Devlin Barrett’s “People Familiar with the Matter”

As Devlin Barrett’s sources would have it, a man whose business ties to the Saudis include a $2 billion investment in his son-in-law, a golf partnership of undisclosed value, and a new hotel development in Oman would have no business interest in stealing highly sensitive documents describing Iran’s missile systems.

I’ll let you decide whether the claim, made in Barrett’s latest report on the stolen documents case, means the FBI is considering the issue very narrowly or Barrett’s sources are bullshitting him.

That review has not found any apparent business advantage to the types of classified information in Trump’s possession, these people said. FBI interviews with witnesses so far, they said, also do not point to any nefarious effort by Trump to leverage, sell or use the government secrets. Instead, the former president seemed motivated by a more basic desire not to give up what he believed was his property, these people said.

Barrett has a history of credulously repeating what right wing FBI agents feed him for their own political goals, which means it’s unclear how seriously to take this report. Particularly given several critical details Barrett’s story does not mention:

  • Trump’s efforts, orchestrated in part by investigation witness Kash Patel, to release documents about the Russian investigation specifically to serve a political objective
  • The report, from multiple outlets, that Jay Bratt told Trump’s lawyers that DOJ believes Trump still has classified documents
  • Details about classified documents interspersed with a Roger Stone grant of clemency and messages — dated after Trump left the White House — from a pollster, a book author, and a religious leader; both sets of interspersed classified documents were found in Trump’s office
  • The way Trump’s legal exposure would expand if people like Boris Epshteyn conspired to help him hoard the documents or others like Molly Michael accessed the classified records

To be sure: I think a good many of the documents Trump stole — including the most sensitive ones — were stolen as trophies. We know that’s why Trump stole his love letters with Kim Jong Un. And the visible contents of the FBI’s search photograph show that the most highly classified documents were stored along with Time Magazine covers.

But this report, from sources described as “people familiar with the matter,” bespeaks a partial view of the investigation, one Barrett hasn’t bothered to supplement (or challenge) with public records.

That description, “people familiar with the matter,” is the same one Barrett uses to remind readers that he got the scoop on the Iranian missile documents that his sources don’t think the Saudis would have any interest in, and his scoop that Trump stole documents about some country’s defense system (which, if the country is Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, would be of acute interest to Trump’s golf partners, too).

The Washington Post has previously reported that among the most sensitive classified documents recovered by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago were documents about Iran and China, according to people familiar with the matter.

At least one of the documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 describes Iran’s missile program, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation. Other documents described highly sensitive intelligence work aimed at China, they said. The Post has also reported that some of the material focuses on the defense systems of a foreign country, including its nuclear capabilities.

There’s no guarantee that these “people familiar with the matter” are the same sources for both the information about the most sensitive documents Trump stole and the current understanding about Trump’s motive. It could be that Barrett is using the same vague description to protect his source(s).

But they could be the same sources. Indeed, the blind spots in Barrett’s reporting may stem from having sources familiar with the national security review of the documents, but not necessarily the ongoing investigation into it. Some of the WaPo’s past reporting on this story seems to come from people who’ve seen the unredacted affidavit, but not necessarily the investigative files.

And that’s interesting, among other reasons, because the leak to Barrett about the most sensitive documents has formed the primary harm claimed by Trump’s lawyers in filing after filing after filing, starting literally the day after Judge Aileen Cannon cited leaks in her original order enjoining the criminal investigation.

The Government is apparently not concerned with unauthorized leaks regarding the contents of the purported “classified records,” see, e.g., Devlin Barrett and Carol D. Leonnig, Material on foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities seized at Trump’s Mara-Lago, WASH. POST (Sept. 6, 2022),, and would presumably be prepared to share all such records publicly in any future jury trial. However, the Government advances the untenable position in its Motion that the secure review by a Court appointed and supervised special master under controlled access conditions is somehow problematic and poses a risk to national security.

Trump cites Barrett’s work right alongside EO 13526 as “Other Authorities” central to Trump’s argument:

In any case, given the precedent of Nghia Pho (which may still be the only 18 USC 793 case cited by DOJ in this proceeding), it may not matter if Trump stole all or only some of these documents because he’s a narcissist. Trump brought a stack of classified documents to a foreign intelligence target and left them unprotected as multiple suspect foreigners infiltrated his resort. He continued to hoard such documents even after it was publicly reported that he had brought classified documents home.

