Thanks to the Don, US politics have turned to farce—dominated by a man whose unprecedented legal troubles only fuel his astonishing popularity. Trump is now the first ex-president to be indicted on national security charges. But in the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of US politics, it may boost his chances of securing the Republican nomination.
Editor’s note: Yup, all of us are suffering from Trump fatigue. So we’re keeping this one as tight as possible.
#DocumentGate: the prosecutors’ timeline
Here’s the timeline—based on the prosecutors' allegations—of how the former US president ended up in the dock on serious charges of ‘stealing’ confidential White House documents:
Moving house: Trump moved out of the White House in January 2021. Prosecutors claim he ordered the movement of dozens of storage boxes to Mar-a-Lago—which also contained hundreds of classified files—which he is not allowed to possess once he vacates office.
Wandering around Mar-a-Lago: These files then wander around various locations at Mar-a-Lago—which is Trump’s Florida residence and golf resort. These include a ballroom and a bathroom—where they were “stacked next to a toilet, a vanity and a trash can”—as per a photo submitted by prosecutors.
The first warning: Around May, 2021, the National Archive—which is the official custodian of all presidential archives—realises that a number of Trump docs are missing. They ask him to turn these over—over and over again but to no avail.
Wanna see my big map? Trump instead moves around 80 boxes to a storage room—and shows a writer a military “plan of attack” against Iran that he says is “highly confidential”.
It gets even better: He also tells the writer: “[A]s president I could have declassified it... Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.” In September, he allegedly showed a classified map of a foreign military operation to a rep of his political action committee—which raises money for his election campaign.
The silly season: Trump then asks his “body man” Walt Nauta to “start moving boxes from a storage room to his residence for him to review.” But that’s not the worst of it:
Nauta finds that several of Trump’s boxes have fallen, spilling papers onto the storage room floor, the indictment says. Among them is a document with a “SECRET” intelligence marking. According to the indictment, Nauta texts another Trump employee, “I opened the door and found this,” to which the other employee replies, “Oh no oh no.”
Giving back… a little: After repeated demands and warnings from the National Archives, Trump gives back 15 boxes of documents in January 2022. The documents, however, make officials more anxious than ever because:
The boxes are found to contain 197 documents with classified markings, including 69 marked confidential, 98 secret and 30 top secret. Some documents have markings suggesting they include information from highly sensitive human sources or the collection of electronic “signals” authorised by a court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
So the National Archive decides this stuff is above its paygrade—and refers the matter to the Justice Department. In March, the FBI opens its investigation—and a grand jury is asked to decide if there was enough evidence to indict Trump in April.
It’s all about the coverup: In May, the grand jury issued a subpoena requiring Trump to turn over all classified materials in his possession. According to prosecutors, he rejects legal advice to comply, telling his lawyers:
I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes… Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here? And isn’t it better if there are no documents?
When his own lawyers find “38 additional classified documents—five documents marked confidential, 16 marked secret and 17 marked top secret,” Trump’s response is this:
After the search, prosecutors say, Trump asks: “Did you find anything?...Is it bad? Good?” and makes a plucking motion that the lawyer takes to mean that he should take out anything “really bad” before turning over the papers.
The FBI cometh: In June, FBI agents and a Justice Department lawyer collect the 38 classified documents from Trump’s lawyer in Mar-a-Lago. His lawyers also supply a false sworn statement claiming to have turned over all classified documents. In August, the FBI returns armed with a search warrant—and finds “102 classified documents—75 in the storage room and 27 in Trump’s office, including three found in office desks.”
Ok, how bad is this indictment?
After an extended courtroom drama that bought Trump time—thanks to a judge appointed by him—the Don has now been formally indicted:
Overall, [the prosecutor’s] team charged Trump with 37 counts, accusing him of unauthorised retention of defence information, conspiring to obstruct justice, withholding government documents, scheming to conceal information from a grand jury, and causing false statements to be made to the government. They also charged Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta on six counts, accusing him of making false statements to the FBI and conspiring with Trump to conceal information.
