The indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Florida last week includes one inescapable conclusion — former President Donald Trump is a triple threat to the national security of the U.S.?
Trump’s 37 counts allege violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, false statements and conspiracy. The indictment describes audacious conduct, alleging he lied to the National Archives, the Justice Department and even his own lawyers and orchestrated the concealment of boxes of documents when the Justice Department came to visit. But the language that most stood out to me as a former national security prosecutor related to the descriptions of the documents themselves. Of course, special prosecutor Jack Smith cannot reveal in detail the sensitive information within these records, but even the general nature of the secrets Trump allegedly stored across Mar-a-Lago, including in a bathroom and a ballroom, is bone-chilling.?
Donald Trump is set to appear in court on Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET. Follow?our live blog?for the latest updates and analysis in his classified documents case.?
According to the indictment, the documents included information about:
- The defense and weapons capabilities of both the U.S. and foreign countries.
- U.S. nuclear programs.?
- Potential vulnerabilities of the U.S. and its allies to military attack.
- Plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.
Trump has, of course, denied that he did anything wrong and minimized his gross abuse of power as the “boxes hoax.” One of his lawyers has compared Trump’s retention of national secrets to having an overdue library book. But clearly, this case is about far more than an administrative slip-up.
Instead, the indictment charges Trump with misconduct that recklessly placed our national security and foreign relations and the safety of the U.S. military and intelligence community in danger. Some of the documents Trump allegedly retained were marked “top secret,” designating information that, if disclosed, could cause exceptionally grave harm to the national security.?
The indictment is a first step toward accountability for Trump’s alleged abuse of power. But, for a number of reasons, he will remain a threat until he is convicted — and perhaps even beyond that.?
First, the indictment demonstrates the risk Trump poses to our country as a former president. As commander-in-chief, Trump was entrusted with knowledge of every aspect of our national security, from the placement of missiles to the nuclear codes. His reckless storage of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago demonstrates his inability to handle this knowledge responsibly. The resort, which the Justice Department says hosted “more than 150 social events that together drew tens of thousands of guests” during the relevant period, was a potential target for foreign intelligence operations. (In 2019, NBC News reported that a Chinese citizen was arrested at the club with “two passports, four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive containing computer malware.”)
In fact, the indictment alleges that Trump has already shared national defense information with a writer, a publisher, two staffers and a representative of his political action committee — none of whom had the required security clearances. If Trump is convicted, a compelling case could be made for his imprisonment and a sentencing condition that limits his ability to communicate sensitive secrets to the outside world to limit further damage.
Second, Trump poses a threat to our national security as a defendant. In criminal cases involving classified information, a defendant sometimes will engage in a practice known as “graymail,”?threatening to reveal sensitive national secrets if the government persists in the prosecution. For this reason, former government employees often get lenient plea deals to avoid the disclosure of government secrets at trial.
The Classified Information Procedures Act creates some mechanisms to safeguard such material, such as protective orders during discovery and at trial. But in light of Trump’s access — not to mention his win-at-all-costs mentality — CIPA’s protections feel too thin.?Because Trump has already seen all of the documents noted in the indictment, there is a risk that he will share their contents with people unauthorized to see them or threaten to do so unless the charges are dropped or favorably resolved.?
And finally, Trump as candidate for president in 2024 is a danger to our national security. The U.S. intelligence community depends on foreign allies to share information with us, and we do the same for them. A condition of receiving sensitive information from other countries is that we promise to safeguard it from disclosure.
According to the indictment, in December 2021, the contents of several of Trump’s boxes had spilled on the floor in a storage room. Among the documents on the floor was one marked “FVEY,” indicating that the information was releasable only to the Five Eyes alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Most of us would be reluctant to lend a novel to a friend who treated our possessions with such contempt, let alone our most private secrets.?
If Trump were to become president again in January 2025, foreign allies might be unwilling to share their sensitive intelligence with us. And if we stop receiving valuable intelligence from allies, we will be in the dark about important information with which to make decisions about our military and security interests.
At his news briefing announcing the indictment, Smith emphasized that members of our intelligence community and armed forces “dedicate their lives to protecting our nation and its people.” Violations of the laws that protect national defense information “put our nation at risk.” Even a Trump trial and conviction may not prevent him from wreaking further havoc, but they can send a powerful message that he can be held criminally accountable and deter others who might follow his lawless example.?