned song.

  16. Thomas says:

    Very insightful article.

    I had some different thoughts.

    First, the classified documents almost certainly were examined forensically to develop physical evidence that can tell us more about where they have been, and when, and who handled them.

    It is my opinion that this must have been the first thing that was done with them, and that sorting them according to category, operation, personnel and sequence would have been done simultaneously or immediately after.

    Where did these records belong? What records, related to them, never left the custody of the US government? Are there records missing, that are sequentially adjacent to them?

    What operations and personnel are associated with these records? Where are they now? What are they doing now? Did the operations and personnel change subsequent to the theft of the records? How? Why?

    How did these classified records get into Trump’s hands? We have assumed that Trump gathered them, kept them, and then absconded with them when he left office.

    But what if he obtained them in more than one way? What if he obtained some of them after he left office? How did that happen, if it happened?

    How did Trump obtain the records? Who had custody of them before he did? Did other Administration officials squirrel away records for him and give them to him later?

    There was reporting, during the “Cannon order” period, that the DOJ had not yet determined if they have recovered all the records, and that Cannon’s order interrupted that process, so I believe that the DOJ/IC had not gotten through all of the questions that I list above about category and sequence, and that they are still attempting to find answers to those questions through document examination and an intelligence assessment.

    I agree that they would certainly need to answer the questions raised in this article, BUT in order to develop the next investigative steps, they also need to know as many possible answers to the questions that I have raised.

    Some answers can be gained from forensics and examination of other related records. Knowing those answers will enable investigators to ask more of the questions that they need to ask. And it will inform them about WHO they need to ask.

    It is too dangerous to assume that only Trump himself is responsible. His accomplices, if any, must also be investigated. We cannot assume that other actors simply caved to Trump’s demands to keep the records, instead of being willing traitors themselves.

    Trump may have tasked others to get the records for him, and those individuals may still be a threat to national security. They may still be inside the government.

    Trump attempted to seed various perches inside the government with his stooges. Republican Senators delayed and obstructed the appointment of Biden’s officials, especially inside the DOJ.

    Since Trump had an interest in the clandestine possession of our top secrets, why wouldn’t he try to cultivate traitors to feed him such information even after he left office?

    Trump placed stooges on the board that oversees NARA! Trump also put political “minders” in various government agencies.

    • Peterr says:

      There was reporting, during the “Cannon order” period, that the DOJ had not yet determined if they have recovered all the records, and that Cannon’s order interrupted that process, so I believe that the DOJ/IC had not gotten through all of the questions that I list above about category and sequence, and that they are still attempting to find answers to those questions through document examination and an intelligence assessment.

      Two thoughts:

      1) Got a link for that?

      2) The DOJ people who carried out the search warrant produced a report of items seized that was signed by Christina Bobb, listing everything they took pursuant to the search warrant. Judge Cannon did not get involved until four days later.

    • bbleh says:

      Re “the classified documents almost certainly were examined forensically to develop physical evidence that can tell us more about where they have been, and when, and who handled them,” there was indeed reporting via multiple MSM sources that at least some of them were being examined for latent fingerprints toward precisely that end, or at least toward knowing that someone NOT identified had handled them.

      This whole thing makes my head hurt. That a president could behave this way. OMG…

  17. Ddub says:

    Great read.
    My hope is that some people in the IC community, knowing TFG was an unacceptable risk, did small modifications to copies, daily briefings to help in identification in future. Wishful thinking. Don’t know what they call this.

  18. OldTulsaDude says:

    The only quibble I have is with the prepositional phrase “at Mar-a-Lago”.

    …in Trump’s possession. Full stop.

  19. MT Reedør says:

    If we are going to rank them, Question 1 is: How do make sure we get everything back?
    2 is: How do we stop them from being disseminated, or if not, track where they go? Clock is ticking.

    • Tom R. says:

      You will never know that you have regained control of the information. Even if you managed to claw back all the hardcopies, you would never know whether unauthorized copies were made at some point.

