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‘He’s going to jail’: If Trump really had classified nuclear documents at his home, the consequences will be huge

‘It’s like child pornography. If it’s on your computer, you do the time’

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Saturday 13 August 2022 07:25 BST
Trump Raid: Classified files among items confiscated from Mar-a-Lago

Four days after FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Palm Beach, Florida mansion turned private club where Donald Trump keeps his primary residence and office, shoes appear to be dropping fast.

On Thursday, US attorney general Merrick Garland said the Department of Justice (DOJ) would ask the Florida judge who approved the search of the ex-president’s property to unseal the warrant and itemised receipt that Mr Trump’s attorneys were given after the FBI finished searching his home and office. And as the clock struck midnight on Friday, Mr Trump announced that he would not oppose the Justice Department’s motion to unseal the warrant.

Initial reports from well-sourced journalists on the Trumpworld beat indicated that he was resisting calls to consent to the release of the warrant. But something happened in between Mr Garland’s press conference and the ex-president’s midnight statement: The conflict between the former president and the government he once led went nuclear.

According to The Washington Post and New York Times, the reason the Justice Department pushed so hard to recover missing classified documents from Mr Trump’s home was that the documents – all of which Mr Trump had improperly taken from the White House before his term expired in January 2021 – pertained to some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets. Those secrets, The New York Times reported, included so-called “special access programs”, which are considered classified above a “top secret” level.

Special access programs – often called “codeword” programs, because they can be identified by a single codeword that is itself classified – can be anything from foreign intelligence collected on an adversary’s nuclear stockpile to the schematics for nuclear reactors used to power American submarines.

I asked an acquaintance from my university days, a former US Navy submariner, whether the presence of nuclear-related documents at Mar-a-Lago could make a difference in what will happen to Mr Trump. His response was short and to the point.

“He’s going to prison,” he said.

You see, when it comes to protecting anything related to nuclear anything, the US government simply does not mess around.

Mr Trump’s former position gave him access to the full gamut of intelligence and information available to the American government. Once he lost that position, he reverted to the same status as anyone else, which meant he lost any claim to possess the classified documents he’d ordered to be boxed up and sent to Florida before he left the White House.

I asked my formerly seagoing acquaintance why he was so sure Mr Trump would end up behind bars because of some boxes he’d previously had free access to. He said: “It’s like child pornography. If it’s on your computer, you do the time. If he has the documents in his possession or on his property, he will go to prison.”

Mr Trump spent his entire presidency running out the clock on investigations, often by defying subpoenas or suing to block access to whatever records any adverse party wanted from him or his administration. He could have returned those documents when he was asked. Most likely it would have been a minor annoyance with a few days of negative news coverage as a result.

But he mistook the government’s earlier efforts – including requests from the national archives, and later a subpoena from the DOJ – as weakness and supplication from the Biden administration. He appears to have placed a bet that he would be protected by the same forbearance that led Gerald Ford to pardon Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama to largely ignore the George W Bush-era torture.

He may well have bet the house, and it’s very possible he will lose this time. Maybe that’s why he was such a bad casino operator.

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