During Trump’s Administration two men were sent to prison because, by bringing highly classified documents home for motives that had nothing to do with leaking, they made the documents accessible to Russian-linked sources, actions that ultimately led to a devastating compromise of US intelligence resources. Under Donald Trump’s DOJ, Pho and Hal Martin were not given a pass because they were serving their own ego.

So there’s no reason Trump’s narcissism, alone, should be a basis not to charge him.

39 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Devlin Barrett aspires to be the Adam Schefter of DC political reporters. “Schefter’s ‘per sources . . . ‘ schtick works for him. Why not me?”

    • Baltimark says:

      Yep. And I have conversely pitched Emptywheel to some fellow sportsball followers as the Defector (formerly Deadspin, more or less) of nat sec/civil liberties/etc.: coverage not based on access, no sacred cows, maniacal attention to detail, and occasional salty language to keep things well seasoned. Diana Moskovitz, Lauren Theisen, and (Deadspin but not Defector) Ashley Feinberg are especially awesome along those lines.

  2. Amicus says:

    There is also, as MH previously noted, the troubling gratuitous language in the Bobb certification that no copies were retained. We don’t know why that was added, but it betrays a mindset that is at odds with thinking of these all as trophy documents. The trophy is the thing itself – not some scanned version. So why go out of the way to disavow any retained copies?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      With Trump – and his willingness to throw lawyers and advisers under the bus – there’s always room for Kremlinology. That is, we never know something is true until he officially denies it.

  3. Drew in Bronx says:

    To the extent that motive will enter into the prosecution of Trump, it will be a cloud of venality and narcissistic megalomania not anything specific or even coherent. If DOJ had to prove a *consistent* motive, it would be a big problem, because the only consistent thing about Donald Trump is his pitiful need to assure himself that he’s the greatest, the best and never wrong. It’s fruitless to look for a discreet deal or linear motive for the things he stole, any more than it makes any sense to think of Russian kompromat as a single embarrassing recording or set of documents.

    Of course, motive isn’t necessary in proving crimes, it just helps in convincing a jury that the prosecution’s story of WTF is going on makes any sense.

    I do believe that ultimately there will be evidence of crimes beyond the stealing of the documents contained among all those documents (electoral college fraud, seditious conspiracy, what have you) but it won’t look any more coherent than Trump’s claims he won the election.

  4. Stephen Duncan says:

    “Under Donald Trump’s DOJ, Pho and Hal Martin were not given a pass because they were serving their own ego.”
    Neither were they an ex-President. I think that aspect of charging and prosecuting Trump is given short shrift. Should it matter? No. Will it? Probably.

    • emptywheel says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever done that. That’s why, for example, I think DOJ would charge Trump for the narrow window after June after he blew off a subpoena.

      But, for example, when Pho and Martin were arrested, they still had clearance. Trump does not, nor a need to know.

      • smf88011 says:

        I think we should hold Trump to a higher standard because he was briefed on the proper handling of documents and it is obvious he didn’t care about following the rules. This instance is just like the Jessica Quintana incident but on a much larger scale. It took less than a year for the wheels of justice to indict her and for her to plead guilty.

        • Stephen Duncan says:

          I think Trump walks, on all of it. Georgia, New York, Fed level charges. He’s going to milk the plea “They’re trying to prosecute a declared candidate for the Presidency!! It’s all a political hit job, designed to deny the electorate their chosen leader!!”

          Anyone holding their breath waiting on an indictment will drop dead from lack of oxygen.

        • Clare Kelly says:

          You are, of course, entitled to your opinion.
          Mine is that your opinion belies fact, as laid out by Marcy Wheeler and the community/moderators on the very site you are commenting in.

  5. chum'sfriend says:

    It was Devlin Barrett who wrote the 9/23/22 Washington Post article claiming that “Career prosecutors have recommended against charging Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in a long running sex-trafficking investigation…”

    • emptywheel says:

      I think he’ll be proven right there!

