It seems extremely clear that Donald Trump violated several laws by spiriting government documents out of the White House to Mar-a-Lago and refusing to give them back. But if the Justice Department is going to charge him, it probably needs more than a provable legal violation. Some combination of bad faith on Trump’s part and real harm to the government would likely do the trick.
The bad faith has been proven many times over in the form of Trump lying repeatedly to the government and even moving documents around to apparently evade detection. The Washington Post’s latest report states that the stolen documents “included highly sensitive intelligence regarding Iran and China” that “could expose intelligence-gathering methods that the United States wants to keep hidden from the world.”
One reason intelligence officials are so alarmed about this is that Mar-a-Lago is not, to say the least, a secure facility. It’s more the exact opposite. Trump has used the location as a second White House but without the extensive security apparatus any such location would need. His incentive is to admit people on the basis of their ability to pay him.
As a result, foreign-intelligence services have a strong incentive to attack this inviting target. Three years ago, a Chinese national was arrested on the Mar-a-Lago premises after being spotted taking photographs. In her possession, she had two Chinese passports and four cell phones, and $8,000 cash was stashed in a nearby hotel. She may not have been spying, but her presence is a sign of the vulnerability presented by the resort-as–presidential office. And this was before Trump began housing classified documents there.
The best defense Trump loyalists have come up with so far is that the documents were probably harmless news clippings:
Exactly why a Time magazine article would be classified material, or contain sensitive information about Chinese and Iranian weapons programs that could jeopardize intelligence-gathering methods, they don’t say. If anybody remembers a Time article that meets this description, please share it.
As the Post previously reported, “Some of the seized documents detail top-secret U.S. operations so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are kept in the dark about them. Only the president, some members of his Cabinet or a near-Cabinet-level official could authorize other government officials to know details of these special-access programs.” So unless the U.S. government is extremely stingy about who can use its Time magazine password, it seems likely these documents were, in fact, pretty secret.