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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board

Editorial: Latest Trump audio shows an unstable man-child who belongs nowhere near power

In addition to everything else it reveals, the newly released audio recording of former President Donald Trump showing off sensitive documents to a writer and others neatly encapsulates many of the problematic personality traits that have been on display in various ways since he first burst onto the political scene eight years ago.

There are his well-known indications of narcissism (“This was done by the military and given to me”), his braggadocio (“This is secret information … Isn’t that incredible?”) and his plain old immaturity (“It’s so cool”).

And of course, the lies: “See, as president I could have declassified it, but now I can’t” — even though he’s been publicly insisting for months now that he did.

The point here goes beyond what appears to be strong new evidence in the federal criminal case against Trump for allegedly mishandling sensitive documents, in this case a U.S. plan of attack on Iran. It also goes to the heart of issues like his immaturity, instability and habitual dishonesty.

Trump’s supporters have long shrugged off those personality issues as irrelevant, while critics have warned they could have negative consequences for the country. The audio and other evidence in this case, whether it justifies a criminal conviction or not, should leave little question to any objective listener that America would not be safe with Trump back in the White House.

Top Republicans, including Missouri senators Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt, have been promoting misleading narratives since the federal grand jury indicted Trump at the behest of a special prosecutor on June 8.

President Joe Biden has “indicted his top political opponent,” tweeted Schmitt. Biden believes he “can just jail his political opponents,” added Hawley. Both tropes are utterly false. Since this is the kind of misinformation strategy Trump’s enablers have settled upon, it’s important to review the facts.

Before exiting office in January 2021, Trump had hundreds of official documents, many marked to indicate they were classified or top secret, transported to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The indictment against Trump alleges the documents involve information related to the military, U.S. intelligence and even nuclear weapons.

Why Trump kept the papers remains unclear. Former advisor John Bolton has speculated that Trump “may have just thought [they] were cool, a lot of them he thought might be souvenirs.” Of course, that would be completely consistent with Trump’s history of servicing his ego by putting his name on buildings and products — and who thinks the normal rules never apply to him.

Where the case turns from a tale of an oddly persistent hoarder to one of conspiracy, obstructing justice, withholding information from a grand jury and causing false statements to be made to the government (all included in the formal indictment) are the lengths Trump went to to prevent the government from recovering the papers.

While repeatedly failing to return all the documents despite repeated requests and even a subpoena, the government now alleges, Trump ordered the documents moved around, stored in unsecure places including a bathroom.

At one point, he allegedly hinted to one of his lawyers, “Isn’t it better if there are no documents?” Interpret that for yourself.

In June 2022, Trump’s attorneys told the government they’d conducted a search and that all classified documents had been returned. The government had reason to believe that wasn’t true, and a FBI court-ordered search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 proved them correct. More than 100 more documents with “classified” markings were recovered.

Trump has repeatedly claimed he declassified the documents before leaving office, telling Fox News last fall that he could do so “just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.”

He followed up that fanciful notion in a Fox interview this month in which he claims part of the reason he didn’t return the documents is because the government didn’t say “ ‘please, please, please, could we have it back?’”

What an interesting legal theory. (Question: Do they have to actually say “please,” or can they just think it?)

The audio recording released this week, made by Trump’s own staff with his knowledge, seems to show he knew full well the documents were still classified, and were sensitive — he’s bragging about that very point, after all. Amid the rustle of papers, the former commander in chief of the United States armed forces can be heard bragging to a writer with no security clearance about how papers are “highly confidential, secret” regarding attack plans against a foreign adversary. “This is secret information.”

The facts of this entire case, and particularly the most recently released audio, brings to mind comments this month by, of all people, Bill Barr, Trump’s former attorney general.

Barr described his former boss as a “defiant 9-year-old kid, who’s always pushing the glass toward the edge of the table, defying his parents to stop him from doing it. … He’s a very petty individual who will always put his interests ahead of the country’s, his personal gratification of his ego … Our country can’t be a therapy session for a troubled man like this.”

This may be a first for us, but Bill Barr is right. Whatever happens going forward with the criminal case, any prominent Republican who continues to support Trump’s presidential campaign should be made to explain how the man on that recording belongs anywhere near presidential power.

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