Former President Donald Trump’s response to the federal raid on his Mar-a-Lago home this week ricocheted from conspiracy to whataboutism: First, he suggested the FBI could have placed the top-secret material he found at his South Florida residence. Then he focused on his predecessor, Barack Obama, who he said had done the same thing, only worse – a claim the National Archives was brought in to debunk on Friday.
Trump now appears to have landed on an old standby, claiming to be a victim because he supposedly did nothing wrong to begin with. He had already declassified everything brought to Mar-a-Lago, Trump argued on Truth Social, the platform he founded after being kicked out of Twitter.
On Friday evening, the Trump camp sent a statement to Fox News explaining this defense.
“As we can all realize, everyone ends up having to bring their work home from time to time. American presidents are no different,” the statement read.
He continued: “President Trump, in order to prepare for the next day’s work, often brought documents, including classified documents, to the residence. He had a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to Residence were deemed declassified the moment he removed them.
Trump, however, has not served as President of the United States for more than 18 months, a point the statement does not appear to address.
Although presidents can declassify certain information, there is a formal process for doing so, and it’s unclear whether Trump followed it.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that he had the authority to declassify some of what was potentially contained in the documents, such as information on spies and nuclear weapons. The Washington Post reported earlier in the week that there was information about the US nuclear arsenal among the materials at Mar-a-Lago. (Trump called the report a “hoax.”)
Presidents are required to turn over documents to the National Archives under the Presidential Archives Act 1978. But the National Archives would have known for months that Trump had circumvented those rules; more than a dozen boxes of documents were recovered earlier this year.
Attorney General Merrick Garland suggested this week that authorities searched Trump’s home and office because they exhausted other options to recover what appears to be highly sensitive information. On Monday, according to the unsealed search and seizure warrant, FBI agents took more than 20 boxes of material along with other items labeled top secret. Some have even been described as “miscellaneous classified/TS/SCI documents”, using the abbreviation for “compartmentalized sensitive information”. This information is supposed to be accessed in a special, secure facility called SCIF.
If Trump really had a “standing order” to declassify anything he brought home, it hasn’t been made public.
Trump allies argued that the classification status of these documents was likely nothing more than a clerical error – that is, Trump said the documents were declassified but that they have never been officially marked this way.
Conservative lawyer Jonathan Turley told Fox News Friday that the end of Trump’s term was a “very chaotic time” with the attack on the Capitol and “all the controversies.” The Trump administration may not have had time to go through the usual process, he said.
Kash Patel, a senior Pentagon official and adviser to Trump, also told Breitbart News that the listings were never updated. Patel claimed he was “there with Trump when he said, ‘We’re declassifying this information,'” Breitbart reported.
But the rules are there for a reason. A former FBI special agent, Asha Rangappa, explained how the declassification process was supposed to work in a series of tweets who pointed out the effect it has on national security. The process, she argued, ensures federal agencies can make the right preparations.
“If someone declassifies information that impacts sources and methods, that buys time to protect them or prepare for backfire,” Rangappa said.
However, a standing order to declassify Trump would be “foolish to try to enforce,” said Bradley Moss, a national security attorney and frequent Trump critic.
“This would mean that staff officials would have to follow him to residence each time he brought these documents with him to make sure they crossed out the marks and stamped it ‘declassified’ so that other officials, when they saw it , know how to treat it as declassified,” Moss said Friday night on MSNBC.
“You can’t declassify something just for yourself. You declassify him for everything,” added Neal Katyel, who served as Acting United States Solicitor General in the Obama years, in the same segment.
Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian, said in a Vox interview that the classification ranks are meant to correspond to how the information would harm the nation if released. It could be very damaging if Trump had a document saying the United States recognizes that Israel has a nuclear arsenal, Wellerstein said as an example. (The United States does not officially recognize Israeli nuclear weapons.)
Whether Mar-a-Lago’s materials were technically classified or declassified, however, might be irrelevant.
The unsealed warrant revealed that the Justice Department was investigating Trump under multiple statutes. None of them require the information to be classified, former US lawyer and legal commentator Barb McQuade pointed out during a Saturday morning appearance on MSNBC.
“The ranking does not matter. Government documents relating to national defense cannot be withheld by the government upon request for return,” McQuade said in a tweet. “The obstruction charge in the warrant suggests that Trump tried to cover up what he had.”