      He was also the reporter who wrote that FBI agents (though not necessarily prosecutors) think Hunter Biden should be charged.

      He was also the reporter who leaked details of the Clinton Foundation investigation in 2016.

      And so on.

      • bawiggans says:

        All of which lead inevitably to the question of whether Barrett is an extremely resourceful journalist or the tool of his go-to sources? When your beat gives you license to file stories, a fair number that turn out to be impactful on events following their publication, that habitually rely on anonymous sources, and patterns of effect begin to suggest themselves, it invites a certain skepticism about hidden agendas and such.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Could we count on one hand the number of foreign offices, intel services, and large corporations not interested in details about an Iranian missile program?

  7. Tom-1812 says:

    “Instead, the former president seemed motivated by a more basic desire not to give up what he believed was his property, these people said.”

    “… what he believed was his property …” More special pleading on behalf of Trump, the ‘very stable genius’ who is really just an innocent Babe in the Wood who shouldn’t be held fully responsible for his behaviour because he either doesn’t know what he’s doing or always acts with the best of intentions. Just as he really, sincerely, pinky-swear believes he won the 2020 election (NOT).

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Yep. Trump thinks and/or pretends that the world is his (which might be the only thing he has in common with the average medieval king). There are few better ways to manipulate someone into giving him things he has no right to use or possess. But it’s not an approach to life anyone, let alone the courts, should support. In a democracy, they should impose sanctions on it.

    • PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

      At some point someone walking around doing crimes while loudly yelling, “I do not believe I am doing a crime” doesn’t hold water. Especially if the FBI tells you to please stop doing a crime and give back the stolen goods.

      It sells papers though, I guess.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Yep. Trump thinks and/or pretends that the world is his (which might be the only thing he has in common with the average medieval king). There are few better ways to manipulate someone into giving him things he has no right to use or possess. But it’s not an approach to life anyone, let alone the courts, should support. In a democracy, they should impose sanctions on it.

  9. flounder says:

    If you apply the minimizing logic that Barrett does here, then you would be lead to argue that if Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate people because he needed the calories, it’s far more damning than if he’s eating people because it makes him feel good.

  10. Clare Kelly says:

    “There’s no guarantee that these “people familiar with the matter” are the same sources for both the information about the most sensitive documents Trump stole and the current understanding about Trump’s motive. It could be that Barrett is using the same vague description to protect his source(s).”

    Thank you, Dr Wheeler.

    I was not as objective regarding the “motive” for Barrett’s source obfuscation.

    His 6th permutation of “people familiar with the matter” was
    “Several Trump advisers said”. This was largely overlooked in the comment section where renewed calls for ‘tiki torches-and-pitchforks for AG Garland’ quickly became the dominant theme.

    (Yes. I should stop reading the WaPo comment section.)

  11. Katherine Williams says:

    Every couple of weeks, since the FBI search of Mar a Lago, the Washington Post and a few other media outlets publish the good old “Trump is just a collector-hoarder! He didn’t mean any harm!” article.

    I’m doubtful it reflects the perspective of the DOJ, though. More like a plea from billionaire-owned newspapers for people to sympathize with the poor, innocent magpie, Trump. Gossip hoping to sway the masses, not the DOJ. Judging from the thousands of harsh comments, the articles aren’t working.

    • Clare Kelly says:

      Ty 4 your perspective.

      I’m not convinced that your observation has as much to do with “billionaire-owned newspapers” (in this instance) as it does with Buzzbee and clicks in regard to the WaPo.

      I admit that I contribute to the latter by commenting on some particularly egregious pieces. Mea culpa.

      In my defense, I no longer ‘click through’ to Hewitt, Thiessen, McCardle, Will, the new RW ‘Jason /Josh’s, et al.
      … no matter how tempting it is to repudiate.

      And yes, Sinclair media is a classic example of your assertion.

      • Legonaut says:

        I miss the “old” George Will. I didn’t usually agree with him, but I could at least respect his viewpoint. He used to actually put some thought and reasoning into his writing; now, he treats most of his conservatism as self-evident axioms.

        The rest don’t even try — just mindless parroting of the party line du jour.

