Some tall tales have been raised by former president Donald Trump and his apologists to explain the presence of classified government documents among Trump’s things at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. The most plausible explanation comes from former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who stopped apologizing for her old boss on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021.
Grisham noted that Trump simply has a thing for paper — heaps of it, the more jumbled, the better. He even hauled boxes of assorted materials with him when he traveled on Air Force One. “There was no rhyme or reason — it was classified documents on top of newspapers on top of papers people printed out of things they wanted him to read. The boxes were never organized,” Grisham told The Post. “He’d want to get work done on long trips so he’d just rummage through the boxes. That was our filing system.”
Anyone who has flown in Trump’s company can confirm Grisham’s account. When I interviewed candidate Trump in early 2016 aboard his private 757, the pile of disorganized paper on his desk made a striking contrast to the pristine white leather seats and gold-colored hardware. An even larger mess rode in the seat next to him — thousands of pages in all.
It was lunchtime when we took off from a little airport in Virginia to fly to his next rally. Many candidates relieve the monotony of the campaign trail by arranging deliveries of distinctive local fare to their chartered airplanes. But Trump is a picky eater who hates surprises, so he caters exclusively from well-known fast food chains. He was chewing on a lukewarm Chick-fil-A sandwich; a box of waffle fries balanced atop the paper mountain in front of him.
As the plane lifted its nose into the air, gravity pulled at the paper, and — as Trump muttered an expletive and tried in vain to stop it — the heap spilled fries-first into his lap. Though the scene was worthy of Buster Keaton, I managed to stifle a laugh, and instead wondered why this man traveled with Fibber McGee’s closet in the first place.
(When Americans stop electing geriatric candidates, I’ll stop using metaphors from the 1940s.)
When he had managed to reconstruct the mountain and dispose of the waffle fries, Trump blamed the chaos on a disembodied group of tormentors he referred to as “they.” “They want me to look at documents,” he explained. But that made no sense. The world’s fastest reader could not plow through Trump’s mess in the time he would spend on his plane that day, nor would any half-competent “they” believe that the way to bring attention to a document is to bury it among reams of unrelated flotsam.
Indeed, Trump did not read anything from the paper piles. Several times during the flight he plucked a news clipping or report seemingly at random from the stack and peered at it with a puzzled look. Then he tossed it back onto the pile. The sequence repeated every five or 10 minutes until I understood completely why many in Trump’s orbit believe he is dyslexic.
But if the mass of material was not to be read, what purpose did it serve?
It was a prop, as much a part of the never-ending Trump Show as the make-believe coat-of-arms he had embossed on each leather seat. The mountain of paper showed how very busy and important its owner was.
This became clear as the candidate began rummaging through the pile for various proofs of his own fame and lovability. He dug down about three inches to unearth an 8-by-10-inch photograph of the late pop superstar Michael Jackson. “Do you know who this is?” he asked improbably. “A very good friend of mine,” he answered himself.
Later, he reenacted the same performance with a photograph of Muhammad Ali. Still later, a picture of boxing promoter Don King. The uproar of the day had to do with Trump’s endorsement from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — and whaddaya know: So many very good Black friends of The Donald just happened to surface from the pile.
Grisham tells us that Trump continued to travel with his unread paper props even as he occupied the most powerful position on Earth; naturally, he took some piles home with him after his term. I can picture him pulling out a sheaf of letters from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and asking, Do you know who wrote these? Or waving a morsel of gossip about a European leader and challenging his guest to surmise the origin of the information.
Barack Obama wrote me a note, he might say, before returning the proof to the pile of paper on which his ego teeters.
The caption information on the photograph of an earlier version of this column gave the wrong location for the Hampshire Hills Athletic Club. It is located in Milford, N.H. This version has been corrected.