That National Archives letter released by a MAGA outlet backfired spectacularly
In treating his legal problems like public relations ones, Trump is digging a deeper hole for himself.
You might recall that in September 2019, then-President Trump voluntarily released a transcript of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky — one that was at the center of an exploding scandal over efforts to leverage military aid into election interference. Trump claimed the transcript “completely exonerated” him, when in fact it showed he had engaged in impeachable offenses (“I would like you to do us a favor, though”). What he perceived as a big win was really a major self-inflected wound — at least to anyone who wasn’t guzzling the MAGA Kool-Aid.
Something similar happened Monday night, when John Solomon, founder of the Trump-friendly Just The News website, published a letter the National Archives sent to Trump’s legal team on May 10 — about three months before the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago to obtain more classified materials Trump failed to turn over to the government. In the letter, a National Archives official explained why they were rejecting Trump’s claim of privilege and giving the FBI access to boxes of materials (some of them classified) Trump had belatedly turned over in January.
Solomon, parroting Trump’s talking points, went on Steve Bannon’s show Tuesday and claimed “most Americans are gonna be troubled to find out the current president siccing the FBI on the former president. I think that’s the way these documents read when you look at it.”
But that’s not how the documents read. On the contrary, acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall made very clear in the letter that Biden had nothing to do with her decision to ask the FBI examine the materials.
“The Counsel to the President has informed me that, in light of the particular circumstances presented here, President Biden defers to my determination, in consultation with the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, regarding whether or not I should uphold the former President’s purported ‘protective assertion of executive privilege,’” she wrote, adding later:
The question in this case is not a close one. The Executive Branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the Federal Government itself, not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the National Security Division explained, to “conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.”
In short, the letter not only doesn’t say what Solomon claims it does, but it shows the opposite. Like any responsible president, Biden put some distance between himself and a political rival’s legal troubles.
But that isn’t even the most damaging thing in the letter from Trump’s standpoint. It also contains a remarkable own goal.
The letter indicates that Trump not only turned over more than 700 pages of classified information in the January boxes that he shouldn’t have had in Florida in the first place, but adds that some of them “include the highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program (SAP) materials.” It essentially confirms that Trump mishandled classified information of the most sensitive sort.
Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Trump, seemingly oblivious to this damaging revelation, took to Truth Social to praise Solomon and echo his fact-free spin about the letter.
A competent lawyer would’ve told him not to draw attention to a document confirming he mishandled classified information. The problem for Trump is that it doesn’t appear he has any of those in his orbit these days. In fact, Trump’s current fleet of attorneys is so shoddy that even Laura Ingraham is out of patience with them.
Trump’s lawyer problem was fleshed out by the New York Times on Tuesday in a piece headlined, “Trump, Without the Presidency’s Protections, Struggles for a Strategy.” From it:
Now, as in the days after he lost the 2020 election, Mr. Trump is relying on an ad hoc team of advisers with varying levels of experience and judgment, and trying to use his political support as both a shield and a weapon to be aimed at the people investigating him.
But even as he fuels outrage in sympathetic media outlets and tries to turn attention to Mr. Biden and the so-called deep state, Mr. Trump is to some extent walking on the phantom limbs of his expired presidency, claiming executive privilege still applies to him even though he’s out of office and maintaining he had a sweeping, standing order to declassify some documents, which his aides have declined to produce.
While Trump flails, we’re starting to understand the materials seized by the FBI during the Mar-a-Lago search represented a serious national security threat. From a Washington Post report published Tuesday evening:
Some material recovered in the search is considered extraordinarily sensitive, two people familiar with the search said, because it could reveal carefully guarded secrets about U.S. intelligence-gathering methods. One of them said the information is “among the most sensitive secrets we hold.”
Trump is in grave legal jeopardy — the search warrant the feds used to seize classified materials indicated the former president is under investigation for three crimes that could put him behind bars for years, including removal or destruction of records, obstruction of justice, and violating the Espionage Act — but he’s still acting as though he can bully his way out of it. You can get away with that when you’re the president and lawyers are lining up to work for you, but it’s more difficult when your counsel apparently doesn’t even know how to file basic paperwork.
Trump threatens AG Garland
The other document that received a good bit of media attention Monday night was the rally-style screed Trump’s lawyers filed asking a federal judge to block the DOJ from reviewing materials seized from Mar-a-Lago on August 8 until a “special master” can be appointed to oversee the process.
The filing isn’t really a serious legal document and at times reads like a speech Trump would give at a fairground. It opens, for instance, with a dubious assertion that Trump “is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary and in the 2024 General Election, should he decide to run.” But the passage that caught my eye comes when Trump is quoted using mob boss-style language to threaten Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Public Notice to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.