‘Oblivion’: Desperate Trump’s dark view of US not visible in red county on banks of Potomac River

Possible obstruction charges should worry former president most, former federal prosecutor says

Justice Department filings Tuesday night included this photo of materials marked classified that were uncovered by the FBI during the search of Mar-a-Lago. (Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Justice Department filings Tuesday night included this photo of materials marked classified that were uncovered by the FBI during the search of Mar-a-Lago. (Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Posted September 2, 2022 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS | COLONIAL BEACH, Va. — A bald eagle swooped southbound over Mattox Creek under a late-summer sun, before returning minutes later on a northward path over the sparkling water.

The national bird's likeness often is splashed on T-shirts and other merchandise hailing Donald Trump. The real thing's path on Aug. 26 was methodical yet purposeful, every wing flap instinctually timed and more powerful than the last — unlike a spate of recent public statements from the former president.

On its return flight, the eagle banked briefly to the left before turning hard to the right, following the path of the creek. As it turned over land, likely in search of an early lunch, its measured impatience was symbolic of a country left with little to do but wait for release of a redacted affidavit used by FBI officials to obtain a search warrant to retrieve government, including classified, documents from Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence.

The bird of prey’s maneuvers and demeanor also offered a contrast to those of the country’s 45th president, who has reacted erratically and angrily to the contents of the affidavit.

Trump’s social media posts and emailed statements since all have had a certain throwing-public-relations-spaghetti-at-the-wall feel. So far, little has stuck — though bottom-shelf marinara sauce can take on a ketchup-like consistency. Trump appears rattled and frustrated by a number of moves and court filings by federal officials that suggest Trump, dubbed a political “street fighter” by convicted former strategist Steve Bannon, is now a desperate combatant with no clear strategy who is swinging wildly at various foes.

But he is landing few, if any, punches in the legal squared circle.

One former federal prosecutor, granted anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, told CQ Roll Call the Tuesday evening DOJ filing could prove “devastating” because it shows a clear intention by Trump to prevent the government from continuing its probe and retrieving documents it — not Trump — legally owns.

To that end, several highly classified documents were found in desks in the former president’s Mar-a-Lago office — rather than in secure storage rooms, as his aides had told the FBI, according to the filing.

'Fruits of crime'

Once made public, the affidavit included the term “fruits of crime,” saying federal investigators had “probable cause” to believe such evidence was inside Trump’s ritzy club. That phrase jumped off the page because it is perhaps the closest FBI and Justice officials had, at that point, come to flatly saying they believe the former commander in chief broke one or more major federal laws.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii noticed, tweeting those very three words.

So did British journalist John Sweeney, who the same day tweeted his conclusion about what the term could mean for the former president: “Donald Trump, the endgame begins.”

No charges have been filed. Yet.

But Trump’s political career? The endgame could well be underway, even if he remains the GOP’s one true kingmaker. After all, empires rarely collapse overnight.

The DOJ documents filed Tuesday in a South Florida court include a photo FBI agents took inside Mar-a-Lago. It showed a number of documents stamped “Top Secret/SCI” or “Secret/SCI” that agents confiscated on Aug. 8. The photo was part of a broader filing alleging Trump and/or his aides purposely moved and/or tried to hide documents team Trump contends it had already turned over to federal investigators.

The powerful image likely could help federal prosecutors establish a “pattern of intent” by Trump to possess the documents in direct violation of federal laws, Norm Eisen, White House chief ethics officer under President Barack Obama, told CNN on Wednesday.

“Efforts were likely taken to obstruct” one or more DOJ investigations, he said, noting Trump’s lawyers signed statements in June saying all classified information had been removed before the Aug. 8 search.

“Boxes formerly in the storage room were not returned. That’s all proof of intent,” Eisen added. “One hundred classified documents in that last load. That’s all powerful proof of intent. … If I was advising those lawyers, I’d tell those lawyers to get lawyers — that’s when you know you’ve got a very bad situation.”

Meantime, on Truth Social …

… The former president has shown he continues to lack the discipline of the Mattox Creek bald eagle.

The banned-from-Twitter Trump and his acolytes have taken a more erratic path on the ironically named social platform, leaving behind a baffling wake of baseless conspiracy theories, outright falsehoods and logic-torching explanations about the documents found in Florida.

A prime example came Wednesday morning.

Trump alleged that the agents on Aug. 8 “threw documents haphazardly all over the floor.” In the same post, he alleged it was done “perhaps pretending it was me that did it!” Fact check: They were stacked purposely, complete with an evidence placard marked “2A” so investigators could build a photographic record of what they found. Standard practice.

Trump also again contended he declassified the papers. Fact check: He has produced no evidence he formally did so.

Armed with a legal defense Eisen said “doesn’t hold much water,” Trump on Tuesday called on some unnamed — and likely nonexistent — federal elections entity to do something no federal body appears to have the authority to do: “Declare the rightful winner, or hold a new Election, NOW! Our Country, which is failing badly, knows the ‘score,’ and will never accept Criminal Election Interference.”

Two weekly polls — one from Morning Consult and Politico and another from The Economist and YouGov — show Democrats steadily pulling ahead of Republicans on the generic question of which party voters want to control Congress. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has shifted the battle for Senate control to a “toss up,” writing in a recent blog post that Democrats are “hoping to make this election more of a choice than a referendum,” in part due to “a continued focus on a particularly visible former president, Donald Trump.”

'Nation in decline'

As the GOP’s midterm elections prospects darken, so, too, has Trump’s description of a country seeing both inflation and gas prices decline — even if slowly.

In a bleak and exaggerated emailed statement issued Aug. 25, Trump said “the cliff into oblivion is within sight.”

Later that day, locals in this Northern Neck community gathered at Dockside Restaurant & Tiki Bar for happy hour. Trump’s “oblivion” looked and sounded like the opposite.

Strangers sat at the bar talking about one woman’s Navy son seeing the world. She was trading stories with a man, himself a sea service veteran, who remarked about his own shore time abroad and nodded vigorously while she listed places her son had visited. A jovial bartender listened in, Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” playing on the outdoor speaker system, and grinned as she delivered two locally brewed IPAs to another customer.

From the patrons sitting at picnic tables on the sand to those at high-top tables on a nearby deck to those bellied up to Dockside’s three-sided tiki bar, there were nothing but smiles and laughter — even in a county where the median household income of $53,790 is far under the mid-Atlantic commonwealth’s overall level: $76,398, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“America is a nation in decline,” Trump had declared in the same statement that day.

Yet, except for the occasional spotting of a “Trump Won” or “Trump Train” flag, this river-and-creek community did not, despite voting (53.5 percent to Joe Biden's 45.3 percent) to give him a second term, reflect Trump’s assessment of America.

At one local supermarket, one aisle was freshly stocked each day with nearly 10 brands of mayonnaise — most with multiple blends. Another featured row upon row of locally raised and caught meats and seafood. Patrons chitchatted about the antics of their aging parents and kids or traded stories about the state of their boats. Many loaded bags of groceries into shiny new Ford, Dodge and Chevy pickup trucks or SUVs.

About four hours after the affidavit was released Aug. 26, an older couple was dining at Wilkerson's seafood restaurant along the Potomac River with their grown son.

The father and son were discussing Trump and the papers he took to Florida. The son, raising his voice in the mostly empty establishment, said he did not think Trump should be allowed to again become president because some of the confiscated papers were reportedly related to nuclear weapons programs. His father tried to defend the former chief executive, then notably pulled back.

“Y’all know I voted for Trump,” he was overheard saying loudly. “But, if it’s nukes, that does make it all more complicated, I know. I know it …”

So does the DOJ document filed Tuesday night, which the former federal prosecutor said makes possible obstruction of justice charges the most grave threat to Trump’s political future — and his freedom.

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.