A Book Author, A Religious Leader, and A Pollster Walk into Trump’s Classified Document Bar

As noted, yesterday Trump took the opportunity created by news of an additional document with classification marks at Mike Pence’s house to make a series of disclosures. Lawyers found another empty classified document folder, marked Classified Evening Briefing, as well as a laptop and a thumb drive with a classified document on it. The latter, described here by CNN, has generated a really inflammatory response.

Former President Donald Trump’s legal team turned over more materials with classified markings and a laptop belonging to an aide to federal prosecutors in recent months, multiple sources familiar with the investigation told CNN.

The Trump attorneys also handed over an empty folder marked “Classified Evening Briefing,” sources said.

The previously undisclosed handovers – from December and January – suggest the protracted effort by the Justice Department to repossess records from Trump’s presidency may not be done.

The Trump attorneys discovered pages with classified markings in December, while searching through boxes at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence. The lawyers subsequently handed the materials over to the Justice Department.

A Trump aide had previously copied those same pages onto a thumb drive and laptop, not realizing they were classified, sources said. The laptop, which belonged to an aide, who works for Save America PAC, and the thumb drive were also given to investigators in January.

Pete Strzok, popularizing my nifty (and now outdated) table, raised a lot of predictable questions about the thumb drive and laptop.

He’s not wrong that these are the kinds of questions FBI will now be asking. All the more so given the ABC report that the laptop, at least, was not found at Mar-a-Lago.

ABC News has also learned that after the information was recovered, federal agents retrieved the laptop from the aide. The laptop was not retrieved on the Mar-a-Lago grounds, the sources said.

But the answers may be somewhat simpler, particularly if — as I suspect — Trump’s lawyers went and found this laptop as a response to one of the other most-pressing questions about Trump’s stolen documents.

After all, there must be some reason why Trump’s lawyers went to look for this document, after having investigators search Mar-a-Lago already. There must be a specific reason they were looking for these documents, given that investigators had done a seemingly thorough search of everything.

And Trump’s lawyers have no doubt been scrambling to answer one of the most important questions revealed in the Special Master review: who had compiled a document — after Trump left the White House — with a Secret and a Confidential document. That document was described in one of the last Special Master filings. It’s a document that includes messages from a book author, a religious leader, and a pollster, probably something from a lawyer, and what were upon seizure a Secret and a Confidential document.

One potentially privileged document that had been scanned was removed from the database (SM_MAL_00001185 to SM_MAL_00001195). That document – excluding the one potentially privileged page (SM_MAL_00001190) – is discussed in the next section about the Filter Materials Log. The potentially privileged page is the subject of a separate letter from the Filter Team to Your Honor, which is sent today.


This document is a compilation that includes three documents that post-date Plaintiff’s term in office and two classified cover sheets, one SECRET and the other CONFIDENTIAL. Because Plaintiff can only have received the documents bearing classification markings in his capacity as President, the entire mixed document is a Presidential record.

Besides the classified cover sheets, which were inserted by the FBI in lieu of the actual documents, none of the remaining communications in the document are confidential presidential communications that might be subject to a claim of executive privilege. Three communications are from a book author, a religious leader, and a pollster. The first two cannot be characterized as presidential advisers and all three are either dated or by content occurred after Plaintiff’s administration ended. [my emphasis]

It was, as I’ve been describing, a mini-smoking gun: Two classified documents “compiled” with a bunch of documents that post-date Trump’s Administration, seeming proof that someone accessed classified documents after they were removed from the White House.

The mini-smoking gun is a political document: it includes a message from a pollster. But what FBI meant by a “compilation” was never clear: Was it just two classified documents paper clipped onto messages from a pollster, a religious leader, and a book author? Was this digitally compiled, in which case it might appear to be one 11-page document with passages that were classified?

What would have happened after DOJ and Trump’s lawyers agreed that the messages post-dated Trump’s presidency is that Trump’s lawyers would have scrambled to come up with a non-criminal explanation for the document.