  20. Ddub says:

    I watched the Hannity, Trump interview. One thing that stood out to me is that he mentioned the USSS twice to my recollection, always in the context that their presence in and of itself would provide adequate security. What it seems to make them is the nexus of the investigation. The USSS FPOTUS Trump detail and whoever controlled the CC cameras if different.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Interesting, especially given the well-documented lapses on the part secret service agents on the presidential detail (and in command) in January 2021. That agency had already become riddled with an incestuous culture of infighting resulting in major security issues during Obama’s terms, and Trump made it into a sub-cult of (his own) personality. (Carol Leonnig reports on all of this in meticulous detail in Zero Fail, a book whose title is intended with wrenching irony.) Whichever agents remain at MAL in 2022, I would imagine Trump believes them loyal to him, not just in the standard USSS way but totally MAGA.

      • JohnJ says:

        There was a story about Obama’s classified travel routes and itinerary found in some European country’s gutter. I remember thinking it was the SS firing a warning shot at him.

        I will see if I can find it.

  21. Doctor My Eyes says:

    Thanks everyone for a wonderful, stimulating conversation. It’s frustrating that a high percentage of it must be speculation. If things go well for the US, we’ll never know the answer to many of our questions.

    If there weren’t senior members of the Intelligence services severely disturbed by, and reacting to, the danger Trump clearly posed to national security by at least 2018, then we’ve got big troubles. I would think spies would know how to assess risk based on psychology and behavior. I am curious about what was happening inside these agencies, if civil servants were hiding documents to protect from Trump, for example. I even wonder if anyone planted false information in order to test for leaks. Were there bureaucratic power struggles?

    I’ve been wondering why Trump didn’t destroy documents and cover his tracks. It occurred to me that he may well have needed to keep his trophies, and anyway, he can never imagine that he’ll actually be held to account for anything.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

    • Thomas says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that the IC fed Trump some kind of fake intel—
      Because that is a tactic that they use to sniff out moles.

      • quickbread says:

        I’ve been wondering the exact same thing. I wondered if TFG shared fake intel and it became evident in some fashion, prompting the potential espionage charge.

        [Totally unrelated (most probably), I’ve often wondered where the bad intel came from that gave Putin such mistaken confidence that he could take over Ukraine in a handful of days. Wherever it came from, he had enough faith in it to stake his entire legacy on it.]

  22. David F. Snyder says:

    1. Any good guesses as to why Stone’s pardon is classified?

    2. How is it that Trump has this magic ability to turn plausibly intelligent people such as Cannon into idiots?

    • Thomas says:

      There are likely six different kinds of documents that were seized in the Mar a Lago search:
      1. Classified records that had classified markings.
      2. Presidential Records that are not likely to be classified, but they belong to the National Archives.
      3. Personal records of Trump’s that are not privileged, AND are evidence of crimes.
      4. Personal records of Trump’s that WOULD be privileged (attorney client) IF they were not evidence of crimes.
      5. Personal records of Trump’s that are privileged, and not evidence of crimes.
      6. Personal records of Trump’s that are not privileged nor evidence of crimes.

      Roger Stone’s clemency is likely category number 2.

      As for Cannon, there are some examples of unqualified crackpots that Republicans, including Trump, put on the bench.

      We are lucky that this is not the case for all of them. Chris Krebs, the Trump appointee to ERISA, and Chris Wray, the FBI Director are two good examples of people Trump appointed who are not unqualified crackpots.

  23. Randy Baker says:

    I think you cogently show Trump’s possession of these documents very possibly has had, and may continue to have, unconscionable implications for U.S. foreign policy, and for world peace — such as there is. DOJ’s response to Judge Cannon’s decision to impede any possible mitigation of such damage certainly seems to have been properly aggressive and compelling.
    What I still cannot understand is why, given the potential stakes, it took DOJ 6 months to get a search warrant, given the archives established Trump had this stuff and that demonstrating probable cause does not even require showing it more likely than not the evidence/or contraband is at the location to be searched.

    • timbo says:

      It’s complicated. No doubt books will be written about why this has dragged out as long as it has…

      Let’s see…there’s the Congresses impeachments and investigations, the DOJ being busy trying to pursue several different issues where they could move forward more quickly, the lack of clarify about what was and was not missing from NARA, the inability to look at sealed PRA records which Twitler refused to permit, his specious claims of executive privilege, etc.

