Voices: Even with redactions, the Trump affidavit and the papers in his basement are genuinely shocking

Mar-a-Lago, where Trump brought documents after his loss to Biden in 2020  (AFP via Getty Images)
Mar-a-Lago, where Trump brought documents after his loss to Biden in 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

There are times when it is easy to become overwhelmed by distractions. This is one of them.

How many documents was the Department of Justice releasing? What was the difference between the letter outlining its legal justification and the actual affidavit itself? And what real sense can one make of any of them when so much of the contents are redacted?

It is on days such as today when it is easier to focus on the basics: The Department of Justice publicly revealed for the first time that officials had recovered 184 classified documents that Donald Trump had been keeping at his Mar-a-Lago estate. They were contained in 15 boxes and were returned to the National Archives in January, where officials alerted the Department of Justice after it found the documents were marked “top secret” and classified. An investigation by the DOJ led it to be concerned that Trump still had other documents  that could compromise “clandestine human sources” or overseas intelligence-gathering tactics if they were made public.

This concern was the basis for the warrant sought and obtained by the FBI when it raided Trump’s home on August 8, recovering another 11 boxes of materials. The affidavit said there were “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET”.

These are not media reports, or quotes from people with purported knowledge of the investigation. They are the details contained in sworn legal documents that officials presented before a judge.

The officials also told the judge that without the redactions, “the affidavit could be used to identify many, if not all, of these witnesses”.

“If witnesses’ identities are exposed, they could be subjected to harms including retaliation, intimidation, or harassment, and even threats to their physical safety,” the filing adds. “As the court has already noted, ‘these concerns are not hypothetical in this case’.”

The document released on Friday also confirms one other crucial point. For all the amenities and facilities contained within Trump’s luxury estate near Palm Beach, it does not contain a secure facility for the storage or reading of such documents.

“Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified infomation,” the document adds. “As such, it appears that since the time classified documents were removed from the secure facilities at the White House and moved to Mar-a-Lago on or around January 20, 2021, they have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location.”

That, in essence, is the story today. Donald Trump, angry and bitter after losing to Joe Biden, returned to Florida with hundreds of classified documents that he had no right to hold on to. When the National Archives sought their return, his lawyers appear to have obstructed their efforts.

Trump on Friday sought to dismiss the episode, and appeared to find pleasure that as of yet there was no mention of nuclear secrets. “Affidavit heavily redacted!!!” he wrote on his Truth Social platform. “Nothing mentioned on “Nuclear,” a total public relations subterfuge by the FBI & DOJ, or our close working relationship regarding document turnover - WE GAVE THEM MUCH.”

Joe Biden — still claiming he is leaving the investigation entirely in the hands of Merrick Garland and the DOJ, despite the huge political implications of investigating a former president — told reporters, “We will let the Justice Department determine that.”

Let’s see where this story heads. But even in times when the extraordinary becomes routine, when “crazy” feels normal, it is important to ponder what we learned about Trump’s actions when he left the White House. It is nothing less than shocking.

It is shocking, too, that despite all of this, Trump could well make another run for the presidency and pull it off.