It’s not that we didn’t already know that this, in essence, is what the raid on Mar-a-Lago was about. It was virtually certain from the beginning that the Justice Department’s purpose has been to verify what Trump is holding that could expose more about the Obama administration’s conduct as part of Russiagate and Spygate. (For earlier posts on this topic, see here, here, here, and here. Most recent post first.)
So Newsweek might be said to be catching the mainstream media up to reality.
But Newsweek’s exclusive new report on the matter, attributed to “sources,” spins harder than a washing machine at the end of its cycle. It describes former President Trump, for example, as “hoarding” materials “for years,” where it could have said something with more journalistic integrity like “saved materials during his term in office.” The latter sounds normal – which it is; presidents save a lot of things of interest to them during their terms in office – whereas the former sounds like Trump probably abandoned 107 cats dropping steaming piles on the floors of the West Wing when he moved out, along with a half-dead parakeet and the fascinating remains of a pepperoni pizza delivered in 1974.
Another example: “The [DOJ’s] true target was this private stash, which Justice Department officials feared Donald Trump might weaponize.” A weaponizable private stash. Oh, the humanity!
The prejudicial framing extends beyond scare-words deployed for description. It also includes ellipsis and opaque characterizations that imply candid explanation, but actually serve to leave a false impression.
There’s a glaring, all-important omission in the Newsweek article, for starters. The article doesn’t report an essential and publicly-known fact: a fact that exactly explains Trump’s interest in any documents he’s had in his possession related to government agency conduct in Russiagate and Spygate.
That fact, of course, is that at the end of his term, Trump declassified a list of files on the matter. He notified DOJ, ODNI, and CIA of that declassification in a memo published by the White House in January 2021 (accompanied by a “binder” of the documents, originally supplied by DOJ) – which means not only DOJ but everyone on the planet has known about it for 2.5 years now.
(The memo’s subject references Crossfire Hurricane material, but Kash Patel has said declassification covered documents not formally designated as relating to Crossfire Hurricane, but relevant to it. For completeness, I generally refer to Russiagate and Spygate, which largely overlap as “Crossfire Hurricane.”)
That in turn means there was no reason for DOJ to lose sleep over suspicions about what materials had excited Trump’s interest as regards Russiagate/Spygate. DOJ not only has the memo; DOJ has the list.
We don’t have the list. Congress doesn’t have the list. DOJ does.
So consider: when the media or DOJ sources say it took a raid on Mar-a-Lago to rectify a lack of completeness in the inventory at the National Archives, as regards those particular files, that’s bullhockey. DOJ could just hand its list over to the National Archives – everything, after all, is declassified already – and then the Archives would have a complete inventory.
The real question to ask yourself – or ask DOJ – is why DOJ didn’t just do that.
Moreover, as just mentioned, the documents Trump has been holding from that list are unclassified. He declassified them while in office. (The memo says he also accepted the FBI’s proposal on limited continued redactions.) He made a formal notification of having declassified the files, with a document-by-document accounting.
There’s no such thing as a declassified document resuming its classification when the president who declassified it leaves office. That’s the case whether the document is declassified personally by the president, or under a declassification rule by an agency acting under his authority during his term. Declassified material that stays declassified is the norm; it’s not some sinister exception Trump used as a maneuver. The documents in his Russiagate/Spygate list are as declassified now as the USSS schedule for Trump’s Inauguration Day.
There’s no impropriety in Trump’s holding those documents. There’s also not even a conflict with the Presidential Records Act, if what Trump took to Mar-a-Lago are copies of records that continue to exist elsewhere in the federal government. Which almost all of them undoubtedly are.
The Newsweek article reports this: “Trump administration officials, including former national security advisor John Bolton, have described how the president regularly tore out pages from intelligence reports, or took away documents which interested him to his White House residence.”
Every agency-generated document, starting with the intelligence reports, is retained on file by the originating agency. These documents can’t go missing because the president has a copy, or be withheld improperly from the federal government. The federal government already has them.
We can’t know for sure, because the media aren’t doing their job and finding out for us, but it’s a good bet that the extensive cooperation from Mar-a-Lago with the National Archives has had a healthy component of the Archives going through Trump’s holdings to identify what it can obtain from the originating agencies.
If the Archives has a copy, it doesn’t matter if Trump has one too.
Nor does it matter in most cases if the Archives has the copy the president tore out from an intelligence report. If there’s historical importance in noting that “the president tore this material out from an intelligence report,” the Archives exists to note that for reference – not to grab the torn-out copy itself and keep it away from the former president. The president can have whatever copies he wants of unclassified material from his administration, including the original “torn-out” copy.
Ideally, if the president annotated copies he personally “tore out” for retention, the original with his annotation would go to the Archives and he would keep a copy, if desired, of that annotated material. But if the Archives had the copy and the former president had the original, that would hardly be worth dispute of any kind.
If people want to argue that Trump shouldn’t have declassified some documents, have at it. That’s a policy or decision-making dispute, not a dispute over authority. There’s no question Trump had the authority.
The media noise about “authority” has died down to almost nothing in the last week, however, which is a good indicator that even the hostile media know that’s a dead-end gripe.
Nevertheless, it’s worth a few words to deal with the all-purpose objection, deployed in the Newsweek article, that “Most of those documents had the potential to reveal U.S. intelligence ‘sources and methods.’”
