There are certain themes with Donald Trump that repeat themselves. Sometimes what comes out of his mouth is amazing and astounding, but the motives underlying his actions are always predictable. Let’s recall that the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump was Mark Milley who had a premonition that his boss would attempt a coup rather than leave office peacefully. In the Spring of 2001, Milley began to talk to reporters about the steps he had taken to ensure that any illegal orders Trump might issue would not be carried out. He was also very worried about Trump attacking Iran, I guess as some kind of wag the dog desperation move to help him stay in power. As you might predict, Trump didn’t like seeing Milley boasting about working against his own commander in chief and he wanted to do what he always does–attack his critics.
His instinct was to argue that Milley was a liar and hypocrite. He knew he had in his possession some war plans for attacking Iran that had been drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he wanted to use them to argue that it was Milley who had been urging war rather than himself. It didn’t matter that the plans had actually been drawn up early in Trump’s term by Milley’s predecessor, Joseph Dunford. Nor did it matter that the existence of the document was routine and in no way a recommendation or advocacy for launching an attack during the lame duck period of Trump’s presidency. The plan was to point to the war plans as a way of undercutting Milley.
But there were some problems with the plan. The ex-president wasn’t concerned that the whole line of argument was dishonest and bunk. But he knew the war plans were classified and he couldn’t share them. At a tape-recorded meeting “with people helping his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, write a memoir,” at his Bedminster Golf Club in July 2021, he lamented the fact that he hadn’t declassified the war plans when he still had the power to do so. This didn’t prevent him from lying to these writers about Milley, but it reduced the effectiveness of the lies.
Another problem was one Trump hadn’t sufficiently considered. He had no right to possess the war plans once he left office. In fact, the plans were classified as “secret.” When he apparently waved the plans around at the meeting, he was providing evidence of an ongoing crime. And he was doing it all in the name of falsely accusing Milley of being a hypocritical warmonger. When Meadows’ book was published, it dutifully reported this lie, while omitting the fact that Trump still possessed the documents (the tape recording reportedly captures papers rustling and suggests he was waving them about).
Mr. Meadows, in his book, appeared to echo Mr. Trump’s claim about General Milley.
“The president recalls a four-page report typed up by Mark Milley himself,” the book said. “It contained the general’s own plan to attack Iran, deploying massive numbers of troops, something he urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency. President Trump denied those requests every time.”
The instinct to fabricate lies about his critics is so strong in Trump that is almost inevitable. But here it may significantly contribute to a successful prosecution against him for mishandling classified information and obstruction of justice. The incident undermines Trump’s strongest defense, which is that he’s simply too stupid to understand the law. He’s captured on tape acknowledging that, as president, he had to take some affirmative action to declassify information and couldn’t simply do it “by thinking about it.” And he acknowledges that there are limitations even once he’s out of office on what classified information he can share with those not authorized to receive it. There’s no question that he was violating the Espionage Act’s prohibition against retaining without authorization “documents related to the national defense that could be used to harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary.” These were war plans.
Finally, it may help the obstruction case because this wasn’t simply an example of a document being inadvertently boxed up as he left the White House and put in some storage area. He knew he had the Iran war plans and he knew he was obligated to turn them over. The National Archives and Records Administration had requested the return of all presidential records, including classified documents, the month before. A year later, in May 2022, the Justice Department obtained an official subpoena seeking all “documents bearing classification markings” that were still in Trump’s possession. It’s unclear when or if Trump ever turned over the war plans.
There’s a very compelling case here that Trump should be in prison. His violations of the law are obvious and why should he get a pass? But it also shows that his crimes are anything but harmless. His desire to use classified information to defame and slander his critics is on ongoing danger to national security. His willingness to share information with those not authorized to receive it is one problem, but his careless safeguarding of documents is another. This all needs to be adjudicate as quickly as possibly before Trump is a candidate for office on any ballot.
Hopefully, it will turn out that Trump’s own pettiness, dishonesty and vindictiveness in the Milley case will be what ultimately seals his fate. It would be poetic justice.