      Once FBI finally had gotten permission from NARA to look at documents (this past May), things started moving quickly though. June another packet of documents were turned over to national security investigators by Trump. But the investigation continued. At some point between early June and the affidavit in support of a search and seizure warrant being issued, probable cause was established that permitted application for a broad seizure of government records and physically relational objects at Mar-a-Lago. So, really, between May and August is the time line in which DOJ and FBI investigators was able to move on this thing in earnest.

      And now we’ve seen how much of this investigation has been bogged down by wonky interference from a federal judge and much bullcrap from Trump himself. Basically, the investigation has been set back another month already and likely two more months on top of that going forward, at least with regard to the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago that do not have USG classification markings.

      That all having been said, I agree with you, this could have moved quicker in almost all respects. But not under the institutional system of checks and balances that supposedly protect all of our rights under the Bill of Rights and Constitution… as currently interpreted by the Federal court system… as currently often deferred to by US law enforcement organs. What we see here is how one individual, backed by lawyers willing to cause delay at every turn, with a seemingly conscientious Federal and state level court systems, can stymie multiple significant investigations into possible conspiracies and crimes that to most of us appear to be in plain view.

      Perhaps you agree with me that such a system of governance and laws, bogged down, will become even more ineffective at maintaining itself as time wears on? In the case at hand, we shall see. If it takes more than four years to hold to account Presidents and former Presidents, flaunting laws on a whim, backed by at least one major political party, etc, then the grand Enterprise of the US Constitution is certainly at great risk of being a cooked goose. And I imagine that those who seek to tear down the US are hoping that is the case. But we shall see. Perhaps, like Brazil’s central government, the US Federal system can sustain much more open corruption than is already apparent…?

      • Randy Baker says:

        I am 100% for DOJ scrupulously respecting the law and Constitution. What concerns me is that when DOJ learned in Feb 2022 that Trump had taken national security matter to Mara Lago that he had no lawful right to possess, there already was probable cause [not proof beyond a reasonable doubt] to believe in so doing he had committed a serious crime. If any other person had possessed such documents [even a person who at one time lawfully possessed them], and then belatedly and indeed reluctantly returned them, that person would have been arrested. Accordingly, at minimum, particularly given the potential risks created thereby, the FBI immediately should have subjected the Donald and all likely to have relevant knowledge of that taking to questioning about who, what, when and why — and whether any documents still had not been returned. That they failed to do sure looks to me like DOJ placed deference to a rich and powerful white guy above national security, and the constitutional mandate that the law is to be applied impartially.

        • Peterr says:

          I disagree with your conclusion that the DOJ failed to immediately interview Trump and others. The DOJ learned in February that Trump had had classified documents at Mar-a-Lago when NARA told them about what was in the boxes of materials returned to them in January. At that point, the DOJ began looking at this, including whether there might be additional classified documents.

          At some later date in the Spring, as a result of their hidden-from-the-public investigative work, the DOJ developed information telling them it was likely that Trump had more classified materials than those turned over to NARA. They brought their conclusion to Trump’s Custodian of Records, and asked/demanded they be returned by late May. Trump’s team asked for an extension, and then DOJ sent their highest ranking national security lawyer to receive what was being turned over. In the course of that visit, they also saw things that disturbed them, including the lack of proper security for these documents.

          We don’t know what the DOJ did or didn’t do between February and June, because that’s how investigations work. All we know is that there were conversations back and forth about the ongoing issue of returning *all* the records that should have been sent to the archives, because those conversations have been referenced in various filings related to the search warrant.

          And one more thing about criminal investigations: if you start by interviewing the person you think did something criminal, you may not know enough to ask the right questions, and you also may spook them into covering things up and making your investigation more difficult.

          When the DOJ got a search warrant in August, that was when the DOJ made it public that this was a criminal investigation, with the crimes of espionage and obstruction named in court. That’s also when Trump realized he was in much deeper trouble than an argument about taking souvenirs home from his White House days. But a lot had to happen — much of which remains redacted in that warrant application — to get to that point.

