Two weeks after becoming president of the United States, Joe Biden made an announcement that was both startling and completely understandable.
President Biden said on Friday that he would bar his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, from receiving intelligence briefings traditionally given to former presidents, saying that Mr. Trump could not be trusted because of his “erratic behavior” even before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
It was a reminder that we have traditionally treated our past presidents as something more than ordinary citizens. Of course, they have been equal under the law, unable to hide behind their office any longer to avoid prosecution. But they’ve also been treated with great respect and trust, and nowhere was that more obvious in allowing them ongoing insight into some of the nation’s secrets. Biden was unwilling to extend that trust and courtesy to Trump. It wasn’t a shock given that Trump had just attempted a coup d’etat. It was even easier to understand in light of the inconclusive investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, as well as his lax attitude toward communications security and classified information during his term in office.
Ex-presidents have also enjoyed other perks, from elaborate presidential libraries supported by the National Archives to lifelong Secret Service protection. This tradition and expectation helps explain why it was so jarring to see the FBI serving a search warrant on Trump’s luxury Florida resort. For supporters of Trump, this was a sign of great disrespect and another sign that the “Establishment” refuses to accept that he was ever president at all. Even opponents of Trump experienced the news as far outside of their expectations.
I acknowledge that this is all quite unusual and also that we don’t have all the facts. But there’s one very basic thing we should focus on before we let things get too complicated or speculative.
Trump took classified materials to Mar-a-Lago and then later agreed to return them. He returned some of the material in January 2022, but not all of it. In June 2022, the top counterintelligence official in the Justice Department’s national security division, Jay Bratt, personally traveled to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve what remained. At that point, a lawyer for Trump “signed a written statement…asserting that all material marked as classified and held in boxes in a storage area at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and club had been returned to the government.”
But when the Justice Department released the list of what they found during the exercise of the search warrant, it included “11 tranches of documents, four of which are top-secret, three of which are labeled ‘secret,’ three of which are labeled ‘confidential,’ and one of which is labeled ‘Various classified/TS/SCI documents’ meaning they’re meant to be read only in secure rooms by people with high levels of security clearance…”
What this means is that Trump’s lawyer signed a false declaration in June. Obviously, the Justice Department found out that it had been a false declaration, which is why they sought a warrant. They must have had some solid sources to convince a judge to sign off on such a controversial search, and it turns out that they were correct. The search found what it sought to find, and it found it in abundance.
Now, I personally don’t think we’ve done a fantastic job of electing people of especially high character to the office of the presidency (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama excepted) since Eisenhower left office, but none of our previous modern presidents have so brazenly broke minimum expectations and norms. It’s not too much to ask for presidents not to store TS/SCI documents in lightly secured storage lockers. It’s even worse to lie about it to the Justice Department national security division’s top counterintelligence official. This created more than a crime. It was a national security risk.
Now, we might become even more outraged or concerned if we learn the exact nature of these documents, but we don’t even need to have that information to understand that Trump and his lawyers were dishonest. There was no reason to believe that they’d be suddenly admit what they were doing and produce the documents if only they were asked nicely one more time.
The search warrant was therefore not only justified but sadly necessary, and the hard part is just going to be getting as many people as possible to understand that Trump has been cast out of the esteemed ex-president’s club not out of any particular malice or contempt for his supporters, but simply because his own actions demanded it.