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The only two questions that matter about Trump and the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago

How did the former president intend to use the information he took from the White House?

Former President Donald Trump in New York recently after meeting with state Attorney General Letitia James. A federal magistrate judge will decide soon whether to release parts of the affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago.
Former President Donald Trump in New York recently after meeting with state Attorney General Letitia James. A federal magistrate judge will decide soon whether to release parts of the affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. (James Devaney/GC Images)

ANALYSIS — Donald Trump’s ever-changing story about documents FBI agents confiscated from his Florida resort is yet another instance of the former president’s deny-and-distract strategy.

The legally questionable claim that he had a standing — verbal — order that all papers removed from the White House were automatically declassified is also a smokescreen.

So, too, are his social media griping that his passports were swept up in the raid when the agents cleaned out a safe; his seeming lies about documents being planted; and his attorney telling Fox News an inventory document listing what was taken was “worthless.”

Trump’s emerging legal defenses just don’t hold much water and are not likely to convince the courts, many legal experts are saying.

“While Trump could have declassified whatever he liked while president, his apparent inability to produce any credible evidence that he actually did so is a genuine problem — particularly against the backdrop of an incumbent president who clearly sees the documents as still classified,” said Scott Anderson, a former senior legal adviser at the State Department.

“More importantly, none of the criminal provisions listed in the search warrant hinge on whether the documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago are classified or not, making declassification he might have pursued largely irrelevant,” added Anderson, now with the Brookings Institution. “At most, Trump’s declassification defense seems best suited to the political realm as a means of casting the legitimacy, not the legality, of the search into doubt.”

It is all meant to distract from the only two questions that matter:

Why?

Federal investigators no doubt are looking into why an outgoing commander in chief would take the specific documents found at Mar-a-Lago.

Answers could come as soon as Aug. 25, when federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart will decide whether to release parts of the affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for the Aug. 8 raid. Reinhart, who approved the search warrant, on Thursday heard from attorneys from the Justice Department and Trump’s team. During that session, he reportedly said he is “inclined” to release parts of the document, directing DOJ to bring him a redacted version that would not hinder its investigation of Trump. Reinhart will decide next week whether to make that version public.

Justice Department officials say agents took almost a dozen boxes or crates of government documents last week, reportedly including data on nuclear weapons.

As DOJ officials mull whether to charge a former president with violating the Espionage Act, mishandling government documents or obstructing an ongoing federal probe, whether the documents he took were stamped with various levels of classification likely won’t matter.

So your correspondent will leave analyzing all of that to others, opting instead to ask: Why did Donald Trump take sensitive government documents to his Florida resort and stash them in a storage room?

How?

Trump has changed his, uh, story about the confiscated papers at least three times.

First, he contended they were not there at all. Next, he claimed the FBI agents planted them. Now he says he unclassified them, with former aides saying he issued a standing — verbal, it seems — order that any documents removed from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be automatically declassified.

Trump and Co. would prefer this kind of debate, fogging his possible true motives with the kind of bureaucratic minutia he said on the 2016 campaign trail he loathed — remember “Drain the swamp”? — and never showed any interest in as president.

More focus needs to be placed on this question: How did Trump intend to use the information contained in the documents?

Most things with the former president are designed to increase his wealth-to-debt ratio or humiliate someone he believes has failed, betrayed or slighted him.

The latter explains why documents about French President Emmanuel Macron were reportedly included in the documents Trump took. The former? Could anyone who has studied The Donald’s adult life really rule out that the documents he took were in a Mar-a-Lago basement with the goal of one day using them for personal profit?

Steve Schmidt, a longtime GOP strategist, went there in a recent Substack post.

“The Saudi bomb would be a profound danger, and the proliferation it would represent might lead straight back to a Mar-a-Lago safe,” wrote the former adviser to the late Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain. “It might well turn out that Donald Trump, the barely literate Queens hustler and disgraced former President, is the American A.Q. Khan.” Kahn, who is considered the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear arms program, was accused of selling atomic secrets and placed under house arrest in 2004.

After all, part of the Espionage Act federal officials think Trump might have violated focuses on whether an action might benefit a foreign adversary or harm U.S. interests.

But rather than explain himself, Trump is busily changing his story and frantically searching for at least one more serious attorney with a scintilla of experience in national security law, election law or taking on the Justice Department. He’s also busy using his MAGA code on his social media platform to keep his base fired up — and ready for action.

The former president is doing the bare minimum to dissuade his supporters — several of whom, while armed, already have tried — from harming federal law enforcement officers. In that way, he might as well be back on the rally stage at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021, before some of his followers carried out the Capitol riot.

It is all part of season three of “The Trump Show,” a darker, legal-based version that debuted during the 2016 presidential campaign (season one) and continued during his presidency (season two).

With Congress mercifully on recess and President Joe Biden taking some summer R and R, the news is all Donald Trump, all the time right now.

So far, most of season three takes place not inside the White House or the gold leaf walls of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida or on the leafy fairways of his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. Rather, this season is based inside the offices of senior FBI and Justice Department officials, as well as the state attorney generals’ offices in New York and Georgia.

There are gripping deposition scenes inside conference rooms on Capitol Hill and inside pricey Washington law firm office suites. And, of course, season three has included dramatic testimony to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot during public hearings in the Cannon House Office Building.

But this season features an ensemble cast of Trump aides past and present and focuses on what the first two “Trump Show” seasons meant for the country and its political system. It also is, as we’ve seen since the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago, full of episodes in which Trump and his ragtag group of attorneys change their stories multiple times each day.

The cast is about to grow, as the country learns more about The Donald’s latest legal team — though some will no doubt snicker at that description, other than acknowledging that all of its members are attorneys. Reinhart starred in Thursday’s episode, and fittingly, delivered yet another cliffhanger. Stay tuned, as always, when Trump is involved.

Then there is the man Trump claims sent the FBI agents — ignoring Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who said he did so — into his private office, safe and storage room: Biden.

Conveniently, the 46th president has been vacationing in South Carolina and Delaware. There are no pool sprays for reporters to shout questions about the seized documents or whether Trump should be charged or what his predecessor’s intent might have been.

There are no daily briefings during which reporters might cause a spokesperson to slip up and give away even a smidge of a presidential preference about the many federal- and state-level investigations into Trump, the Jan. 6 riot and his organization’s questionable business and tax practices.

All Biden has to do is reapply the sunscreen, smile for the cameras during a beachfront bike ride and allow his most likely 2024 opponent to continue narrating what very well could be the beginning of the end of his political career — one contradictory and possibly incriminating Truth Social post after another.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter. The next edition of his column will be published Friday, Sept. 2.

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