        • Randy Baker says:

          One crucial fact we do know, because it is recited in the National Archives Letter to Trump’s agent dated May 10, 2022, is that the FBI did not even begin to examine the classified documents they learned in February Trump had taken, until May 2022. One would imagine the same urgent concerns attendant to the additional documents recovered in August also were operative as to those classified documents and yet the government deferred. Given there was probable cause those documents were evidence of a crime, and executive privilege is inapplicable in such cases, the notion that the delay was due to executive privilege concerns — rather than trying to assuage a rich and powerful white guy is difficult to swallow. Again, people’s lives and relatedly U.S. foreign policy may have been increasingly jeopardized with each additional day of delay in tracking down who had learned the contents of those documents.

        • timbo says:

          This entire process got rolling publicly on August 25, 2021, when the Congress finally got its J6 Committee up and running. On that day, Congress requested PRA covered documents from NARA…

          Until that date, it is unclear that anyone had even started to look for these documents, although Congress, as outlined in the pdf here, had previously done so on at least two prior occasions. What was happening at NARA with regard to PRA covered records between Jan 20, 2021 and late 2021 isn’t all that clear.

          Along with the things that are not clear is whether or not NARA even had a handle on what the did and didn’t have. And also not clear is if they knew they didn’t have some of the PRA covered records they were supposed to have, whether or not they’d contacted the Justice Department or other USG agencies about the lack of records.

        • Randy Baker says:

          It seems to me the job of law enforcement belongs to DOJ, not NARA. DOJ was on notice about these top secrets documents no late than Feb. 2022. It’s difficult to see how any failure to investigate from that point on would not fall on DOJ.

        • Thomas says:

          You raise some important critiques of the US republican system.

          My opinion is that the modern corporate system is the same kind of systemic evil as the aristocratic title system that is specifically prohibited in the US constitution, and that it must be reformed for the same reasons that the noble title system was abolished: it enables an authoritarian oligarchy with a financial stranglehold on the economy.

          My view is that we need a broader and more inclusive form of capitalism (with some socialist features) and we need a more democratic system of capital formation, and we need corporate entities that have internal republican checks and balances.
          The oligarchy really needs to be a culture of the BEST, and not just the heirs of unearned wealth.

  24. PeterS says:

    My guess as to Trump’s motivation is primarily 2, Fear. He thought that if the documents got into the hands of any part of the Biden administration, including NARA, then Biden would leak the contents to the press or otherwise use them against him. Why did he think that? Because, of course, that’s what Trump would want to do in the reverse situation.

    But maybe I cling to 2 because it’s the least scary.

  25. GKJames says:

    For the “known unknowns” category, what next for the folders marked “classified” but empty of content? Hard to imagine that there won’t be some kind of process — civil or criminal — in which Trump will be asked to account for the missing contents.

  26. Marika says:

    What criminal exposure do they people Trump put into the WH who took over after late December who might have mishandled the classified docs? Would they be sources that could be turned against Trump?

    • Marika says:

      Sorry about all the typos, now that I am at a better keyboard, I was wondering if there will be people that Trump installed in the WH during the waning days of his presidency who mishandled classified docs that might be convinced to give up Trump’s reasons for wanting the docs in exchange for leniency for their own involvement.

    • Marika says:

      Trying to clean up the previous comment…Sorry about all the typos, now that I am at a better keyboard, I was wondering if there will be people that Trump installed in the WH during the waning days of his presidency who mishandled classified docs that might be convinced to give up Trump’s reasons for wanting the docs in exchange for leniency for their own involvement.

  27. BobCon says:

    To this very good writeup I want to repeat what I’ve said before that for the IC, the theft of documents is only a subset of a larger problem they have — the information that is in Trump’s head.

    This article from November 2020 gives a good outline of the issues:

    Trump won’t have memorized schematics of spy satellites. But he may well have retained incredibly useful information for targets — when did surveillance start (“I got this boring briefing right before I met the Alabama football team”) — how urgent was it (“I said I had to meet the guys, they said no, they needed a signoff right away”) — how detailed the program was (“they said they were throwing everything at it, satellites, drones, what’s the word, human assets, you name it.”) and more.

    Investigators want these documents in the same way that detectives would want to examine the apartment of a serial arsonist to try to figure out his grudges, fears and fascinations. It’s not just the details of one particular written Macron memo that they may want to contain — they’re trying to gauge the intensity of his Macron focus in general in order to figure out what he might leak from his own head.

    Historians of 1st Century Egypt do the same thing when they study documents — they’re not just looking at what a ruler might say in a particular document, they’re trying to put together a working theory of what mattered to him beyond just the words on the stele, and how they fit into a larger picture of evidence.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      BobCon, your allusion to a serial arsonist made me think Unabomber. Without, of course, that boring manifesto, because Trump never wrote anything more than 280 characters himself. Which may qualify as a Twitter-festo, or more recently Truthifesto, for investigators’ purposes.

  28. Jenny says:

    Thank you Peterr.
    All of the above. And vindictive.
    Disturbing are all the individuals who were enablers and complicit to classified files being removed from the WH. It took WH planning to steal, package and hide government classified files in a club basement.

  29. Legonaut says:

    Great work, Peterr. Thanks.

    Your analysis of Trump’s motivations for hoarding these documents strikes me as reminiscent of the classic motivations for spying (greed, ego, ideology, conscience, compromise). As in so many other ways, putting a weak person like Trump in the Oval Office highlights the flaws inherent in the system.

    After the long, hard work of the IC review is done, I think one of the conclusions will be that even (perhaps especially) the President cannot be absolutely trusted. For example:
    1) Briefers & couriers should not have to fear for their careers when they insist documents are returned to them. The Executive can have them whenever needed, but they don’t get to leave SCIF-designated areas with them. Termination of these individuals should be countersigned after review (DNI?)
    2) The WH positions governing secrets handling (e.g. Office of Staff Secretary/Office of Records Management) should have redundancies. These functions should not be vulnerable to a single individual’s resignation or termination. (If redundancies are exhausted, the DNI gets to appoint an acting ORM.)

    These are the kind of spitballs that’ll be much further refined after the IC review. In spite of not being a huge GHW Bush fan (or Shrub, for that matter), Senior did come up through the CIA and his experience at the intersection of the Executive and the IC would probably be illuminating.

  30. Leu2500 says:

    #3 is the new FBI HQ building.

    Trump interfered in the plan so that instead of building a new HQ in the suburbs & freeing up a block near his hotel for development the FBI had to rebuild on its current site.

    So definitely something Trump would do.

  31. tdr10 says:

    Many thanks to Peterr and other commenters for cogent analyses of this FUBAR situation, going both backwards and forwards. I have no special knowledge about the forensic or legal aspects of all this. But it occurs to me that one major motivation for Trump to conceal and abscond with records is Revenge. This idea certainly overlaps with Vanity, Fear, and possibly Corruption. But Trump can’t stand being called out as the lying, cheating loser that he so often is. Thinking, for example, about the “Russia, Russia, Russia Hoax”, I can easily imagine him carrying away whatever he thought would allow him to avoid blame and crush his oppressors. And of course, if true, there could be all sorts of records that are quite sensitive to IC methods and personnel.

    Also, FWIW, I think bbleh’s noting Trump’s cognitive/characterological make-up may be an important point. It’s obvious that he is lazy, impulsive, with scattered attention, driven by a limited number of (base) emotions, etc. So if indeed he was throwing stuff into boxes at the last minutes, or instructing others to do so, it could have been whatever piles he had on the WH dining room table. If so, this says to me that there’s all the more reason to search for more, perhaps unclassified, papers as quickly as possible–because who knows what might have been mixed in? I certainly doubt that he does.

  32. Taxesmycredulity says:

    Excellent analysis and summary, Peterr!

    Michael Cohen maintains TFG kept secret docs primarily as get-out-of-jail-free cards. He also includes TFG’s need to boast as another motivator, which fits with your category Vanity.

    Re the empty folders, it seems to me that regardless of who would have taken the contents, the perpetrator was not looking to advertise their activity. Classified folders being boldly colored and highly recognizable are not easily disguised, so whether it was theft by a foreign actor or club staff, or if it was TFG himself looking to better hide select docs, it makes sense to leave the folders behind.

    • skua says:

      Snapping photos with a burner cellphone and then using a secure messaging app to send the docs would be much less trouble. Then burn the originals and destroy the burner. And then there is nada for the Feds to find.

      But instead DJT has stayed with paper.

