Top-secret documents were left on a ballroom stage for three months. Some of the nation’s most prized secrets spilled out of a box and were scattered across a floor. Others were stacked in a bathroom shower. An attack plan was waved in front of a writer.
The indictment against Donald Trump that was released on Friday offered shocking new details about how the former president and at least one staffer allegedly mishandled some of the nation’s most closely guarded papers. The fresh revelations will unsettle allied nations that share such classified information with the US.
The indictment, which outlines 37 counts including willful retention of defense information, shows through photos, witness testimony and other evidence how cavalierly Trump purportedly treated the papers he kept at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It will doubtless be a galling list of offenses for former intelligence officers and others who, during their time in service, often could study such documents only in the confines of a secure room — often without mobile phones or any other electronics present.
“There’s a difference between that and intent to share with a hostile power or something like that, which is a proper espionage charge, but even so, it’s on a whole other level,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a former CIA analyst in both Democratic and Republican administrations. “God knows who he showed the stuff to.”
The indictment shows that after his presidency Trump and his staff kept documents from a range of the nation’s spy agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that runs US spy satellites and which is so secret its existence wasn’t officially confirmed until the mid-1990s.
The markings on some of the documents indicated they contained information to be shared only with the so-called Five Eyes intelligence allies — the US plus Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
“The unauthorized disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods,” the indictment said.
Some of the boxes were transported to Trump’s office at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where in July 2021 he showed a writer and publisher the plan of attack on a country. CNN has reported that the country was Iran and that the plan was drawn up by General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to the indictment, Trump said to those in attendance, who didn’t have security clearances, that the document “is like, highly confidential” and “secret information.”
Trump — who has variously claimed that he declassified all the documents before leaving the White House or that he retained the power to do so as a former president — was allegedly captured on audio tape saying, “as president I could have declassified it,” and “Now, I can’t you know, but this is still secret.”
Later that year, also at Bedminster, he showed a classified map of military operations in an unidentified country to a representative from one of his political action committees. According to the indictment, Trump told the representative that he shouldn’t be showing the map and not to get too close.
“The pictures of classified materials strewn about in secure spaces evoke a visceral reaction for the thousands of current and former national security officials who, during their service, paid meticulous attention to proper handling of these types of documents day in and day out,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Obama-era official.
Given that some of the documents were shared by other nations’ intelligence agencies, the disclosures in the indictment will only further exacerbate fears from US allies such as European Union members, the UK and Australia that the US can’t be trusted - particularly if Trump wins reelection as president in 2024.
“If he comes back, right, and you are an allied service, you’re gonna be thinking about it for sure,” Johnson said. “They were already thinking about it when he was still in office — what they should share. I wouldn’t be surprised if that would deepen.”
The indictment comes just months after another embarrassing leak: the alleged disclosure of hundreds of pages of highly classified documents by a 21-year-old airman, Jack Teixeira, who is accused of circulating the documents in online chat rooms, in part to impress his friends.
Trump maintained his innocence in a Thursday night post on his Truth Social platform, saying he’s “an innocent man!”
Whatever Trump’s motivation, experts said he will have a hard time defending himself.
“Contrary to Trump’s supporters and those on the right who claim he has been selectively targeted and treated worse, he has in fact been treated better than what I would ever expect to see with any of my clients,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has defended clients in national security cases. “I have no doubt that were the target a normal federal employee or contractor, that individual would have been indicted a long time ago.”
The sheer volume of sensitive documents plus Trump’s own words made clear there was nothing accidental about his decision to keep sensitive documents.
“It’s a hefty charge and a pattern of alleged misconduct — not simply a ‘mistake,’” said Steven Aftergood, who directed the Federation of American Scientists government secrecy project from 1991 to 2021. “No one could avoid being prosecuted for it.”
--With assistance from Ramsey Al-Rikabi.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.