  12. smf88011 says:

    Could one of you enlighten me on the issue of probable cause? Can you use the fact that he had government documents at MAL after being subpoenaed be used as probable cause to search his other properties?

    On a silly note, I wonder if they will need to get special permission to open up Ivana’s grave to see if he buried documents either with her or them under her casket….

    • Unabogie says:

      NAL, but from listening to lawyers, the DOJ must prove two things to get a search warrant:
      1. There’s probable cause to believe evidence of a crime is in Trump’s possession
      2. The search is likely to find that evidence in a specific location.

      It’s the second requirement that makes it hard to get a warrant for any particular Trump property.

      • bmaz says:

        Oh, it is not that hard. But the warrant affiant also has to demonstrate the the supporting information is current, as opposed to stale, and reliable.

  13. Savage Librarian says:

    Some of the excerpts below from the Philadelphia Inquirer appeared on the day before in the Washington Post (2/16/18.) The bylines in both stories are the same, but an Inquirer staff reporter (Robert Moran) made additional contributions.

    I offer this to suggest that Susie Wiles might be one of Devlin Barrett’s not so secret Trump whisperers. It seems logical. And we know DeSantis thought she may have used her wiles (so to speak) behind the scenes in ways that he may have thought questionable. Of course, I have my own thoughts and experience to rely on, as well. But that’s another matter entirely.

    I do wonder why the Russian-inspired efforts in Florida were more successful than the one in South Philadelphia, though:
    ‘It is spooky’

    “Prosecutors said the Russians, using fake identities, contacted Trump campaign staffers in Florida offering to hold rallies to support Trump. Susie Wiles, who was co-chair of the Trump campaign in Florida in August 2016 and later became the campaign’s chief Florida staffer, said no campaign official was aware of the Russian effort.”

    “It’s not the way I do the business; it’s not the way the Trump campaign in Florida did business,” she said. “It is spooky. It is awful. It makes you look over your shoulder. It shouldn’t happen. I’m anxious for this to be uncovered so this never happens again.”

    “The indictment cites an instance in which the Russian defendants purchased Facebook advertisements — in violation of U.S. law forbidding non-Americans from spending money in U.S. elections — “for a series of rallies they organized in Pennsylvania called ‘Miners for Trump’ and scheduled for October 2, 2016.”
    “Unlike similar Russian-inspired efforts in Florida and elsewhere, the planned South Philadelphia rally apparently was a bust.”

  14. J R in WV says:

    Mining in PA is nearly a dead industry. Anthracite coal mining (2021) employs 1,032 miners, and Bituminous coal mining (2021) employs 3,225 miners. All those people have to go to work every day, nowhere near Philadelphia. Big surprise those rallies didn’t result in a big crowd. Amazing.

  15. Willis Warren says:

    One question, Marcy, since Devlin Barrett is also the source for the nuke story, why would he be so gullible?

    • HardyWeinberg3 says:

      I don’t think any other news sources corroborated that first nuke story. Some just repeated it, citing the post.

  16. Randy Baker says:

    Your skepticism of the story is extremely well founded, as is your observation that narcissism is not an affirmative defense to violating the espionage act or obstruction of justice.
    However, if DOJ wishes to tread as lightly as possible on Trump, as it often does when confronted with the criminality of rich and/or powerful white guys, e.g. 2008 Wall Street, Bush Administration torture, alleging the documents were stolen because of a mental disorder, rather than to sell them to parties hostile to the United States, would be far more consistent with DOJ not requesting, and the court not imposing prison time upon conviction. In that case, the author may simply be reporting a calculated leak preparing the ground for such an approach.
    Given everything publicly known about Trump, the notion that he would forego monetizing or otherwise profiting from something of value in his possession is almost beyond belief. Of course, if DOJ has evidence Trump did barter or sell stolen information, and it elects to not disclose it to advance such a rich, powerful white guy approach, absent the work of some intrepid journalist or whistleblower, we may never know.

  17. Mart7890 says:

    There is also the hundreds of millions / a billion or so gifted to Kushner to salvage his failed 666 building by Qatar/Brookfield Investments, while the Saudi/UAE blockade of Qatar was going on (a blockade supported by Trump while thousands of US troops were stationed in Qatar???). It is all so much to try to keep up with.

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