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12/06/2023 | Still unanswered: Trump’s motive for withholding classified documents

Joseph Fitsanakis

THE 49-PAGE GRAND JURY indictment, filed last week in Florida by the United States Department of Justice, contains 37 criminal charges against former president Donald Trump. The charges can be summarized into a two-fold accusation: Trump is alleged to have stolen more than 300 classified documents upon leaving the White House in January 2021.

 

Moreover, he allegedly schemed with a group of advisors and aides in order to obstruct efforts by the government to retrieve the stolen documents. Both accusations are spelled out in stark detail in the pages of the indictment.

What remains unanswered, however, is the motive. Why did Trump allegedly take several hundred classified documents from the White House? Did he select specific documents to purloin? And, if so, why these specific documents? Lastly, why did the former president go to such pains to frustrate the government’s efforts to recover the documents? There has been intense public speculation about the answers to these questions. Yet the grand jury indictment does not appear to attempt to establish the possible motive behind the alleged crime. Nor does it need to. Establishing a motive is not required in order to demonstrate the need for a trial, or indeed a conviction. Given the high stakes of this case, however, establishing a motive can provide much-needed clarity in the public sphere.

Accidental or Malicious?

It is important to clarify with precision what the grand jury indictment does not state: its pages do not contain any suggestion that Trump took possession of the classified documents in order to share them with specific individuals or entities, American or foreign. Nor does the indictment suggest that the former president intended to use the classified information in his possession for personal financial gain —for instance to promote his investment ventures at home or abroad, or to gain leverage and win over potential business partners.

So, why did Trump do it? As The New York Times explained on Sunday, the indictment does offer some hints of motives, if one reads between the lines. One possible explanation stems from Trump’s time in the White House, during which he learned to associate his access to classified information as a paramount perk that came with being president of the United States. It follows that, retaining access to classified information was a way for him to maintain control over the office of the presidency. That strong need intensified even more after January 2021, as Trump was clearly “not ready to let go of the perks of holding the highest office in the country”. Indeed, the indictment describes several examples that reveal the strong sense of ownership that the former president felt about the classified documents he kept at his private residence at Mar-a-Lago, as well as his determination to keep them in close proximity to his office and sleeping quarters.

Tertiary Motives

A plausible tertiary motive for Trump’s alleged crimes is the leverage and status that access to secrets can bestow upon an individual. It is possible that Trump viewed the classified documents as the apogee of the long list of his material prizes and trophies —as an important physical legacy of the zenith of his career. That would also explain why he allegedly fought so determinedly to keep the documents in his possession, even after he was told in no uncertain terms by the government that they did not belong to him. Moreover, as The Times notes, the former president may view his classified document collection as a way to insure his legacy —for instance as a means of rebutting critics of his policies and decisions while he was in office, or even as potential “payback against perceived enemies”.

But these motives are probably less prominent in Trump’s mind. A strong and deeply held sense of ownership of government information, no matter their classification grade, is likely the driving motive behind the alleged crimes. As The Washington Post noted in an insightful article in 2022, aides to the former president said that he appeared sincere and genuine about his conviction that the classified documents “were his, not the government’s”. When he was advised otherwise by his own aides, he noticeably “gravitated toward lawyers and advisers who indulged his more pugilistic desires”, according to the paper. His attitude was not a show. It was sincere. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that it has subsided since his indictment.

A Genuine Conviction of Ownership

Trump’s latest legal woes are rooted in his genuine belief that access to classified information is something he is owed —not simply because he served as president of the United States, but because, in his mind, he should still be in the Oval Office. These deeply entrenched beliefs are unlikely to be abandoned by the former president, regardless of the cost. More importantly, these same beliefs are passionately shared by millions of his supporters. The latter are sufficient in number to wreak havoc in the Republican Party and radically reshape American politics for years to come. If Trump avoids trial or a prison sentence, his support base will view such an outcome as a form of noble victory against the “deep state”. It is therefore likely to be energized, possibly like never before. Should Trump be jailed or seek political asylum abroad in order to evade incarceration, the American political landscape will undergo a major earthquake. Regardless of the outcome of this unprecedented saga, stormy waters seem to lie ahead.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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