The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s display of unheard-of recklessness is no laughing matter

An itemized receipt for and list of property seized in the execution of a search warrant by the FBI at former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate shows items reading "Info re: President of France" and "Various classified/TS/SCI documents." (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Former president Donald Trump now claims that before leaving office on Jan. 20, 2021, he declassified all the classified documents recovered by the National Archives several months ago, as well as those materials seized by the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate. Since Trump’s statement appeared in writing, there’s no telling if it was made with a straight face or with fingers crossed behind his back.

Either way, it’s no laughing matter. Trump’s disclosure that he has been treating marked classified documents kept in his private home as unclassified materials is, from the standpoint of national security, a display of unheard-of recklessness by a president of the United States.

The U.S. intelligence community produces and protects, at great human and financial costs, the kind of classified information found in Trump’s private possession. The intelligence community, by the way, is no backwater government bureaucracy. It includes the director of national intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Departments of State, Energy and Homeland Security, and the military branches of the armed forces. For those U.S. officials to hear Trump cavalierly assert that the materials spirited out of the White House to Mar-a-Lago were “all declassified” by himself must have come as a horrendous shock.

Trump’s lawyers and his political sycophants contend that the former president was not constitutionally bound to follow established procedures for declassifying information while in office.

As commander in chief charged with keeping the nation safe, Trump was, however, duty-bound to inform the intelligence community of his unilateral action, if for no other reason than to allow for a clear-eyed assessment of the risks his actions might pose to national security.

Among the risks of unauthorized disclosure of national security information? Disruption of U.S. foreign relations, compromised identities of confidential and human intelligence sources and methods, revealing military plans, weapons systems, and defense options, etc.

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The protection of classified materials is not within a bureaucratic no man’s land. There is a legally sanctioned system in place for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying information critical to our nation’s security.

The policy is explained in excruciating detail in Executive Order 13526 — Classified National Security Information, issued Dec. 29, 2009, by President Barack Obama. Updated from a classification system initiated by President Harry S. Truman, the order covers the A-Z of handling and protection of classified materials, including procedures for their downgrading and declassification.

The order covers the same kind of classified documents bearing top secret, secret and confidential classifications found in Trump’s Florida home.

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According to the receipt for property seized by the FBI pursuant to the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, there were “Various classified/TS/SCI documents.” That finding raises a special concern. SCI — sensitive compartmented information — materials require separate handling, including a formal determination of who may have access to them and where those materials can be even discussed — let alone conditions of the buildings or facilities where they must be stored.

Trump’s national security advisers may wish to explain his grounds for declassifying information without, at a minimum, rescinding the existing E.O. 13526, which is not merely a proclamation or commemoration. It is a signed, written and published directive from the president of the United States. Only a sitting president can overturn an existing executive order.

Where is the evidence of Trump, from inauguration up to and including his last day in office, having rescinded or replaced Obama’s executive order? Absent that action, E.O. 13526 remains a permanent rule.

Until Trump landed on the scene.

The only beneficiaries of Trump’s reckless self-indulgence are America’s enemies, who are drawn to mishandled national security information as flies are to honey. Goodness knows, in another professional life and another time, I was well aware of the need for fly repellent.

The Justice Department is correctly pursuing the legality of Trump’s actions.

A damage assessment of the classified materials retrieved from Mar-a-Lago — belatedly demanded by some congressional leaders — should expose the depth of Trump’s negligence of national security.

Either way, the case that Donald Trump is unfit to handle the powers of the presidency has again been convincingly made by none other than Trump himself.

It now remains for justice to be served.

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