Members Only | February 21, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
On US secrets, Trump stands apart from Biden and Pence
False equivalence is tempting, writes Lindsay Beyerstein. But don’t.
Now that both Joe Biden and Mike Pence have been caught keeping classified documents at home, it’s tempting to make a false equivalence between their bad behavior and Donald Trump’s 20-month campaign to steal classified information.
To their credit, Biden and Pence have cooperated fully with investigators.
Whereas, Trump went to extraordinary lengths to hang onto his illicit secrets.
In fact, the former president is still fighting.
Still hanging on
Here’s a very compressed history of Trump’s fight to steal secrets.
Government archivists asked him to return presidential records, including classified material in January 2022. Trump sent back a token amount and fought for months to hang onto the rest, forcing the archives to turn to the Justice Department.
In May, the DOJ got a subpoena for all documents bearing marks of classification. A month later, Trump’s lawyer handed over a mere 38 classified documents. That was it. He swore to it. Well, actually, he got some other sucker to swear to it.
That might have been it had not security cameras caught Trump’s Diet Coke valet moving boxes out of a storage unit at Mar-a-Lago before and after the subpoena.
The valet admitted Trump personally ordered him to move the boxes, prompting the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago in August. That search yielded 184 more classified documents, including nuclear secrets.
As he keeps reminding us, Trump owns many properties. Unfathomably, Trump’s people were allowed to do their own searches of sites including Trump Tower and the Bedminster golf club. The search team turned over two more classified documents they found in a West Palm Beach storage locker.
Classified material continues to trickle out of Trumpland. At least 300 classified documents were taken from the White House, and those are just the ones investigators knew of. Trump’s chaotic management style could have allowed many more to go missing without anyone being able to track them. So, it’s a near certainty that Trump is still hanging on to some classified material.
Recently, several news outlets have regaled the public with the tale of goofy Uncle Donald using a folder marked “classified” to block a blue light on his landline phone that was keeping him up at night.
That folder was turned over by Trump’s private investigators. Like a bad magician, Trump is redirecting our attention to the goofy “lampshade.” If we’re focused on office supplies repurposed as interior decor, we’re not talking about how Team Trump also recently relinquished a document with classified markings, an aide’s laptop, and a thumb drive. All classified material they should have disclosed earlier.
In December, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to hold Trump (or his office) in contempt. Trump’s team claimed they searched four of his properties before Thanksgiving. The Justice Department said those searches were not adequate and therefore that Trump was still flouting the six-month-old subpoena that requires him to turn over all classified material in his possession.
To the Justice Department’s great frustration, Trump has refused to appoint a custodian of records, a single person who can certify that all classified material has been handed over, and who can be held personally responsible if that’s not true.
You can see why nobody wants the job.
Team Trump swears they’ve given everything back, but assurances mean nothing.
We are inured
Judge Beryl Howell has not yet ruled on whether Trump will be held in contempt.
Trump has been scoffing at a subpoena for six months. Anyone else would have been charged with obstruction of justice months ago, but we’ve become inured to the idea that there’s a different standard of justice for Trump than for anyone else.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.