Why Trump Tried To Trade 'His' Classified Papers For Russia Probe Secrets
I guess we should have assumed right from the beginning that Russia Russia Russia was back there somewhere behind Trump’s removal of thousands of documents from the White House when he left office. Among them were hundreds of highly classified documents containing some of the nation’s most important national security secrets, including, we have learned, at least one document marked Top Secret/ Compartmented Sensitive Information, concerning nuclear weapons.
On Saturday, Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reported that last year, as the National Archives was fruitlessly seeking the return of a dozen or more boxes of documents and other materials Trump had taken from the White House in January of 2021, Trump discussed with his lawyers trying to make a deal to trade the documents he had illegally taken for “a batch of sensitive documents that he thought proved his claims” that he had been wronged by the FBI and the Mueller investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia. “In exchange for those documents, Mr. Trump told advisers, he would return to the National Archives the boxes of material he had taken to Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida,” the Times reported.
But is this an aha moment, or not? The Times seems to think it isn’t, describing the offer to make a trade with the National Archives as just “one in a series that demonstrates how Mr. Trump spent a year and a half deflecting, delaying and sometimes leading aides to dissemble when it came to demands from the National Archives and ultimately the Justice Department to return the material he had taken, interviews and documents show.”
However, Marcy Wheeler, of the Emptywheel blog, thinks it is a very big aha moment. Read on to learn why.
The Times story goes on to describe the chaos in the White House during Trump’s last days in office, when chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone got involved in dealing with “roughly two dozen boxes” of presidential records that had been kept in the White House residence by Trump. Gary M. Stern, the top lawyer for the National Archives, had been in contact with Cipollone before Trump left office about the boxes in the residence and wrote to Trump’s lawyers later in 2021 asking that they be sent to the National Archives to comply with the Presidential Records Act. He continued to go back and forth with more of Trump’s lawyers, as well as with Mark Meadows, as 2021 wore on, without any success.
Finally in the fall of 2021, Stern was in contact with Alex Cannon, a lawyer who went back with Trump all the way to the Trump Organization, worked for the campaign, and finally for Trump’s PAC. Stern told Cannon that although the Presidential Records Act had no provisions for enforcement, the National Archives would involve the Department of Justice in securing the return of the boxes of documents and other materials they believed Trump had taken from the White House.
This produced a scramble between Trump’s lawyers, now including former assistant White House counsel Pat Philbin, and Mark Meadows to try to get the boxes to the National Archives. Trump told his lawyers and aides that the boxes didn’t contain anything of substance and were mostly full of press clippings and other innocuous material. Stern reminded them that anything seen by Trump when he was in office was considered presidential records and had to be gone through by archivists, and anything deemed personal would be returned to Trump.
Cannon was “worried the boxes might contain documents that were being sought in the January 6 inquiry,” and “believed” the boxes might contain classified documents, according to the Times. Cannon also “believed” that nobody on the staff of Mar-a-Lago, where the boxes of documents were being stored, was cleared to handle classified information.
After Cannon, with the assistance of former White House deputy counsel Eric Herschmann, convinced Trump that he could be in serious legal jeopardy if the boxes were not returned to the National Archives, especially if they contained classified documents, Trump consented to personally go through the boxes he kept insisting were “mine,” before the boxes were sent to the Archives, where they legally belonged.
It was “around this time,” according to the Times, that Trump came up with the idea of making the deal: He would give the boxes to the Archives if they would release the Russia investigation documents he believed would prove the whole Mueller investigation and everything that had happened since the campaign in 2016 was a “hoax.” He didn’t know what information the Archives had, but just knew they had stuff he wanted.
According to the Times, Trump’s lawyers disabused him of this notion by telling him that such a deal wasn’t possible because all the material – his boxes of presidential records and the records in the National Archives – belonged to the government, not to him.
So, by December of 2021, Trump knew authoritatively that nothing he had in his possession or wanted from the Archives was his.
Trump allegedly went through the boxes at Mar-a-Lago personally in December. In January, the National Archives sent a truck to Mar-a-Lago to pick up the boxes and drive them to Washington. It wasn’t until they were inside the building of the Archives that it was discovered that mixed in among news clippings, Time magazine covers and the like was a trove of classified documents. At that point the Archives moved the boxes to a SCIF, a Sensitive Classified Information Facility, where the classified documents could be sifted through by people who had been cleared to examine them.
It was the first time since the documents were jumbled up with other materials in boxes in the White House residence that they would be handled by people authorized to see them in a facility designed to store and protect them.
Cannon was asked by Trump to certify that all the documents taken from the White House had been returned to the National Archives. Knowing what he knew by then, Cannon refused, which prevented him from falling down the same Trump Loyalty Rabbit Hole another Trump lawyer, Christina Bobb, fell into when she signed a similar certification in June, attesting to the DOJ after yet another stash of classified documents had been handed over in person to Jay Bratt, the DOJ counterintelligence chief, that all the documents at Mar-a-Lago had been turned over.