And one possible story to explain it is the one Trump is now offering: an entire box of documents were scanned, and an aide  — CNN appears to know who she is — took copies, not knowing they were classified. And then the aide used the classified documents in her job at Trump’s PAC.

Both the removal of the document, including some classified documents, and this aide’s integration of the documents into some kind of political document, could both be unwitting, and therefore not a crime. Particularly if she were represented by lawyers paid for by Trump, as is his habit.

Given that FBI only found one document like this, the story is not implausible.

And it would answer the really pressing question of the “compiled” classified document (which Trump lawyers have undoubtedly treated as a very pressing question, given that this is a mini-smoking gun). And it would answer the question of why they were searching an aide’s laptop and thumb drive.

Only, if that’s Trump’s final answer — and it may well be! — then it will raise other questions. Such as why Trump had Presidential Records Act documents that he would go on to use for his PAC in the first place.

Particularly at a time when his fundraising is under scrutiny for the other criminal investigation of Donald Trump, the answer to that question might get awkward quickly.

Update: Here is the Guardian’s explanation for the aide and the laptop (none of which makes sense):

[A]t Mar-a-Lago in December, the contractors found a box that mainly contained presidential schedules, in which they found a couple of classified-marked documents to also be present and alerted the legal team to return the materials to the justice department, the sources said.

The exact nature of the classified-marked documents remains unclear, but a person with knowledge of the search likened their sensitivity to schedules for presidential movements – for instance, presidential travel to Afghanistan – that are considered sensitive until they have taken place.

After the Trump legal team turned over the box of schedules, the sources said, they learned that a junior Trump aide – employed by Trump’s Save America political action committee who acted as an assistant in Trump’s political “45 Office” – last year scanned and uploaded the contents of the box to a laptop.

The junior Trump aide, according to what one of the sources said, was apparently instructed to upload the documents by top Trump aide Molly Michael to create a repository of what Trump was doing while in office and was apparently careless in scanning them on to her work laptop.

When the Trump legal team told the justice department about the uploads, federal prosecutors demanded the laptop and its password, warning that they would otherwise move to obtain a grand jury subpoena summoning the junior aide to Washington to grant them access to the computer.

To avoid a subpoena, the Trump legal team agreed to turn over the laptop in its entirety last month, though they did not allow federal prosecutors to collect it from Mar-a-Lago.


45 replies
  1. William Conner says:

    How can an aide not see classified markings? The folder said classified. Way too long to surender the materials, too.

      • William Conner says:

        Just saying a person scanning a doc to put on a computer and / or thumb drive likely looked at the pages. There were just a few. I once received mail from DOD with incorrect name. The sender name was enough to call security.

        • Shadowalker says:

          A bulk document feeder could be involved. It sounds like she didn’t look at what she was scanning. Plausible enough to drop it below the requirement of beyond reasonable doubt.

        • P J Evans says:

          Even then – they’d see at least one page with classified markings, the one on top, before and after scanning.

        • Shadowalker says:

          Not if they were intermixed in the stack. Plus all the feeders I’ve seen, the original is ejected face down in order the stack was fed. Another question I have is were they digital images or OCR? Not sure how the OCR software would interpret the classification markings if it even detected them.

        • P J Evans says:

          So they never ever look at the top sheet to make sure it’s feeding right way around? Don’t multiply improbabilities.

        • Shadowalker says:

          What if the top sheet(s) were the communications between the pollster or religious leader?

          According to the lawyers, she was handed a stack of papers and was told to digitize and “upload” it. She could have just taken the whole bundle and put it on the scanner, hit scan and walked away. Came back later to retrieve/return the originals and possibly the thumb drive with the digitized copies.

          Like EW states, “plausible”.

        • bmaz says:

          This is bullshit, you have no idea what the actual facts are. You are new, but don’t pull that garbage here when you have no idea.

        • Sonofaww2marine says:

          I have to agree with bmaz. We don’t have enough facts to know how documents with classified markings got on this staffer’s laptop.

          Still, to figure out what did happen, it can sometimes help to sketch out, based on the facts that we do know, what could have happened. I could tell Shadowalker, for example, that from the 80s to the early teens, plenty of document feeders spat out documents face up, so an attentive operator could indeed have seen those classified markings, cover sheets, etc.

          It’s the folks who don’t look at alternative explanations who fixate, erroneously, on particular theories or targets. As an ADA & AUSA, I often lacked the mental agility to see, as adept defense lawyers could, plausible scenarios that led away from defendant A or situation B. The hung juries, split verdicts, & acquittals that sometimes flowed from this weren’t what I had in mind, but darn sure made me more willing to entertain alternate explanations. So as long as some speculator will admit that they’re speculating, let them speculate away. We might learn something.

        • timbo says:

          It really depends on why they were scanning the documents.

          The one thing that is clear from this new twist to the scandal is that there will very likely be more lawyers “added to the team” in 2023 than there were in 2022.

    • Rugger_9 says:

      Not only each page but each paragraph will have its classification identified if it’s government issued. Sounds like more BS and an invitation to do a more thorough search of all properties owned by TFG where he spent at least one night.

      However some of the underlying material is classified (not government issue) it will be clearly stamped in large print.

      The only explanations that would make sense is that the ‘aide’ was just off the street (and shouldn’t be handling anything) or the ‘aide’ is lying they did not know. The other part is that the supervision of the ‘aide’ is likewise derelict, maybe Meadows needs to talk about this too?

      As for the laptop, once opened everything is available I would think to investigators. I wonder if pertinent J6 communications are also now visible to DoJ.

  2. Peterr says:

    After all, there must be some reason why Trump’s lawyers went to look for this document, after having investigators search Mar-a-Lago already. There must be a specific reason they were looking for these documents, given that investigators had done a seemingly thorough of everything.

    I wonder if the DOJ stumbled across the electronic document through the investigation into Save America PAC, and realized it had to have come from Trump because of the classified information. Under this scenario, they didn’t have the laptop yet (and might not have realized it even existed), so the doc would have been found on some other computer, a storage device or cloud account, or email. They then would have looked at all the docs that were seized previously at Mar-a-Lago, and realized the original wasn’t in that collection of docs.

    At some point, then, someone would have made a call to Trump’s legal team. “We have reason to believe that you all still have at least one classified document, because we have obtained a copy of that document which was found at Save America PAC. Would your client like to find that document, and explain how a copy might have been made, and how it happened to arrive at Save America PAC?”

    • eyesoars says:

      Also possible that it was a compiled/created Word document or similar, and internally marked with the name/ID of the computer it was created on. That would certainly have provided a direct lead back to the laptop and aide, and given the FBI/DOJ impetus to go looking.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The involvement of a super PAC raises or bolsters the possibility that Trump used government information he was not legally entitled to possess to raise money for personal gain.

    As you say, the answers to that question might get awkward quickly.

    • Peterr says:

      Given the already ongoing investigation into the PAC, most recently including requests for a list of everyone enveloped in the Jan 6 investigation for whom they are paying legal fees and for copies of all related retainer agreements with these people, Team Trump probably already has a long list of difficult questions for which they are crafting their awkward answers.

  4. Ed Walker says:

    I’m not clear on how the aide wasn’t aware that part of the information she compiled was classified. I thought a statement of classification was stamped on each page. Is that not right?

    • Peterr says:

      Yes, but we know how Trump and his team view those markings.

      I can easily imagine the aide asking her boss about it, and being told “Don’t worry about those stamps. The President declassified all that.” And if Trump was the aide’s boss, he would have said “I” instead of “The President.”

      I would imagine that this was among the first questions the DOJ investigators asked that aide. If I were Trump’s lawyer, I would hope that her answer matches their answer — because if they don’t, someone is in a world of hurt.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Trump saying “I”? Not only does he have a long habit of referring to himself in third person, but lately he’s been using “we”–and I’m sure that’s the royal, not editorial, version.