Point to note: If convicted, he will most certainly face a prison term—as will Nauta: “The most serious charges carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years each, but first-time offenders rarely get anywhere near the maximum sentence and the decision would ultimately be up to the judge.”
How bad is it? An indictment merely frames the charges—that still have to be proven in court. Trump is innocent until proven guilty. But the evidence is overwhelming and well-documented with photos, texts, and surveillance footage:
In sum, the indictment depicts a man who knew that what he was doing was wrong, and went to great lengths to cover it up. Trump knew exactly how bad it would be if the documents were found, and wanted them destroyed or hidden.
You can see the boxes stacked in the ballroom below:
And—lord help us—in the bathroom:
What we still don’t know: The details of the classified information contained in these documents—but they are related to national security—and include: military capabilities of the US and other countries, US nuclear programs, military weaknesses of the US and its allies, retaliation plans in response to a foreign attack. That’s pretty damning in itself.
The other great unknown: Why the eff he was holding on to this highly sensitive information. We won’t know what the prosecutors will argue until they get into court, but a 2022 Washington Post report—based on folks involved in the investigation—claimed this:
That review has not found any apparent business advantage to the types of classified information in Trump’s possession, these people said. FBI interviews with witnesses so far, they said, also do not point to any nefarious effort by Trump to leverage, sell or use the government secrets. Instead, the former president seemed motivated by a more basic desire not to give up what he believed was his property, these people said.
OTOH: An ex-president who believes that classified information is “his”—may also do with it what he will. This does not discount the possibility that Trump at some point may have been happy to profit from this information.
And he’s still running for president?
Of course, he is. After being indicted, Trump merrily went on to address a Republican convention in Georgia—where he cast the case as a conspiracy to undermine democracy:
They’ve launched one witch hunt after another to try and stop our movement, to thwart the will of the American people. In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you.
And why not? Recent surveys show that two-third of his supporters are not bothered by the many investigations and allegations against him. In fact, only 7% of Republican voters—said these affected their vote. And 57% of all voters agree with Trump that the cases are “politically motivated.” When it comes to these documents, specifically:
Overall, just under half of Americans thought Mr. Trump intentionally did something wrong in how he handled the classified documents, an ABC/Washington Post poll found earlier this year. An additional 29% adults thought he may have unintentionally done something wrong, and 20% thought he did not do anything wrong.
Point to note: Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination by a mile—with 55.8% support of his party voters. Florida governor Ron DeSantis—once the favourite to topple Trump—is a distant second with 23.5%.
The clearest sign: of his invulnerability is the fact that none of his Republican rivals have pounced on the opportunity to attack Trump—and are instead grumbling about the “weaponisation of federal law enforcement” by Joe Biden. The only sign of dissent is a glaring silence from Senate Republicans—who already lost ground in the midterm elections to Trump’s shenanigans.
Most Republicans have already moved on to demanding a similar indictment of Hunter Biden—accusing the father and son of taking a bribe from Ukrainian officials. FYI: a right wing site just released photos of a naked Hunter doing coke and cavorting with sex workers. So the allegations against Trump may devolve into yet another case of whataboutery. The cropped Hunter Biden photo below gives you a sense of these images:
Quote to note: The Washington Post nicely sums up why Trump can rely on three tiers of support on the right—even among those who suspect he is guilty:
Those who quickly agreed that Trump was being unfairly targeted. The elected officials—and Trump’s competitors in the 2024 nominating contest!—echoing that same claim. The people suggesting that the real issue was that, say, this was a slippery slope for the politicisation of law enforcement. Sure, the indictment wasn’t great, but here was the real issue.
The bottomline: Donald Trump once famously declared, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" He is absolutely right. OTOH, this meme sums up the state of US national security these days:
Associated Press has the best timeline of the events leading up to the indictment. Vox explains the case at length—while Politico and BBC News have key takeaways. The Atlantic argues that these are the stupidest crimes imaginable. New York Times points to the glaring absence of any theory as to why he did it. The Observer says that the indictment will be used to put Biden on trial. Washington Post lays out the three tiers of Trump supporters—and their motives for aiding and abetting his madness. Vox has more on why the Republicans are freaking out—while CNN explains their conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden.