As the saying goes in Russia, Russians would sell their mothers into prostitution if it made them money. In the case of Trump being a Russian lover and likely Russian asset, would Trump sell Russia or other governments, possibly the Saudis, US secrets for money?
People have been saying for years that the walls are closing on Donald Trump. This time, it feels more real than it ever has been. At least three separate grand juries have been impaneled that are examining him for criminal conduct. One in the state of Georgia, investigating his attempt to overturn the election in that state. A federal grand jury is investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And yet another federal grand jury investigating the removal of classified documents from the White House that were not turned over to the National Archives. That’s a lot of potential criminal liability. The motive in the Georgia and January 6 case seems relatively straightforward: stay in power, avoid humiliation. But what about taking top-secret documents? What was the motive? Let’s explore some options.
Possible motive #1: selling classified information
This would be a pretty huge deal. But it’s not so farfetched when you consider it. Trump’s most significant motivating factor has always been money. The money he made as president by forcing the Secret Service and his aides to stay at his properties was real. Specifically, Trump’s businesses made $2.4 billion during his time as president. A large amount of this came from taxpayers. Trump was also undeterred by the 9/11 victims who protested hosting a Saudi Arabia-backed golfing event at his New Jersey golf club. Whatever Trump has done and continues to do throughout his life, money has always been a motivating factor.
But would he go so far as to sell access to classified information? And to whom? Trump, notorious for receiving oral briefings because he hates reading, would unlikely be poring over the documents himself. So why take them? As of this writing, The New York Times reports that some of the documents recovered by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago were classified as “Top Secret.” The Times reports:
The person said that the F.B.I. left behind a two-page manifest of what was taken. The F.B.I. does not need to list the substance of every item it removed from Mar-a-Lago, and it is not clear what the inventory will reveal if it is unsealed by a Florida judge. If the manifest is made public, it is likely to be redacted to shield any classified material.
But the inventory provided to Mr. Trump’s team does reference an array of sensitive material, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. For example, it alludes to miscellaneous confidential documents as well some [sic] labeled “top secret.”
That, in and of itself, is a pretty huge deal. It is also eye-opening, given recent reporting from CNN that the grand jury investigating the theft of the documents had subpoenaed them back in June. In fact, the whole purpose of the FBI warrant was that they had probable cause to believe he did not hand all the documents over. And if the warrant confirms reporting from The Times, they were correct.
This leaves us with three distinct possibilities:
- Trump made copies; and/or
- He didn’t lawfully comply with a subpoena from a federal grand jury; and/or
- He and his team lied to the FBI.
All three of these are bad. So why is he going to such lengths to keep the information he took? Is he selling it? Is he passing it to foreign countries? National Security experts were surprised that the chief counterintelligence official at the Department of Justice, Jay Bratt, signed off on the motion to unseal the warrant.
This could indicate that the investigation goes much further than the public knows. Or it could be a red herring. We will find out in time.
It’s also worth mentioning that Trump is notorious for hosting large parties and gatherings at Mar-a-Lago. Incidentally, he was keeping the top secret documents stored in some room without a lock on it. It wasn’t until April or May of this year when the Department of Justice lawyers asked him to put a lock on the room to secure the information. Trump held a major party at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve. Among those in attendance were Matt Gaetz and Rudy Giuliani. Did they have a chance to look at the documents? Did Trump sell access to these documents to party guests? Did someone wander off from the party and access the insecure room where the documents were being held?
These are questions that investigators and the federal grand jury are likely asking and may already know the answers to. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton’s server was never hacked (like the State Department), she didn’t have physical copies of classified documents at her home, and she didn’t host large parties at her house where people could access those documents. It is necessary to put this example here to establish how different these two events are and just how egregious Trump’s behavior was.
Possible motive #2: weaponizing it for personal and political purposes
We still don’t know the contents of the documents, and it’s unlikely we ever will, given their classification. But whatever is in them, it could be used as leverage against members of Congress, Trump’s opponents, foreign countries, and other people — maybe offering access to that information in exchange for political favors, such as endorsements or donations. Would he go so far as to provide access to this information to countries such as Russia and China in exchange for election interference in 2024? Some of these potential motives are pretty extraordinary, but if there’s anything I’ve learned about Trump, it’s never to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s not worthy of it. And when you are skeptical of something Trump did, such as throwing ketchup or assaulting a Secret Service agent, it usually ends up being true.
We need to begin applying a new standard of Occam’s razor for Donald Trump called Trump’s razor — where a ridiculous situation should be interpreted as absurd as it sounds, if not worse.
Possible motive #3: to feed his ego
He lost the presidency, relegated to history as a rare one-term president. Maybe taking top secret documents was a way to cope with his loss because he got access to documents unique to his position as president that nobody else could get. Perhaps a “trophy” of the presidency. His vanity would be a pretty risky motive. It is totally in character for him, but I also think it’s less likely than some of the other scenarios. Trump is an exclamation point, scream it from the rooftops type of person. He literally had 24-karat gold-plated bathroom fixtures on his private plane. He’s not subtle. “I have top secret documents!” doesn’t seem like a way that Trump would “flex” because it doesn’t have the glitz and glam we typically expect of him. More likely, these top secret documents were used as a resource or power play.
Possible motive #4: he didn’t realize what he was doing
This is the most palatable option for Trump and also the most unlikely. If the FBI had to get a search warrant to recover the remaining missing documents, it’s clear that there was intent in what he was doing. Why not just turn all the documents over to minimize legal exposure and allow the FBI to sort through them? Better safe than sorry? Except it appears there was something he was trying to hide. We don’t yet know what or why.
The seriousness of top secret information
In the government, “confidential,” “classified,” “secret,” “top secret,” etc., are not all synonyms for the same term. Classified information is classified on a hierarchal spectrum, depending on the seriousness of its contents. From lowest to highest, the classifications are as follows:
Restricted: “would cause undesirable effects if publicly available.”
Confidential: “would cause damage to national security.”
Secret: “would cause serious damage to national security.”
Top Secret (TS): “would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.”
The documents the FBI reportedly recovered from Mar-a-Lago were classified as “Top Secret.” This information was in Trump’s home as he was throwing New Year’s parties and holding large events. Do you see the problem?
Watch this space
Attorney General Merrick Garland made two key points (bolded for emphasis) at his August 11 press conference:
…I have made clear that the Department of Justice will speak through its court filings and its work.
This is all I can say right now. More information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time. Thank you.
While the motive is not necessary for establishing a conviction for a crime, it may be an important factor in telling a story to the jury. It also helps us make more sense of what happened and why, and it could potentially cause more criminal liability. For example, if Trump’s motive was to sell top secret information, that is likely to carry higher criminal liability than if he just took them out of sheer ignorance.