BRATTLEBORO — With apologies to W.C. Fields, who once said, “It's a funny old world - a man is lucky if he gets out of it alive,” the stunning indictment, arrest, and arraignment of Donald J. Trump has offered a surreal glimpse into the former president's inner sanctums, where boxes of sensitive documents are commingled with golden fixtures and chandeliers, bathtubs and toilets.
If you look closely at the now-ubiquitous photo, you can see some of those boxes piled high behind the shower curtain, all the way to the rafters.
These boxes have now caused Trump and the nation untold aggravation, as the former president's fixation on keeping a vast collection of classified files very close to him - whether in the shower, bathroom, ballroom, private jet, or private office - has proven nothing short of breathtaking.
Trump, who was arrested and arraigned Tuesday, pleaded not guilty in Miami to all 37 federal criminal charges brought against him by the U.S. Justice Department in an indictment unsealed June 9.
The indictment follows another raft of criminal indictments brought against him in April in New York, also related to serious paperwork issues, only those were for the alleged falsification of business records.
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Trump, who is still the Republican presidential frontrunner, has denounced all charges lodged against him thus far as a “witch hunt” and “political prosecution” by the Biden administration to derail his bid to retake the Oval Office in 2024.
At present, national polls still show strong support for Trump, who recently turned 77, among Republican voters, even after the latest indictments. Trump can still run for president, regardless of the charges, but that could change if he is convicted or imprisoned.
The DOJ's indictment accuses Trump of illegally and willfully secreting away national defense information in violation of the Espionage Act; engaging in conspiracy to obstruct justice; engaging in a scheme to conceal; illegally withholding documents; corruptly concealing records; making false statements and representations; and concealing documents in a federal investigation.
The latter six of the felony counts were also brought against Trump's aide, former White House valet and “body man” Waltine (Walt) Nauta. Trump, according to the DOJ, directed him to move boxes of classified documents around his private country club residence, Mar-a-Lago, for purposes of hiding them from Trump's lawyers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which raided Mar-a-Lago in August to retrieve them) and the federal grand jury that has now indicted him.
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The details of the DOJ indictment paint an objectively strange, Howard Hughes–like picture of a former president extremely intent on keeping hundreds of classified documents physically close to him and even bringing them with him on his travels. The documents were kept in publicly accessible and largely unsecured areas, just footsteps away from more than 150 Mar-a-Lago social events from the time Trump left office in January 2021 to the FBI's raid in August 2022, exposing them to “tens of thousands of guests,” according to the indictment.
Trump's classified documents fixation was not just well known to his aides, but also his family, who seemed to find his emotional attachment to the boxes - and need to even bring them on trips - cumbersome and irritating.
In one exchange highlighted by the DOJ, an unnamed Trump family member (thought by some to be Ivanka, Trump's daughter, or Melania, his wife), wrote to Nauta warning him that Trump should not plan to fly with his boxes, as they would crowd out other items on the plane. An excerpt: “We will not have a room for them. Plane will be full with luggage. Thank you!”
It appears Trump flew with his boxes, anyway.
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When Trump was told he would need to subject his boxes to a search for classified documents in May 2022, the former president showed evident signs of distress.
According to the DOJ, he told his lawyers, “I don't want anybody looking, I don't want anybody looking through my boxes. I really don't. I don't want you looking through my boxes.” (Whatever your political affiliation, I highly recommend reading the indictment in its entirety, as it is hard to do full justice to it in one article.)
In another exchange in April 2021, Trump employees debated whether to move Trump's boxes from Mar-a-Lago's “business center” to the “lake room,” before one of them remembered, “there is still a little room in the shower.”
The second employee agreed that other items could be moved to make room for Trump's classified documents, stating, “Yes, anything that's not the 'beautiful mind' paper boxes can definitely go to storage.”
This was a reference to the film A Beautiful Mind, about a Nobel Prize–winning mathematician who fought mental illness and featured one particular scene with an office drowning in papers and news clippings climbing the walls.
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Central to the DOJ indictment is a sequence of events where, after agreeing to allow one of his lawyers search his boxes for any classified documents, Trump rearranges his calendar so he can be present for the search and, in the days leading up to it between May 2022 and June 2022, directs Nauta to bring 64 boxes to his residence from an unsecured storage room, leaving just 30 boxes to be searched by his lawyer - who still finds dozens of classified documents. Afterward, Trump meets the lawyer in the Mar-a-Lago Club dining room, asking, “Did you find anything?...Is it bad? Good?”
Just days later, after having another lawyer certify that all Trump's classified documents had been found and returned to the U.S. government (which turned out to not be true, according to the DOJ), Trump also met DOJ and FBI personnel at the Mar-a-Lago Club, telling them he was “an open book.”
The files Trump had access to while he was president included the most sensitive classified documents and national defense information the U.S. government has in its possession, the DOJ says, comprising information from the nation's intelligence agencies and the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The classified documents Trump stored in his boxes included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack,” it said.
There have been characterizations of Trump as “obsessed” and a “hoarder,” which is a psychological disorder found in the DSM-5, marked by “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.”
Only in this case, the value of Trump's hundreds of classified documents labeled, variously, “confidential,” “secret” and “top secret,” is not just inordinately high, but utterly invaluable.
Should these documents end up in the wrong hands, they could pose an immediate threat not just to America's national security, but the security of its personnel and allies.
“The unauthorized disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence-collection methods,” the DOJ stated.
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What may turn out to be far more urgent is that while the DOJ is circulating photos of boxes snapped by Trump's aides of classified documents spilling onto the floor around Mar-a-Lago, countless classified documents removed from the White House by Trump appear to still be missing, with no definitive way to fully quantify them or determine if they can ever be found.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, which initially notified the DOJ when it was unable to retrieve classified documents from Trump, told Congress late last year that, even after the FBI had raided Mar-a-Lago, it hadn't recovered all of Trump's presidential records, explaining there would be “no easy way to establish absolute accountability.”
When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last summer it found 43 file folders marked as classified but empty. The FBI has not yet searched the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., or Trump's apartment at Trump Tower in New York, but videos from 2021 have shown Trump traveling to Bedminster from Mar-a-Lago with boxes being loaded onto his plane.
According to the DOJ, Trump showed the attack plan in July 2021 to an unnamed writer, publisher and two staffers - none of whom had security clearance - and admitted in an audio recording that the plan was “highly confidential” and still classified, adding “this is still a secret.”
It is an astounding revelation, given Trump's assertion when he first took office that America needed “the best protection of classified information” and “we can't have someone in the Oval Office who doesn't understand the meaning of the word confidential or classified.”
Whether Trump is found innocent or guilty, or becomes president again, it appears some of his highly classified documents, containing some of America's greatest secrets, are now on the loose.