    • BruceF says:

      Document may have been telepathically declassified by the Orange man right before it went on lap top and thumb drive!

      He informed Hannity he had that.power on Faux…

      • timbozone says:

        Trump argued on Hannity that Trump had been told that he had that power. Now it seems like he may have been told he had that power from someone who isn’t even a lawyer. Don Trump is very careful to only follow advice that he wants to follow. Doesn’t really matter who his prop providing that advice is, as long as it gives him some sort of minimal cover where he can blame someone else for when things to wrong. The shame and the sham of it is that he’s not even all that good at generating plausible deniability. The Republican Party continues to sink to even greater lows.

  5. democracy2024 says:

    The best case scenario for Trump would be if the documents were Kim Jong Un love letters and the aide was writing his memoir. If the documents don’t fall into the memento category this is big trouble.

  6. Fiendish Thingy says:

    All I gotta say is, Adam McKay better be hard at work on the screenplay to this national nightmare. In fact, he better be planning a trilogy of films on the Trump years.

  7. Savage Librarian says:

    My WAG is that the book author, religious leader and pollster are all part of a big PR campaign, one that would appeal to evangelicals and also bring in plenty of cash. So, maybe Mike Huckabee is the book author, Franklin Graham the religious leader, and Tony Fabrizio the pollster.

    Huckabee has a whole series of books to indoctrinate children. He did one on Trump and now has one on DeSantis. But maybe Trump wanted a new one that could have some automagically
    declassified stuff in it that he thought would make him look better than Ron. Franklin Graham would be helpful in distributing and promoting the book. Fabrizio may have done a poll for targeting purposes.


    “Mike Huckabee Enrages Trump By Sucking Up To Ron DeSantis”

    • Dunnydone says:

      “Automagically” is my new favorite word. I actually had my attorney look into trademarking, though in the antithesis of how Donny hopes it’s works… more like letting the universe do its thing and you just are there to just not fuck it up while being thankfully for the good luck…

  8. Zinsky123 says:

    If it is even possible (and “understanding” a diseased mind like his might not even be possible), I would someday like to understand what Donald Trump intended to do with these documents. What was his intent? Blackmail? Sell them to foreign actors? Or simply to satisfy some weird desire to “possess” them?

  9. Shadowalker says:

    Hard to say. Though he was holding staff meetings in the “southern White House” for almost a year after he left office. They could have been props he was using to make the illusion more complete.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Improbable. Trump is an illusionist, but he prefers the originals when he can get them, which he could as president. I’m also pretty sure the FBI knows whether those were fake or original, now empty folders.

  10. Klaatu Something says:

    when I was a kid, I was taught the phrase:

    “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

    I was a sucker to believe it.

    comment #981308

    • bmaz says:

      I have no idea what you mean. Do you mean that you were taught as a kid that the essential element of mens rea does not, in fact, exist?

    • Silly but True says:

      U.S. jurisdictions are similar but may vary in details. The State of Illinois speed limit enforcement portal opens with your parents’ same wisdom: “_It is the driver’s responsibility to be aware of the posted speed limit._ The maximum speed limit is 70 miles per hour on interstate highways outside urban areas, 65 miles per hour on rural interstates, 55 miles per hour on interstate highways near or in major cities and on other highways, and 30 miles per hour in an urban area unless some other speed restriction is established.”

      Compare with text of 18 USC 1924(a), Unauthorized Removal and Retention of Classified Documents or Material: “…_knowingly removes_… and _with the intent_…”

      Emphasis was added in form of “_”. And perhaps this is sufficient to show why your parents taught you correctly, but there may exist some nuance in some laws passed by US Congress and signed into law. Both can be true.

  11. Troutwaxer says:

    The DOJ was not allowed to pick the laptop up at Maralago… because it was Hunter Biden’s laptop?

    Call me crazy, but something about that detail is a little worrisome.

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