This morning's news that former president Trump apparently clogged a White House toilet repeatedly with discarded documents was overtaken this evening by the news that some of the records Trump took from the White House were clearly marked as classified, some of them "top secret."
The news of the flushed documents came through Axios from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, whose book about Trump will be out in October. By law, the records of a presidential administration belong to the American people; there are strict laws about how they should be handled and preserved. That Trump ignored the Presidential Records Act was known because of stories of how he ripped up documents that others tried to tape back together, but the idea that he was flushing so many documents he periodically clogged the toilet seemed a commentary on his regard for the American people who owned those documents.
And yet, by the end of the day, the flushing was not the big story.
In the 15 boxes of material the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recovered from the former president's Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, archivists discovered top secret documents. Top secret clearance is applied to documents whose disclosure "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security" of the United States. They are supposed to be kept secure, and to be seen only by authorized individuals. NARA officials had been trying to retrieve missing documents since last summer (never, never, mess with archivists—they keep meticulous records), and Trump refused to hand them over. When they found the mishandled documents, they called the Justice Department.
Reid J. Epstein and Michael S. Schmidt in the New York Times recalled that Trump's handling of sensitive national security documents was so lackadaisical that when he was White House chief of staff, General John F. Kelly tried to stop Trump from taking classified documents out of the Oval Office out of concern that he would jeopardize national security. Epstein and Schmidt recounted how Trump used to rip pictures out of the President's Daily Brief, the daily bulletin of national security threats. Now, it appears he took secret material and did not keep it secure.
Certainly, Trump knew he was breaking the law. White House counsel Donald McGahn warned him about the Presidential Records Act. So did two chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and Kelly. In 2017, internal White House memos warned against destroying presidential records, noting that such destruction is a crime. The editorial board of the Washington Post called Trump's mutilated records, "a wrenching testimony to his penchant for wanton destruction."
This story is about the stealing of our records and the endangerment of our national security—and the heroism of archivists—but it is also a story about the media. The defining narrative of the 2016 election was about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's emails, allegedly mishandled. Again and again, the email story was front-page news. A 2017 study in the Columbia Journalism Review by Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild found that the New York Times in six days published as many cover stories about Clinton's emails as they did about "all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election." The network news gave more time to Clinton's emails than to all policy issues combined.
Today, Matthew Gertz of Media Matters for America noted that the Trump story should mean that finally "political journalists should stop pretending to believe Republicans when they pretend to be outraged about purportedly illegal or unethical behavior by Democrats." He compiled a long list of all the Fox News Channel stories about Clinton's emails and said, "Based on the 2015–16 baseline, Trump flagrantly violating the Presidential Records Act should be a massive story." Aaron Rupar, author of the newsletter Public Notice, tweeted the obvious: "If two prominent reporters broke news that Joe Biden was flushing documents down White House toilets, [Fox News Channel personality Sean] Hannity would anchor special Fox News coverage that would last through 2024. Trump flushing documents down WH toilets has been mentioned twice on Fox News today, once in passing."
The House Oversight Committee has announced it will investigate the "potential serious violations" of the Presidential Records Act. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo was more to the point, saying that Trump's destruction of evidence amounted to "willful and deliberate destruction of government records for the purpose of concealment."
That analysis agrees with the discovery by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol that the White House phone logs for the day of the insurrection have gaps in them: calls they know Trump made to lawmakers are missing. This may be in part because he used his own private cell phone or the phones of aides.
The destruction of documents in the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s hamstrung the investigation, but it is not clear that, in this era, the concealment will be so effective. Yesterday, lawyers for the Department of Justice provided 19 pages of information to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, outlining how they are getting through the massive amounts of information they have, using cell phone records, internet records, geolocation, data aggregators, and so on. It doesn't seem like much is slipping by.
While the investigation by the January 6 committee and the angry split in the Republican Party after the Republican National Committee excused the insurrection as "legitimate political discourse" have gotten all the headlines, the Biden administration has been working to rebuild and redefine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a new era.
Dr. Mike Martin, a war studies visiting fellow at King's College London, notes that it is hardly a secret that Russian president Vladimir Putin wants a buffer around Russia of states that are not allied with his enemies. If they cannot be allied with Russia, at least they will be chaotic and neutral, rather than pro-democracy and anti-corruption.
Martin notes it is not a coincidence that Putin decided to test NATO right as German leadership shifts from former German chancellor Angela Merkel to Olaf Scholz, as the U.K. is reeling from scandals surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and, I would add, as Biden is trying to rebuild the U.S. in the face of open hostility from Republicans after we have suffered far higher Covid death rates than other large, wealthy nations—63% higher since December 1, according to the New York Times.
But the allies surprised Putin by pulling together, in large part because of a sustained and thorough effort by the U.S. State Department, an effort that European diplomats told journalist and political scientist David Rothkopf was "unprecedented." In a piece for the Daily Beast, Rothkopf notes that the dissolution of the USSR left NATO, along with other international institutions, adrift. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, fed the U.S. sense that it could and should act on its own, getting us into the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, which then shaped President Barack Obama's caution as he tried simply not to screw up on the international stage. Then Trump actively worked to weaken international alliances.
Now, Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are trying to rebuild NATO and international alliances, focusing on diplomacy. Recognizing that we cannot combat the crises of climate change, pandemics, and emerging technologies without cooperation, they are emphasizing a rules-based international order, and working with others, whose voices matter: "nothing about us without us."
One diplomat for the European Union told Rothkopf these qualities are "refreshing and, in a way, revolutionary." A scholar of diplomacy put it like this: "When there are lots of moving pieces in play, when there appears to be the chance for seismic shifts in power, these can call forth a golden age of diplomacy. And the coalition builders, the conceivers of grand alliances, the ones who work well with others, these almost always prevail in the face of a bullying despot."
Still, no one knows what Russia will do, although as the ground softens, an invasion becomes more difficult. Yesterday, Russia expert and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul added another piece: "Putin knows…NATO won't accept new members who have Russian soldiers occupying parts of their countries, because NATO members don't want a war with Russia. That's why Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 & Ukraine 2014." Russia currently has troops in Belarus that it says are only there temporarily.