  33. mospeck says:

    Hopefully trump just flies off to his sugar daddy in Moscow and spares us the $100M prosecution. In the meantime folks are busy dying, “this is a different kind of war,” said Iryna Vereshchagina, a volunteer doctor working near the front lines. “We’re attacking the Russians but there’s a big payment for this.”She said that of the hundreds of battlefield casualties she has treated, she has not seen a single gunshot wound.“So many people are getting blown up,” she said. She looked down at her boots.“Sometimes,” she said, “there are just pieces of people left.”
    Young Ukrainian soldier joe bleeds out on the basement floor and a Ukrainian sniper takes out a Russian captain in a tee shirt from a mile away. It’s a Pulitzer for for sure (and thank God for spaceX)
    vlad, u killed so many already, so what’s a few more? No retreat from Kherson and you’re going just like big boots Joe did back in 42. Then after Joe won, he got the naming rights. And if u win then Kherson, it will be Putingrad. Otherwise it’s going to be something else entirely.
    Don’t u ever wonder if Nowhere man 65 influenced Everybody Knows this is Nowhere 69? I mean “the song as a whole is a 32-bar form, following the standard model of the Tin-pan Alley chorus, with a repeating 8-bar primary statement outlining the E-major chord, a third phrase (bars 17–42) forming a musical question (concluding on the dominant B), and a fourth phrase recapitulating the initial statement in E major. The primary statement begins with the chord of E (I tonic) on “He’s a real” and then involves a 5–4–3–2–1 pitch descent between the B (V dominant) chord on “nowhere man” and A (IV subdominant) chord on “sitting in”; a twist comes where Am (iv minor) replaces A in the final line (“nowhere plans”) and the simultaneous G♯ note melody creates a dissonant AmM7.[9] The bridge (a standard third-phrase “B” in the AABA form), which appears three times, seesaws on a G♯ minor/A major (iii–IV) sequence before falling back on an F♯ minor and leading back to the verse on a B7, as is typical of “Tin-pan alley” standard B sections. ”

      • mospeck says:

        nope, none, legalwise, no. sry bmaz, love u, but you’re an expert in a dying field (i know bec im one in a different one). You lawyer joes and sallies are the most important powers on the Earth. You got the responsibility to hold this whole thing together on this 1 rock we got right now. Bringing it en pointe legal beagle and faster while getting it mainly mostly right is a tall order and good luck w that. The main job seems to be to just hold the fort since there are lots of other worlds out there

  34. Drew in Bronx says:

    Thanks for the excellent piece. I’m pretty sure that 5 is the right answer–all of the above, since Trump is vain, greedy, fearful and corrupt at his core.

    Beyond the classified materials, I am concerned with the great bulk of other documents–some because, though not classified, they are also not necessarily public and may contain evidence of ways in which Trump corruptly behaved, though not as likely to cause the intelligence catastrophes you analyze, at least not on their own.

    But discerning what they are is particularly essential, since they are the matrix in which the classified documents were taken and stored by Trump. The DoJ now has authorization to investigate & use the classified documents, thanks to the 11th circuit, but Cannon’s order about the rest seems to be still in place. But figuring out what Trump was doing with the former category and why rests largely on their context. DoJ knows to a large extent what those other documents are (though there are so many pages, that they aren’t likely to have fully examined and notated every detail before Cannon’s injunction)–but can they use that knowledge in developing their case regarding the classified documents without getting crosswise with the order as it’s still in effect? Clearly DOJ wants to avoid doing anything that could get evidence suppressed, etc, so it’s unclear to me how they would proceed.

  35. Alan Charbonneau says:

    Well, this is two days old now, so I’m not sure if it is news to anyone around here, but per Meidas Touch, Trump may have been hiding docs from Tish James (Marcy’s item #2: Fear):

    “Donald Trump’s decision to attack the FBI and file erratic and deranged motions relating to the Special Master have come back to hurt him in more ways than one. In addition to now essentially admitting to stealing the classified records, it has now come to light that Trump may have been stashing those classified records with financial records…Financial records he concealed with the NY AG Tish James in response to her subpoena. Trump was already held in contempt once in NY for concealing records and had to pay a 6 figure penalty but now it looks like he further violated the contempt order!!! “

    Michael Cohen said the same thing on MSNBC

    • Peterr says:

      Re “Marcy’s item #2: Fear”

      Check the byline.

      (And thank you. I am honored to have my work be seen to be of her high quality!)