They hadn’t. The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago two months later would turn up 27 more boxes of documents and materials Trump took from the White House – 18 more than the National Archives even knew about, according to Marcy Wheeler, the expert Trump-whisperer who runs the blog Emptywheel. [More on Emptywheel anon.] The 27 new boxes seized by the FBI included 100 folders filled with classified information nobody had known about previously, which have been the subject of at least two court-fights between the DOJ and Trump over access to the classified information that was necessary to the DOJ’s criminal investigation of the former president.
The criminal investigation of Trump includes charges of obstruction of justice, outlined in large measure above, and violations of the Espionage Act, which forbids the mishandling of national defense information whether it is classified or not.
So, what’s really going on here? Is the deal Trump tried to make with the National Archives an aha moment, or not? While the Times dismisses it as just another step in Trump’s long journey of delay, distraction, and lies as he tried to hang onto “my” documents, Marcy Wheeler does not. If you’re not reading Marcy’s Emptywheel blog, you’re really missing out. You want to talk about somebody who makes connections others don’t, who’s unafraid to go straight up against whatever conventional wisdom is circulating around Washington, and who isn’t afraid to question the reporting of such media power-mavens as Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, Marcy is it.
To explain why Trump’s obsession with the Russia investigation would lead him to attempt to trade his trove of secret documents for whatever records the National Archives held on the Mueller investigation, Marcy goes all the way back to a moment in 2017 on the night Trump was returning from the G-20 Summit in Helsinki and his really, really private meeting with Vladimir Putin, at which no notes were taken and Trump did not even use his own translator, relying instead on Putin’s. Trump was on Air Force One when news reached the traveling White House staff that the Times, in a story reported by yes, Haberman and Schmidt, along with Peter Baker, was going to report that a meeting had been held in Trump Tower in June of 2016 between Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort with at least one known Russian intelligence agent who was offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Trump and Hope Hicks repaired to the presidential office portion of Air Force One to craft a statement explaining away why such a meeting had taken place. The Mueller investigation was already underway. Trump was being hammered daily for his connections with Russia during the campaign. And he had just appeared at a joint press conference in Helsinki alongside the Russian president at which he was asked by a reporter, who do you believe about Russian involvement in the presidential campaign? Your own intelligence agencies, which reported unanimously that Russia had interfered with the campaign, or Vladimir Putin? Trump answered that Putin had denied it “strongly” during their really, really private meeting, and he believed Putin.
So Trump dictated a statement to be read to the Times reporters over the phone from Air Force One explaining that the Trump Tower meeting with several Russian nationals, including the known Russian intelligence agent, had been about “adoptions of Russian children” by Americans, which had been halted by sanctions imposed by President Obama when news came out that the Russians had interfered in the election entirely on behalf of then-candidate Trump.
There was some speculation about the possibility that emails relating to setting up the Trump Tower meeting might come out and that they would be very damaging, and Trump huddled with his aides to deal with that possibility as well.
Marcy Wheeler makes the excellent point that way, way back in July of 2017, Trump was so cozy with Putin that he basically allowed Putin, after his really, really secret meeting with him, to dictate the statement to the press writing off the Trump Tower meeting as being about “adoptions,” which Marcy quite properly reads as “sanctions,” and recalls that it was sanctions imposed by Obama that were the subject of the infamous phone call between Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn had promised that Trump would lift the sanctions as soon as he took office, and that got Flynn in so much trouble that he lasted something like 17 days as Trump’s national security adviser before he was fired for lying to Vice President Pence about the Kislyak conversation. Flynn also lied to the FBI, which got him indicted and convicted after he pleaded guilty. But that was before he switched lawyers and hired Sidney Powell to represent him and withdrew his plea.
Yes, that Sidney Powell, who would go on to fame as the loser of several dozen court cases over election fraud that did not exist. That was at the same time she was invited to a meeting in the Oval Office with her former client Flynn and Trump at which they pitched the idea of imposing martial law and having the United States Army (!) re-run the election so that Trump could stay in office.
Trump wanted to get his hands on those documents in the deal he tried to make with the National Archives. He said he wanted the documents because they would prove the “Russian thing” was a great big hoax. But I ask you, and Marcy Wheeler asks you: What do you think he would have done with boxes of Russia investigation documents, most of which were classified to protect sources interviewed by the FBI and the Mueller team? You think he might have sat on them like he sat on the Mar-a-Lago boxes until the FBI was forced to get a search warrant and go into Mar-a-Lago and seize them? You think that maybe, just maybe, in preparing to run for president again, Trump is so frightened of what is in the boxes of documents exploring every corner of Mueller’s investigation of Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign, that he might just bury them, so he could resume his relationship with the murderous war criminal president of Russia he became so cozy with during his really, really private meeting in Helsinki?
Marcy’s point, and my point, is that when it comes to Trump, it’s all tied together – all of it, Russia and secrets and Trump’s loathing of the intelligence agencies which produced the Top Secret documents he stole and took to Mar-a-Lago.
Watch this space and watch https://www.emptywheel.net. There is much, much more to come.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission from Lucian Truscott Newsletter
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