Beginning in the months before Donald Trump took office, and extending well into his presidency, the media and political world took a set of vague but serious accusations of wrongdoing involving the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia and created a 24/7 frenzy of talk about secret evidence, potential criminal charges and allegedly grave damage to national security. Fed by leaks originating in federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and interested lawyers, ostensibly responsible observers engaged in wild speculation — COLLUSION!!! — that was terribly damaging to then-President Trump. And here was the punch line: Nobody knew what the evidence was. It was secret, classified, grand jury, ongoing investigation, whatever. All the talk was based on little bits of information, and no one, at the time, had the big picture. The secrecy cloaking the details of the case allowed anti-Trump speculation to flourish.
By the time a multiyear criminal investigation, with all the powers of law enforcement, was unable to establish that conspiracy or coordination -- collusion -- had even occurred at all, the damage had been done. Trump-Russia had irreparably harmed the Trump presidency, and the lost years could not be recovered.
Now, with Trump 19 months out of the White House, it’s happening again.
The issue, of course, is the allegation that Trump hid documents from his presidency at Mar-a-Lago, his winter home in Florida. By doing so, the allegation goes, Trump violated the Presidential Records Act, which requires that outgoing presidents turn over their papers to the National Archives. In addition, the allegation continues, some of the material Trump kept was classified, some of it at a high level.
But what is it? What is the material the FBI carted away from Mar-a-Lago? The recently released search warrant says things like “Miscellaneous Secret Documents,” and “Miscellaneous Top Secret Documents,” and, in one case, “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” referring to “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information,” referring to a higher classification level than simply top secret. That has led many media figures to characterize the case as deeply serious, with potential exposure of the Trump documents — “the nation’s secrets” — posing a “grave risk” to national security.
But again — what is in the documents? What are they about? We don’t know. And that is the key, the central, the most important thing to remember in this case. We are in a classic cycle of hair-on-fire Trump allegations, and we don’t know what they are about.
In a post on the Lawfare website, Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard law professor and former George W. Bush Justice Department official, wrote, “The prudence of [Attorney General Merrick] Garland’s judgment will turn to a large degree on the true sensitivity of the information there.” Goldsmith then quoted former President Barack Obama, who, in April 2016, at the height of the Hillary Clinton email affair, in which the former secretary of state was accused of mishandling classified information, defended Clinton by suggesting that too much government information is classified.
“I handle a lot of classified information,” Obama said. “There’s classified, and then there’s classified. There’s stuff that is really top secret, top secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”
Obama was criticized for those remarks, Goldsmith noted, “yet there is truth in what Obama says.” As many critics, like the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have noted, the U.S. government classifies way too much information. “It will matter a lot, in assessing Garland’s decisions, whether the information Trump had was closer to ‘really top-secret, top-secret’ or to information available in public,” Goldsmith wrote.
A few days before Goldsmith posted his piece, the Washington Post reported that “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought” in the Mar-a-Lago raid. Nuclear weapons! It can’t get any more serious than that! The story did not appear to be particularly strongly sourced. And beyond the word “nuclear,” the four reporters bylined on the piece did not seem to know what it meant.
Indeed, in a podcast, one of the reporters, Shane Harris, noted that while “the FBI was concerned enough to launch a raid ... it doesn’t seem that there was a kind of urgency attached
to this.” When asked the level of concern the public should have, Harris answered, “On a scale of 1 to 10, put it at a 5 or 6 for now.”
None of that caution mattered. The word was out: Trump stole nuclear secrets! The most critical secrets a nation can possess! “Two words for you, my friend,” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC. “Two words: nuclear secrets.” That said it all.
But the question remains: What does that mean? Did Trump have the nation’s nuclear weapons blueprints? Did he have some other nation’s secret weapons information? Or was it something else? Perhaps something frivolous, as Goldsmith suggested, like Trump bragging that his “nuclear button” was bigger than North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s. The answer will be important. (We do know, via the New York Times, that Trump, “when speaking about his friendly correspondence” with Kim, said of the letters, “They’re mine,” suggesting he was not too concerned about observing the Presidential Records Act.)
But, of course, we don’t know what happened. The Biden Justice Department is keeping it a secret. So look for the speculation to go on. Instead of speculation, the public needs facts, facts, facts. And without some actual facts to evaluate, we’re all stuck in a replay of the Trump-Russia fiasco.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. For a deeper dive into many of the topics Byron covers, listen to his podcast, The Byron York Show, available on the Ricochet Audio Network at ricochet.com/series/byron-york-show and everywhere else podcasts are found.