Roar writer Matteo Cardarelli on the investigation into Donald Trump’s retention of classified documents and the consequences for his – and America’s – future.
When Donald Trump’s presidency was cut short by defeat in 2020, no one thought he was about to fade away into the enormity of America’s political jungle. Within weeks, Trump had successfully recast himself as the leader of a government in exile awaiting its rightful return to power. Now, his crusade for continued political relevance has brought him into direct conflict with the present government – those in power clashing with those who would supplant them.
The August 23 raid of Trump’s Mar a Lago resort-cum-man cave by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was the culmination of a series of events in which Trump and his legal team did their best to obscure, deflect and deny requests to turn over thousands of documents – hundreds of which were classified – back to the federal government. The former President should never have left the White House in possession of federal documents – and should have returned them instantly. But he did, and then he didn’t.
What he did do was delay. He handed over only a fraction of his hoard to the National Archive in January, but the quantity of previously unknown classified documents was enough to arouse the suspicion of the Department of Justice (DoJ). An investigation was promptly launched, Trump’s lawyers handed over more documents in June, and then the FBI kicked down the doors in August, correctly believing that Trump was holding onto a rainy-day fund of sensitive state information.
The nature of the over 300 classified documents taken from Trump is unclear, though they may contain details of other states’ nuclear capabilities. He claims that the documents had been declassified towards the tail-end of his presidency, but is refusing to state which documents this applies to. It’s this kind of innocent-until-proven-guilty pedantry which defines the man.
What Trump was planning on doing with the documents is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was planning on burning them for heating this winter, what with high fuel prices? He could have just wanted trinkets to show friends and family, or to leave them in his garage collecting dust and mould. Maybe the Don has developed a passion for origami. Of course, there may have been darker motives, such as the sale of state secrets to the highest bidder, blackmail of political opponents, and so forth. Speculating is harmless, considering that the truth probably won’t be seized in another FBI raid.
Still, the investigation continues. Three main charges are being touted, with violation of the Espionage Act the most flashy. Frankly, though he may be charged (as his legal team has conceded) it’s unlikely that Trump will suffer lasting damage. Barring the seizure of more bombastic documents, the former President will probably live to tell the tale.
This sense of fatalism is justified. For all its obvious necessity, the investigation has allowed the new and partisan, Trumpified judiciary to flex its muscles. A Trump-appointed federal judge has allowed a special master to review the documents: the move has been roundly criticized as blunting the investigation’s impetus – a case of Frankenstein’s monster shielding its creator. The judge’s decision means that, for now, the DoJ’s inquiry has been put on hold. What the federal government does, it also undoes. The internal schism between Trump-appointees and its pre-MAGA core is axiomatic.
If the first result of the investigation is a bitter feud between the branches and factions that span the federal government, the second is on a broader, more familiar plane. For years, Trump has framed himself as the target of a wild, elaborate conspiracy at the heart of the government to take him down. His anti deep state crusade is a popular tune with the MAGA-hat sporting masses, a surefire way of triggering collective dopamine synthesis.
The DoJ’s investigation and its escalation last week have given Trumpists ample fodder with which to back their beliefs. Here is apparently incontrovertible proof that the federal government is out for blood. Vindication, followed by anger. Filled with righteous outrage, supporters cry: ‘where are the supreme leader’s freedoms, his liberties?’ Armed, body-armor wearing Trump supporters staged a protest in front of the FBI’s Phoenix branch, and some of the bureau’s officials have been doxxed, their personal information – including home address – released online.
Institutional figures have hardly been more conciliatory; both Rick Scott and Steve Bannon likened the FBI to the Gestapo, while Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, ‘Defund the FBI.’ Less feral GOP politicians have accused the DoJ of executing its own political vendetta. Trump has fuelled the outrage at his own martyrisation by complaining that the Bureau’s agents soiled his carpet during the search.
So now a well-intentioned investigation into another act of wrongdoing by a man virtually synonymous with the word has engendered a vitriolic reaction from his adoring masses. What a surprise. Furthermore, though the former president may be in a self-proclaimed exile, he does not lack supporters in the rank and file of the GOP, the judiciary or the federal government. Coupled with fervent political support that constantly threatens to boil over into violent action, Trump has a powerful tonic for his legal headaches.