October 1, 2023

We knew it would be bad. Even so, it’s bracing just how bad the evidence laid out by the Justice Department against Donald Trump is.

The indictment against Trump and his personal valet, Walt Nauta, unsealed this afternoon, lays out the federal case against the former president in vivid, shocking, and sometimes even wry detail. An indictment is not a conviction—it’s a set of allegations by prosecutors, without rebuttal from the defendant. Trump is innocent in court until proven guilty, and has loudly and insistently proclaimed that he is an innocent man. But the evidence included shows why the case against Trump is so disturbing, and why it will be tough for him to defend. And the crimes it details are among the stupidest imaginable.

[David A. Graham: This indictment is different]

In particular, Special Counsel Jack Smith alleges a few key points. First, that Trump handled the classified material exceptionally sloppily and haphazardly, including stashing documents in a shower, a bedroom, and—as depicted in a striking photo—onstage in a ballroom that frequently held events. Second, that Trump was personally involved in discussions about the documents, and in directing their repeated relocation. Third, that Trump was well aware of both the laws around classified documents and the fact that these particular documents were not declassified. Fourth, that Trump was personally involved in schemes to hide the documents not only from the federal government but even from his own attorneys. The indictment carefully lays out its case with pictures, texts, and surveillance footage.

In sum, the indictment depicts a man who knew that what he was doing was wrong, and went to great lengths to cover it up. Trump knew exactly how bad it would be if the documents were found, and wanted them destroyed or hidden. His fears, as manifested in his indictment, were well founded.

In brief comments at the Department of Justice this afternoon, Smith said that mishandling of classified information had endangered the nation’s security and the lives of service members and intelligence officers. “Violations of those laws put our country at risk,” he said.

[David Frum: An exit from the GOP’s labyrinth of Trump lies]

Trump has raged that he, a former president, should not be subject to criminal charges, but Smith offered a rebuttal. “Adherence to the rule of law is a bedrock principle of the Department of Justice,” he said. “Our nation’s commitment to the rule of law sets an example for the world. We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”

The indictment includes 37 counts against Trump involving seven crimes, including willful retention of national-defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a document or record, corruptly concealing a document or record, concealing a document in a federal investigation, scheme to conceal, and false statements and representations. If he is convicted, he could face years in prison, as could Nauta.

When Trump left the White House, he took with him dozens of haphazardly stuffed boxes. The president was personally involved in the packing, Smith alleges. The result of the haste and carelessness was that some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets were mixed in with newspaper clippings, photos, notes, and other bric-a-brac.

Experts often lament excessive classification, which results in material that’s not really sensitive being branded secret. But that’s not what Trump is alleged to have taken:

The classified documents Trump stored in his boxes included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack. 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.

And Smith establishes that Trump was familiar with the rules around the material. He quotes repeated comments Trump made during the 2016 campaign, when he was assailing his opponent Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information, about the importance of such laws.

Trump has argued publicly, though not in court filings, that he did nothing wrong because he had declassified the documents he took before he left office. But Smith quotes two occasions on which Trump seemed to acknowledge that that was not true, both of which have been partially revealed in previous press reports. In one, he brandished a document before two writers that he claimed was a plan from General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to attack Iran. “See, as president I could have declassified it,” he said, to a staffer’s laughter. “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still secret.” The staffer laughed again. “Now we have a problem,” they replied. This was prophetic.

[David A. Graham: Lordy, there are tapes]

In the other instance, he showed a secret map to a political operative but said “that he should not be showing the map … and to not get close.” Needless to say, this is not how classification works.

Yet even though Trump was aware of all of this, he took no care in protecting the documents. They were moved between several spaces at Mar-a-Lago. Most astonishingly, the indictment includes a photo of boxes stacked in a ballroom where prosecutors said events and gatherings took place, and where the boxes remained from January until March 2021, placing classified material quite literally on display at center stage.

© Provided by The Atlantic
Boxes on a ballroom stage at Mar-a-Lago

In another instance, Nauta entered a storage room and found that boxes had fallen over, spilling sensitive intelligence limited to close allies on the floor. He texted a picture, also in the indictment, to another Trump employee. Text messages show that Trump himself kept close tabs on the location and handling of the documents.

The indictment also details the many opportunities the government offered Trump to return the documents, and alleges that he not only refused but tried several ruses to hide them. Starting in May 2021, the National Archives and Records Administration warned repeatedly that it would hand the matter to the Justice Department if Trump didn’t comply. Finally, in January 2022, Trump sent 15 boxes to NARA. When NARA opened the records and discovered the classified markings, it referred the case to DOJ.

On May 11, 2022, Trump received a subpoena for all classified materials. Over the next several days, Nauta moved boxes around a few times. When Trump’s attorney Evan Corcoran was set to review documents in a storage room so that he could certify to the government that every document had been returned, Nauta first moved several boxes out of the room. All of this movement, Smith alleges, was an attempt to fool both Trump’s attorneys and the government.

Smith’s careful work to show Trump’s direct awareness of the documents and movement of boxes is wise. Trump has often managed to skirt trouble because he speaks like a mob boss—offering strong suggestions for how aides might act, without ever quite implicating himself. He did the same here. Hillary Clinton was on Trump’s mind. He told a story claiming that one of her aides had deliberately taken the fall for deleting 30,000 messages. “She didn’t get in any trouble, because he said he was the one who deleted them,” Trump recounted, telling the story repeatedly in what sounds like an attempt to get someone to do the same for him.

When Corcoran conducted his search and discovered classified documents, Trump seemed to encourage him to destroy or hide classified documents. “He made a funny motion as though—well okay why don’t you take them with you to your hotel room and if there’s anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out,” according to the lawyer’s notes. “And that was the motion he made. He didn’t say that.”

But at other times, according to Corcoran’s notes, Trump was less careful and made clear his intentions. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?” Corcoran recorded the former president as saying, and, “Well look isn’t it better if there are no documents?”

The lingering mystery in the case is why Trump was so attached to these documents. The indictment, and its opaque description of the documents at its core, sheds little light on the question. Perhaps the trial will finally explain why he was willing to risk so much to hang on to papers that, per the indictment, he’d assembled so haphazardly and then stored so negligently.

Nauta emerges as a somewhat tragic figure in the case. By all accounts, he’s a mild-mannered and nonpolitical man who first worked for Trump as a U.S. Navy valet in the White House, then retired and went to work for him after Trump left office.

By now, most people around Trump know better than to trust him. Corcoran, apparently suspecting that Trump was not showing him all the boxes when he conducted the search, instead persuaded Christina Bobb, another lawyer, to act as custodian of records. Bobb, perhaps also wary, produced a certification but cautioned that it was “based upon the information [that] had been provided” to her. Corcoran also covered himself by taking careful notes of Trump’s remarks to him, which a judge later ruled were exempt from attorney-client privilege because they might involve commission of a crime.

But Nauta was not so savvy. When Trump asked him to move the documents around, he did it without question. He also lied to federal investigators in a first interview, though he was apparently more forthcoming in a second conversation. Nauta remained deeply loyal to Trump, and reportedly still is; it was Trump who first revealed his indictment. Nauta became one of the last people to realize that personal loyalty to Trump tends to lead to personal ruin.

On June 3, Bobb signed the certification falsely claiming that all classified documents had been returned. But the Justice Department by then knew or suspected that was not true. On August 8, FBI agents executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and turned up more documents that Trump had allegedly sought to conceal. From that point, Trump’s historic indictment was all but inevitable.