Too often in our dizzying, hyper-charged, digital media universe, it happens that the proverbial trees are lost and forgotten, swallowed up by the sheer, overwhelming magnitude of the forest. Enough has already been written at this point about Donald Trump’s deliberate retention of our government’s classified documents, his (fairly pathetic) attempts to justify and excuse their retention, and the ramifications of his prosecution for retaining them to occupy presidential historians and political pundits for a long, long time.
All of that is worthwhile, but ultimately what it does is focus everyone’s attention on the mechanics and consequences of what is essentially a simple act of theft. The real question that needs to be more precisely addressed is: Why? Why risk criminal prosecution over these documents? There’s little doubt Trump knew exactly what the consequences could be. That’s why he tried so hard to conceal the bare fact of the documents’ theft. First he tried to hide the fact that he’d taken them. Then he invented excuses to explain why he’d felt entitled to take them. Finally, he tried to deflect blame by pointing out that other people had (in his view) done the same thing, and that he was somehow being singled out.
But all of this still begs the question of “why?” The answer to that question hasn’t been discussed much. The media have skated around that question, because the most likely answer makes some people in this country very uncomfortable. The most logical reason Trump went to such lengths to keep these classified documents—in the face of potentially dire criminal liability—is because he expected an opportunity to share the information they contained for his own personal gain. And the fact that this would very likely implicate outright treason on his part? He had to be expecting to commit that as well.
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As astutely observed by Fintan O’Toole, writing for the New York Review of Books:
Secrets are a kind of currency. They can be hoarded, but if kept for too long they lose their value. Like all currencies, they must, sooner or later, be used in a transaction—sold to the highest bidder or bartered as a favor for which another favor will be returned. To see the full scale of Donald Trump’s betrayal of his country, it is necessary to start with this reality. He kept intelligence documents because, at some point, those secrets could be used in a transaction. What he was stockpiling were the materials of treason. He may not have known how and when he would cash in this currency, but there can be little doubt that he was determined to retain the ability to do just that.
O’Toole skewers the media for focusing on the seemingly haphazard, almost comedic nature of the way the documents were discovered to be stored: in bathrooms and storerooms, amidst a near constant stream of random visitors and guests at Mar-a-Lago, occasionally brandished with a knowing alacrity, seemingly to impress a sycophant or two. As O’Toole notes, this focus misses the essential point.
It defines the scandal as, in the words of Alan Feuer and Maggie Haberman in The New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s indifference toward the country’s most sensitive secrets.” But this is not a tale of indifference. Trump cared a great deal about the value of the documents. He cared enough, per the indictment, to suggest that his attorney lie to the FBI and a grand jury about what papers he did or did not have. Even Trump does not engage in a criminal conspiracy purely for its own sake. The retention of those boxes mattered to him because he understood the market value of what they contained.
And, as O’Toole notes, by myopically focusing on the admittedly ludicrous aspect of the documents’ retention, the media distracts from the very real, very risky lengths Trump took to conceal the fact that he had them, as well as the way he treated them before members of his own inner circle. He notes a revealing instance from the FBI’s investigation, as attested to in the actual indictment:
66. Trump and Trump Attorney 1 then discussed what to do with the Redwell folder containing documents with classification markings, and whether Trump Attorney 1 should bring them to his hotel room and put them in a safe there. During that conversation, Trump made a plucking motion as memorialized by Trump Attorney 1:
He made a funny motion as though, well, okay, why don’t you take them with you to your hotel room and if there’s anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out. And that was the motion he made. He didn’t say that.
As O’Toole observes, this is the behavior of someone who doesn’t want to say the words out loud, because he knows the consequences if he does. As O’Toole writes, “There is nothing thoughtless or accidental in all of this.” Rather, it was well-calculated by Trump, with full awareness of the risk.
That doesn’t mean, as O’Toole acknowledges, that Trump wasn’t enjoying the “thrill” of “getting away” with something he knew he shouldn’t be doing. He doubtlessly was. And deep in the recesses of his mind he may even have felt he somehow had the “right” to keep them (although, as the indictment clearly spells out, that isn’t the way he behaved). However, these are not excuses that the American public must accept; neither are they excuses that would be tolerated if any other individual had committed the actions Trump has been accused of.
The character of the documents, coupled with Trump’s inherent, well-known preference for the transactional in all his personal dealings—whether attempting to extort a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political opponent or simply paying off his adult film mistress with hush money—strongly suggest that Trump, at least in the back of his mind, intended to use these documents and the information as barter, to get something for himself. Put simply, that’s just the way he thinks, and as O’Toole observes, the efforts Trump went through here make it “impossible to believe that he did this accidentally or without considering that he might at some time use that power in return for some financial or other benefits.”
Because the documents, as attested to by the government’s affidavit, contain or reveal information that would by its nature appeal to certain foreign governments: namely, plans of military attack, intelligence methods, maps, and information relating to U.S. assets, agents, and informants overseas. There is a discrete quality and character of those who would desire such information, and while O’Toole allows that Trump may not (yet) have committed treason, the possession and continued retention of such documents made him well equipped to commit it at some future date.
The sad irony that Republicans have fairly leapt to defend Trump under these circumstances doesn’t escape O’Toole, either.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that most of the Republican Party is fine with this. Much of the history of the right in America is bound up with paranoia about the possible existence of traitors at high levels of government. Here is stark evidence of the existence of one at the very highest level of government, and Republicans are rushing to defend him … If the hoarding of state secrets as valuable currency cannot be called treason, the concept has gone the way of honor, truthfulness, and respect for law. It has ceased to exist for the Republican Party.
So, before the media gets too lost in whatever legal technicalities Trump’s counsel may float in an effort to exonerate or justify his actions regarding these classified materials, going forward, it’s incumbent on them to keep reminding the American public why he most likely wanted to keep them in the first place.