      • BobCon says:

        I think it’s worth expanding on the notion of fear to stress it’s not just covering up info but potentially using it similar to the MAD nuclear scenario.

        As MW has noted about the Goldilocks issue, there are potentially documents which are so sensitive the government doesn’t want them seeing the light of day. And I think it is very possible Trump took them not because he cared about the issues, but to make it a nightmare if anyone prosecuted him.

        He may well be trying to intimidate the government out of prosecution — if you bring charges on issues A and B, I may as well blow up secret programs C and D.

        I also think it is very possible that some documents aren’t there because they contain valuable information, but because they serve as reminders of information he can reveal if he is threatened.

        Even non-classified memos can potentially serve that purpose — a publicly printed agenda of the Helsinki summit could work as a reminder of classified briefings Trump received and dangerous background information he might remember and is keeping as a hole card.

  36. JohnJ says:

    Thank you peterr. I knew a few paragraphs in that whomever wrote this had experience in dealing with classified information.

    I got little traction trying to point out here and elsewhere the huge problems with mishandled classified information. The whole generic scenario you explained of what has to be done when secrets are even possibly compromised, was presented to me when I got my clearance. (and at home as well as I explained before).

    No, you do not take classified documents home to work on them and you do not discuss them with your family if you want to keep your clearance, job, and/or freedom. That being said, you always get a safe cover story, sometimes with the real subject minus important information.

    (To temper that, the joke in DC was, if you want to get classified information in DC, go to a restaurant for lunch. You will hear it.)

    That is why I got away from DC and Gov’t work and refused jobs from then on that required anything more than a confidential clearance.

  37. ScorpioJones, III says:

    Ran across this passage in Joseph Kanon’s The Prodigal Spy: “Well, you have to understand the Soviets. They have a mania for information. It comes, I think, from feeling so isolated. During the war they took planeloads of documents out. On the lend-lease planes—bags of them. Memos. Newspapers. Useless most of it. Paper. But they always wanted more.”

  38. bjet says:

    Thanks Peter, this is very helpful.

    As you say, “a lot more .. can be inferred.” Like: not only HIM. The same questions as to those 4 motives & corresponding dangers apply to anybody associated with his office who handled or helped him select classified material in our WH, depts or agencies between Dec 18 & Jan 20.

    In both backward & forward looking aspects, I think it wise to consider the distinctions between domestic and international political aspects and any ‘meshing’ of the two, and to consider that narrow framing, inaccurate minimization, and active delay in the context of impeding fulfillment of current US & allied foreign policy objectives, approaches (etc) and that PIVOT therof.

    This is as you say, “what is being fought over — the battle is over the damage (hypothetical or actual) done to our intelligence services, our national defense, and our broader foreign policy.”

    In the fourth category, the IC nightmare, content of political sabotage value on both ends would be interesting for Trump; likely to go public, has to override higher reluctance to relinquish, risk it & get no credit. Easier for someone other than him.

    He fears losing what he has. The impunity to live high on spoils rolling in. His biggest fear may be of failing to protect those he most fears & depends on for that. Anything he took as a trophy of or to hide evidence of such failure or conspiracy (such as to protect that impunity), or failure by comingling such evidence with marked items would be his biggest worries then.

  39. harpie says:

    THANKS to Peterr for this very enlightening post.

    Also, thanks to the whole emptywheel commenting community, and of course, the intrepid moderators for adding so much food for thought!

  40. Phil says:

    Having the issues laid out so sharply made this the most frightening article that possibly exists about the topic. Moreover, anything he was doing at Mar a Lago is likely a small fraction of what he was doing as POTUS. Hopefully the investigations in process today are only the first step toward a full prosecution for esipionage.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use a more differentiated username when you comment next as we have several community members named “Phil” or “Philip/Phillip.” Your unique username should have a minimum of 8 letters. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  41. Arice says:

    I’m also very curious to understand why Trump had certain docs in his office (apparently about 25%) and others were relegated to the basement room. Clearly those 25% seem to have been in actual use, as opposed to stockpiled for future use. The question would be “used for what?”

    Re. Zelensky call. There were two sides to that call. Considering what the US is doing for Ukraine these days I find it hard to imagine the US IC doesn’t have a full tape and transcripts. Even if Trump tried to hid our side.

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