Whether or not the materials retained at Mar-a-Largo are nuclear, Donald Trump is in trouble. We know this not because the FBI executed a warrant to search his property on the 48th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation, but because of the statute they used with which to execute the warrant.
Ordinarily the FBI would have done so under code 1924, used when government employees unlawfully hang on to documents they shouldn’t have. Instead the justice department used code 2071, relating to the “concealment, removal or mutilation” of documentation, and code 1519, concerning the “destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.”
“That suggests that the government has reason to believe that President Trump has done more than just hold on to these documents,” said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck. What more has he done? The government wasn’t specific. That isn’t the warrant’s job. It’s just there to authorise a search for probable cause under those statutes.
The specific reasons for the search will belong to the document labelled “The United States of America versus Donald John Trump.” That will be the title of Donald Trump’s indictment, should it be handed down.
Trump knows he’s in trouble. People close to the ex-president report he’s panicking and desperately seeking the suspected inside leaker. It would appear his lawyers are panicking too. They have mooted the defense that anything damaging was planted by the FBI. As preposterous a defense as that may sound, it was used successfully once by OJ Simpson. But then, OJ was desperate too. He was also guilty.
That defense might turn out to be unwise in any case. There appears to have been footage of the search that was available to Trump’s representatives on closed circuit television at the time. Of course, the Trump defense camp may not care about that, as long as it can muddy the waters in the eyes of his fans.
The other strand of the proposed Trump defense is that Trump declassified all the materials in question by presidential fiat, in direct contradiction to the other defense. But there are procedures for that. One does not just wave a magic wand over a bunch of boxes to declassify materials. And for certain kinds of classifications, such as for top secret materials relating to nuclear weapons, the president needs certification and oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to declassify them.
Whatever the case, because of the statutes employed to execute the search, should it turn out that Donald Trump concealed, mutilated, destroyed, altered or falsified those documents, an indictment will almost certainly be handed down. Again, it will come headlined with nine lively words, “The United States of America versus Donald John Trump.” I look forward to those words with satisfied anticipation, and I don’t doubt that you do as well. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.