Secrets are a kind of currency. They can be hoarded, but if kept for too long they lose their value. Like all currencies, they must, sooner or later, be used in a transaction—sold to the highest bidder or bartered as a favor for which another favor will be returned. To see the full scale of Donald Trump's betrayal of his country, it is necessary to start with this reality. He kept intelligence documents because, at some point, those secrets could be used in a transaction. What he was stockpiling were the materials of treason. He may not have known how and when he would cash in this currency, but there can be little doubt that he was determined to retain the ability to do just that.
Before the publication of the grand jury's indictment, it was possible to believe that Trump's retention of classified documents was reckless and stupid. The indictment reveals that recklessness and stupidity are the least of his sins. With Trump, it's always a mistake to equate anarchy with purposelessness or to think that the farce is not deadly serious. Trump's hoarding of official secrets is both breathtakingly careless and utterly calculated. At the heart of that calculation is a cold resolve to not give up the power that access to highly restricted information had given him.
The most immediately striking parts of the indictment may, in this regard, be something of a distraction. The photographs that show boxes of papers at Mar-a-Lago, piled high on a ballroom stage, in a bathroom, and spilling out onto the floor of a storage room, convey an almost comic sense of chaos. If comedy is generated by incongruity, what could be more incongruous than nuclear plans or details of "potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack" sitting beside a toilet?
It all seems random and haphazard, an impression greatly magnified by the knowledge that Mar-a-Lago, in the eighteen months after Trump took the documents from the White House, was, as the indictment states, the venue for "more than 150 social events, including weddings, movie premieres and fundraisers that together drew tens of thousands of guests." The New York Times has published photographs, scraped from social media, of people in party dresses or casual summer clothes around the Mar-a-Lago pool. We can see that, behind them, the door that leads to the storeroom, which was packed with boxes of official papers, is wide open. In those boxes, when the FBI opened them in August 2022, were eleven documents marked Top Secret, thirty-six marked Secret, and twenty-eight marked Confidential. It would have been the least thrilling spy thriller ever made. No James Bond high-tech gadgets or George Smiley ingenuity—just turn up in a cocktail dress, slip through an open door, and help yourself to the US military's contingency plans for invading Iran.
Yet this ludicrous vulnerability to foreign spies is both remarkable and somewhat beside the point. The slapdash storage of classified papers is shocking—but also misleading. It defines the scandal as, in the words of Alan Feuer and Maggie Haberman in The New York Times, "Mr. Trump's indifference toward the country's most sensitive secrets." But this is not a tale of indifference. Trump cared a great deal about the value of the documents. He cared enough, per the indictment, to suggest that his attorney lie to the FBI and a grand jury about what papers he did or did not have. Even Trump does not engage in a criminal conspiracy purely for its own sake. The retention of those boxes mattered to him because he understood the market value of what they contained.
It is important to bear in mind that chaos is Trump's natural element. It is the medium in which his narcissism thrives. When there is no plan, the only law is his own desire. He alone knows at any given moment what he will do. In this light, the apparent disorderly storage of the boxes at Mar-a-Lago does not signify a lack of concern with what they contained. It is just the norm of Trumpworld. Derangement is his modus operandi.
The indictment makes clear that Trump knew very well that he was breaking the law. He was repeatedly warned by the National Archives and Records Administration that if he did not hand over the missing records, he would be referred to the Department of Justice. He had, of course, made a very big point in his attacks on Hillary Clinton of the need for zero tolerance for any lack of rigor in the handling of classified documents. He fully understood that the laws applied to everyone, including the president. As he declared in September 2016, before that year's election, "We can't have someone in the Oval Office who doesn't understand the meaning of the word confidential or classified." As president, in July 2018, he issued a statement saying that "as the head of the executive branch and Commander-in-Chief, I have a unique constitutional responsibility to protect the nation's classified information, including by controlling access to it."
More specifically, Trump knew that he was taking huge risks when he allegedly instructed his lawyer to lie to the FBI and the grand jury. That lawyer, quoted in the indictment, recalls that when Trump told him to take a folder of documents to his hotel room, he made a silent "plucking motion," as if to say, "if there's anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out." Precisely because Trump knew that he was committing a crime, he preferred not to utter the incriminating words. There is nothing thoughtless or accidental in all of this. He clearly believed that the risks were worth taking.
This does not suggest that he was holding these documents merely as souvenirs. It's quite possible to believe that part of his motivation lay in his fantasy that he was still the real president: retaining the intelligence briefings he received as POTUS would make him still, at some level of self-delusion, potent. The two known occasions, cited in the indictment, when Trump produced some of the documents to outsiders while explicitly referring to them as secret and confidential have this air of showing off—perhaps as much to himself as to those he was trying to impress. It is also quite reasonable to think of him experiencing a tingle of pure pleasure in imagining his own impunity—knowing that he was committing the ultimate transgression and thrilling to the idea that he would get away with it because he had always in his life gotten away with everything.
Pages from the Justice Department's indictment of Donald Trump, June 9, 2023
But these elements of twisted psychology can coexist with a more rational impulse: to keep hold of secrets that could be traded at some point for his personal gain. Trump sees himself above all as a deal-maker: "The nation's classified information" is a potentially lucrative part of one or many deals.
This intent would be treasonous. Trump may not have actually committed treason, but he was consciously putting himself in a position to be able to do so. For what is not secret is the identity of the foreign countries that would be most interested in acquiring the details of the military plans and vulnerabilities of the US and its allies. The indictment states that the documents also included information that could identify US agents and informants in some of those countries and "the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods." This is worth underlining: Trump went to great lengths to retain for himself, as a private citizen, the power to reveal to any foreign power not just US military secrets but the workings of US intelligence-gathering in those countries. It is impossible to believe that he did this accidentally or without considering that he might at some time use that power in return for some financial or other benefits.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that most of the Republican Party is fine with this. Much of the history of the right in America is bound up with paranoia about the possible existence of traitors at high levels of government. Here is stark evidence of the existence of one at the very highest level of government, and Republicans are rushing to defend him. The Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington famously asked, "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?" and answered, "For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason." If the hoarding of state secrets as valuable currency cannot be called treason, the concept has gone the way of honor, truthfulness, and respect for law. It has ceased to exist for the Republican Party.
Fintan O'Toole (born 16 February 1958) is a polemicist, literary editor, journalist and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988. O'Toole was drama critic for the New York Daily News from 1997 to 2001 and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is also an author, literary critic, historical writer and political commentator.
O'Toole was born in Dublin, grew up in a working-class family and was educated at University College Dublin. In 2011, he was named by The Observer as one of "Britain's top 300 intellectuals", although he does not live in the UK. In 2012 and 2013 O'Toole was a visiting lecturer in Irish letters at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey and contributed to the Fund for Irish Studies Series.
Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?
A. The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.