Two mysteries pop out from the reports that, in its search of Mar-a-Lago, the FBI found classified documents about nuclear weapons and signals intelligence. First, precisely what is in these documents? Second, why did Donald Trump pilfer them from the White House when he left office in January?
We may never know the answers. Even if the Justice Department publicly releases the search warrant and an itemized list of the documents it retrieved, items related to national security are likely to be redacted. And as for Trump’s motives, they may be the stuff for psychoanalysts to ascertain.
Still, if, as the New York Times reports, these documents “are related to some of the most highly classified programs run by the United States,” a few guesses can be made.
“Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons,” as the Washington Post describes some of the items that FBI agents sought at Mar-a-Lago, could refer to a wide variety of things—from the size of the U.S. arsenal (which many private analysts have calculated) to the nuclear stockpiles of foreign nations (somewhat sensitive) to the design of nuclear weapons, the nature of command-control mechanisms, or ways to neutralize foreign nukes (all of which are highly classified, and justifiably so). As Barack Obama once put it, “There’s classified, and there’s classified.” Documents covering this last group of topics are classified.
Some on Twitter have wondered if Trump might have taken the nuclear codes, but this is not remotely possible. It’s conceivable that he absconded with the “biscuit,” the card containing the launch codes, as a souvenir of his time as commander in chief. Traditionally, a president turns in his card the moment his successor is sworn in, but Trump didn’t attend Joe Biden’s inauguration, so he might have just slipped it in his pocket. Still, if he did pull this stunt, it wouldn’t matter, as the codes are changed when power is transferred. Just past noon on Jan. 20, 2021, Trump’s card, whatever its location, was erased. Nor is there anything on an erased card that a foreign spy or terrorist or anyone else would find useful, according to a former official who is familiar with the technology.
However, a spy would be very interested in any documents on signals intelligence—which refers to intercepts of foreign communications, the sorts of materials that are considered the “crown jewels” of intelligence collection. Such documents are classified beyond Top Secret. Some are marked SAP, for Special Access Program—documents that only a small number of officials, who are specifically and individually cleared for access to these programs, can see or even know about.
Again, we don’t know—and may never know—precisely what documents Trump took. Are they transcripts of intercepts—conversations that he had with foreign leaders, or that foreign leaders had with their aides or with other foreign leaders? (The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that “information about the ‘President of France’ ” was on the three-page receipt of items taken from the property.) Are they briefing papers on intelligence-gathering sources and methods? Whatever he possessed in this realm, a foreign spy would find such a trove extremely valuable.
A former Trump staffer named Kash Patel has said that Trump declassified a lot of material before leaving office, so his possession of certain documents might not be illegal. He may know something about this. A former intelligence aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, Patel served on Trump’s National Security Council with Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who’d been recruited by Gen. Michael Flynn and who was so extreme in his views that Flynn’s successor, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, fired him. However, in November 2020, after losing the election, Trump appointed Patel acting chief of staff to his newly appointed acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller—and he appointed Cohen-Watnick as undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. More pertinently, earlier in the year, he’d named Cohen-Watnick to chair the Public Interest Declassification Board, which he’d packed with other political allies.
It is not known why Trump took such an interest in the board; most other presidents ignored it and left vacated positions unfilled. Nor is it known how many documents Cohen-Watnick and the others got declassified.
Whatever Trump’s aims, the attempt was misguided, for several reasons. First, it is illegal to willfully conceal or remove any federal documents, whether or not they are classified. Moreover, anyone found guilty of this crime is subject to a fine and up to three years in prison—and “disqualified from holding any office under the United States,” though some debate whether that particular punishment could be applied to the presidency, qualifications for which are strictly laid out in the Constitution.
Second, a document is not declassified just because the president—or the head of the Public Interest Declassification Board—says it is. It has to go through a formal process, in which the security stamps, tags, or labels are removed. It seems at least some of the documents at Mar-a-Lago did not go through this process; according to the Journal, the FBI removed 11 sets of classified documents, four sets labeled “Top Secret,” one marked “Various classified/TS/SCI documents.”
The latter group—whose initials stand for “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information”—probably includes the documents relating to nuclear weapons or signals intelligence. If any of the documents concern atomic weapons design, they can be declassified only by a special panel of the Department of Energy.
It is ironic that so many of his documents are so highly classified. In January 2018, Trump signed a law upgrading the crime of mishandling secret documents from a misdemeanor to a felony. This was clearly a jab at Hillary Clinton, his foe in the 2016 election, who Trump had said should be locked up for her careless handling of classified information as Obama’s secretary of state. (As John Lennon once put it, “Instant karma’s gonna get you/ Gonna knock you right on the head.”)
While we’re on the subject, what about Hillary’s email? Of the 30,000 emails that the FBI examined, eight were found to contain Top Secret information. Seven of them were about CIA drone strikes, which had been reported in the newspapers (but were still technically classified). The other one was an account of a telephone conversation with the president of Malawi. (All conversations with foreign leaders are, by definition, Top Secret.) In other words, she revealed nothing remotely about nuclear weapons, signals intelligence, or anything that might have enlightened a foreign spy.
And so we are left to ponder the final, most puzzling question: Why did Trump hang on to these documents? What could he gain from doing so? Some on Twitter speculate that he might want to sell the documents to foreign governments. I wouldn’t put much past Trump, but even I consider this theory extremely unlikely. (That said, storing these materials at a public place like Mar-a-Lago is stunningly irresponsible. It is proper that the FBI also sought surveillance video showing who was wandering into the storage area.)
My guess about Trump’s motives (and, at this point, it can only be a guess): pure, testosterone-driven ego.
The Washington Post reported back in February, when the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of materials from Mar-a-Lago, that Trump retained much of his correspondence, including the “love letters”—as he once described them—with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The Post attributed this information to “two people familiar with the” documents. This suggests that Trump showed the letters to people. Who were these people? We don’t know. Was he showing the letters in order to show off? It seems likely.
If so, one can imagine Trump—who was always prone to brag about his power—showing off documents about nuclear launch controls or transcripts of conversations among world leaders. Look how powerful I was, how privy I was to everything, these possessions would convey. Look how powerful and privy to everything I might become once again, they would imply.
We don’t know if the Justice Department can build a criminal case on Trump’s unlawful pilfering and possession of these documents. It is reassuring that, for now, whatever documents the FBI was able to recover are back in safe hands. It would be a much bigger relief if, by the punishment for his actions, Trump is barred from ever taking hold of them again.