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Now we finally have a visual.
There is something about the single photograph released by the Justice Department of a jumble of documents from cardboard boxes – marked “SECRET/SCI” and “TOP SECRET/SCI” – that makes the stakes of the Donald Trump investigation indelibly real.
Whereas before we might have had a blurry vision of hurriedly packed boxes and perhaps confusion in returning them to the government, the highly classified markings – some so sensitive that FBI agents had to receive additional clearances to review them – brings the situation into sharp relief. The super-secret papers at Mar-a-Lago were right next to framed Time magazine covers featuring Trump.
That point is driven home in DOJ’s late-night court filing, declaring that “government records were likely concealed and removed from the storage room,” and that “efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”
The most devastating detail: While the Trump team had assured investigators that all the classified documents remained in the storage room, the FBI search team found some in the desk of what is called the “45 Office.”
What’s more, the agents found more than 100 documents with classification markings in Trump’s Palm Beach residence, twice as many as his lawyers had provided while insisting they had returned everything sought by the National Archives.
So it turns out there’s more to that vague “obstruction” reference in the heavily redacted FBI affidavit. It’s possible that Merrick Garland is preparing to charge Trump with obstruction of justice – although that wouldn’t be until at least after the election. And it’s just as possible that, unless Trump utilized those secret papers in some way, he will never be charged.
But what’s clear is that many of his explanations – complete cooperation, no need for a search warrant – have crumbled from the time that we were all stunned by Garland’s move.
Trump’s defense yesterday on Truth Social: “Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see. Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!”
First, the FBI isn’t pretending Trump did anything. Second, the docs are still secret, since we’re only seeing the cover sheets. Third, even Trump’s lawyers don’t claim he declassified the papers.
DOJ was responding to the Trump team’s request to a Florida judge he appointed for a special master to review the documents. This seems moot, since a Justice team has already completed its review, but it opened the door for the department to reveal more about its months-long battle with the former president.
It may seem, especially to fierce supporters of Donald Trump, that the media are piling on. After all, the uproar over this latest filing follows the uproar over Trump saying he should be reinstated as president, or granted a new election, after the FBI warned the media in 2020 about “Russian disinformation” that led to the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
And that followed the uproar over Lindsey Graham saying there would “literally” be “riots in the street” if Trump is indicted for mishandling classified papers.
Plus, there are legitimate questions about President Biden being held to a far lower standard for the harshness of his recent rhetoric against MAGA Republicans.
But what journalists are dealing with in these latest Trump developments are facts. The politics and the particulars can be debated, but his own words, and government court filings, aren’t a media creation. And given the unprecedented situation of a former president under criminal investigation, even the widely distrusted fourth estate has little choice but to report these facts – fairly but fully.