If we’re talking about intelligence agency products that were relevant to Russiagate and Spygate – the documents that would be “weaponizable” – that actually can’t be true. Hardly any of them would have had the potential to reveal intelligence sources and methods.
That’s because there was no actual national intelligence on the hoax that was Russiagate. The premise and development of Russiagate didn’t originate from national intelligence, because there wasn’t any.
And the mechanics of Spygate, as a government operation, wouldn’t reveal anything the entire world doesn’t already know about the features of U.S. intelligence infrastructure. It can’t be exposed to the world that the U.S. government Hoovers in the public’s communications data for surveillance purposes, because that method is already as exposed as it can be. It’s in black and white in unclassified statutes produced by Congress.
What could be exposed isn’t the method, or the source (who cares if it’s one telecom carrier or another? They’re all subject to the same laws). It’s what the government agencies were doing.
Public knowledge of the method means we already know government agencies are using the method. The marriage of those facts – method exists; government is using it – is two-thirds of what is meant by protecting “sensitive methods.”
The third third is that protecting sensitive methods is situational. We don’t blurt out to the Russians or Chinese that we gained specific intelligence on them by the surveillance of communications, and especially not of particular communications. Doing that would be giving away the third third of “protecting sources and methods.”
The Russians and Chinese are still acutely aware that we have their comms under surveillance.
But protecting sources and methods is the art of ensuring the contents of particular intelligence references aren’t couched or presented in such a manner as to give away how that intelligence was obtained.
Note well, meanwhile: Spygate isn’t about intelligence on the Russians or Chinese. The problem with revelations about Spygate isn’t a problem for national security; such revelations don’t tell the Russians and Chinese anything they don’t already know, or anything relevant to their own plans or operating profile.
The problem is a political one of embarrassment and culpability for the U.S. government agencies, which were abusing the comms surveillance method to go after Americans with Fourth Amendment rights.
Much the same may be said of using government resources to try and plant a smoking gun (a bait-bite on “Hillary’s emails!”) with George Papadopoulos, or generate allegations from the track of Carter Page’s engagement with conferences in Europe in the summer of 2016, or manufacture the appearance of an improper link between Michael Flynn and Svetlana Lokhova.
If Russia and China don’t already know the U.S. federal government does such things, they’re pretty thick. We can’t surprise our adversaries by revealing the method.
It would be a problem to reveal that the method was used to gain specific intelligence on foreign targets; it might put human sources in danger.
But there were no human sources of intelligence in this matter, because there was nothing that was actually intelligence. Spygate was an operation that used intelligence methods in service of a political hoax, not an intelligence reality. And in the human-source, agent-of-influence realm as well as in comms surveillance, what’s really in danger of exposure is not a national security capability; it’s the actions of the agencies and persons who were wielding the capability against Americans with Fourth Amendment rights. (Americans have explicitly-stated protections against being used or targeted in espionage and influence operations overseas. The FBI is constrained by statute and agency guidance in this matter, in a manner similar to the limitations and guidelines of Executive Order 12333 for intelligence surveillance in general. Springing Stefan Halper on Papadopoulos, for example, was a questionable activity at best.)
The Justice Department appears to be hiding behind the “sources and methods” mantra, as government so often does.
I’d also reiterate that DOJ could just hand its list of documents declassified by Trump over to the National Archives, if it were acting in good faith.
DOJ “sources” would also be clear in their media interactions that they’re well aware they have that list, if they were acting in good faith. It’s not like it’s a secret. It’s just inconvenient for their narrative.
Instead, they seem to be talking around it. They know it’s there, and they allude obliquely to what could be done with it – “weaponize!” it – but they’re determined not to mention it.
DOJ knows what’s been declassified – and once again, as I’ve pointed out in earlier articles, if the FBI, back in June, saw material at Mar-a-Lago that hadn’t been declassified, the material could and should have been seized immediately at that point.
The “sources and methods” chant is a red herring that serves mainly to keep an appearance of impropriety in circulation. The public is inexpert in these matters, and has no way to discern how valid the point is.
Significantly, moreover, the “sources and methods” chant deflects the public focus from salient reality. Unless DOJ can somehow stop it, Trump’s RICO lawsuit is going to result in the exposure of all that declassified Russiagate/Spygate material – if the defendants, starting with Hillary Clinton, and now including the DOJ, continue to fight the suit.
As it stands, the RICO suit is scheduled for trial in May 2023. It would be ironic if the raid on Mar-a-Lago, and all the subsequent two-stepping and shimmying by DOJ, resulted in the already-declassified Russiagate/Spygate documents being revealed to the public before then. If the Archives has them, and/or knows which documents they are and retrieves them from the originating agencies, the Archives could make them available. (Cf. Trump’s designation on 19 June 2022 of Kash Patel and John Solomon as representatives for access to his presidential records.)
At the very least, DOJ has made so much noise with the Mar-a-Lago raid that the existence of Trump’s declassification memo, and the binder it referred to, can’t really be stone-walled from view now. It can hardly be improper for anyone else, including Trump, to point out the declassification memo, since DOJ has made such a big deal of the most relevant possible matter with its raid on Mar-a-Lago.
Feature image: C’mon man. Former President Trump gets his hoarder on. Hoarder house video, A&E via YouTube.