This is different.
We’ve become so numb, so accustomed to the sliding scale of right and wrong practiced by Donald Trump that it can be hard to see where the line is anymore.
But the news coming out of Mar-a-Lago after the FBI search is appalling. Our ex-president, according to the documents released Friday, is being investigated for potentially violating the Espionage Act. And obstruction of justice. And removing government records. There are reports these may be documents relating to nuclear weapons.
That’s next level stuff, even for Trump.
We don’t know if he did those things. We don’t know if, in fact, a disgruntled ex-president carted home to his gilded palace in Palm Beach boxes and boxes of documents that could put us all in danger, as a country, documents that belonged to the people and he had no right to take. We don’t know that yet. Our system, the one he has done his best to overturn, says he is innocent until proven guilty. It’s the rule of law and it’s why we have presidents instead of kings.
But this moment is a test. Our institutions held during Watergate. They held on Jan. 6. Will they hold again? How did our government become so hollowed out in four years of Trump that the former president could be facing a charge of actual espionage?
What we know so far looks bad. The FBI removed 11 sets of documents that were marked “classified.” One box was labeled as “various classified/TS/SCI documents” — which stands for “top secret” or “sensitive compartmented information.” As the Miami Herald noted, the TS/SCI designation means the information is supposed to be handled by a small set of people currently in government service, working in highly secure settings.
We also know that the National Archives already had to retrieve 15 boxes of documents from the former president earlier this year. This is not an isolated thing.
He will, of course, shrug it off. Again. He’s already at it, claiming the FBI could have gotten the records all along. He’s saying he declassified the documents himself. That’s convenient — and another example of that sliding scale of justice he applies as needed.
This week alone he cited the 5th Amendment right against self incrimination more than 440 times during a deposition in a New York probe into the Trump Organization’s business practices. In 2016, at an Iowa campaign rally, he said: “The mob takes the Fifth. If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth?”
But there are laws, and presumably — though we may no longer be able to take this for granted — an ex-president is bound by them. The 1978 Presidential Records Act requires that presidents turn over documents to the National Archives at the end of their administration. And another act, one he signed into law, increased the possible penalty for “unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material” from one year to five years in prison. And that’s not even considering the penalties for violation of the Espionage Act or the other felonies that could fall under the laws cited in the search warrant documents.
Donald Trump prepared us well for this moment, moving the goal post of decency, outrageous moment by outrageous moment, until we reached Jan. 6. The numbness is no accident. But it’s time for us all to pay attention.
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