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Trump’s nonsensical riff on past presidents and classified documents

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Mesa, Arizona on Sunday. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
6 min

Donald Trump’s latest riff on his decision to keep government documents at his residence at Mar-a-Lago is chock full of ridiculousness and false equivalency to a degree remarkable even by his standards.

Appearing at a rally in Arizona on Sunday, Trump repeatedly compared his retention of presidential records to the actions of his predecessors. Except most of the examples he cited involved those presidents setting up presidential libraries. (And his other arguments were almost complete non sequiturs.)

He cited Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton having their presidential records moved to warehouses as their libraries were being built. But that’s how the process works. And even if there were evidence that the records were handled improperly during those moves — which there isn’t — they were in the custody of the National Archives, as that agency noted when various Trump allies tried to compare Trump’s situation to Obama’s and again on Tuesday.

Trump also invoked, as he has before, the thousands of emails that Hillary Clinton’s team deleted from her private email server. But these were records deemed to not be work-related, and then-FBI Director James B. Comey determined that there was “no evidence that any of the additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them.”

Then Trump got to some relatively new material, which we’ll take piece by piece.

Perhaps most eyebrow-raising was what he said about Bush.

“Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush took millions and millions of documents to a former bowling alley pieced together with what was then an old and broken Chinese restaurant. They put them together. And it had a broken front door and broken windows. Other than that, it was quite secure. There was no security.”

Many assumed Trump was talking about Bush’s favorite Chinese restaurant in the Washington area, the Peking Gourmet Inn. But, like Trump’s other claims, this actually refers to where Bush’s presidential records were stored for his library.

In 1994, the Associated Press reported that items from Bush’s personal life were being sorted in College Station, Tex., “in the old Chimney Hill Bowl” and “in what used to be the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.”

It’s not at all clear what Trump was referring to by broken doors and windows. But the idea that there was “no security” is flat wrong. As the same story noted: “Uniformed guards patrol the premises. There are closed-circuit television monitors and sophisticated electronic detectors along walls and doors. Some printed material is classified and will remain so for years; it is open only to those with top-secret clearances.”

The deputy director of the library, located at Texas A&M University, recalled earlier this year that they “built a secure space within [the bowling alley] to house the classified material.”

“[Bill Clinton] kept classified recordings in his sock. Did you know about that? They say he left the White House with recordings in his sock, and they found [them] in his sock drawer.”

This refers to something Trump’s lawyers cited in a court filing last month. But the speech botches the facts badly.

The recordings weren’t kept in Clinton’s sock but rather in his sock drawer (as Trump later correctly said).

More important: Clinton didn’t leave the White House with the recordings; they were stored in a sock drawer in the White House during Clinton’s tenure.

And they weren’t classified; they were tapes of conversations Clinton had with an author who was working on the president’s oral history.

Trump’s team and its allies have cited this as proof that a president has the authority to determine what is personal record, rather than a presidential one. They note that a 2012 court ruling determined that the recordings were Clinton’s personal records and that “the President is completely entrusted with the management and even the disposal of Presidential records during his time in office.”

“Under the socks decision — this is a very important decision, they call it the socks decision, because again it had to do with Bill Clinton and his socks — there is no crime,” Trump said Sunday. “You know, there is no crime. It’s not a crime.”

But that same ruling repeatedly notes that this authority pertains to a president’s time in office. It does not deal with a former president removing material with classified markings (for which there is no evidence that they were converted into personal records).

“Bill Clinton also lost the nuclear codes, and nobody complained. Trump didn’t lose the nuclear codes. … Jimmy Carter sent the nuclear codes to his dry cleaner. You know that, right? Nothing happened though.”

The first statement refers to a claim about Clinton made in a book by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but there are reasons to be skeptical of the account (for more on that, see here). The second, on Carter, refers to a more thinly sourced and unconfirmed rumor.

Then Trump turned to his own situation.

“The National Archives put a trigger warning on the Constitution of the United States — did you know that and the Bill of Rights, and other great documents that we have in our country, founding documents, considering them to be dangerous.”

In fact, as PolitiFact reported last year, the National Archives’ warning that certain content in its collection could contain harmful language is included “on all documents across its collection of records of the U.S. federal government.” The agency isn’t singling out the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

“They should give me immediately back everything that they’ve taken from me, because it’s mine. It’s mine. … Likewise, under the Presidential Record Act, everything should come back. All should come back.”

“[The Archives] lose documents, they plant documents. ‘Let’s see, is there a book on nuclear destruction or the building of a nuclear weapon cheaply? Let’s put that book in with Trump.’ No, they plant documents.”

These two comments make little sense on their own, but they make even less sense next to one another.

On the one hand, Trump is continuing to baselessly suggest that someone planted evidence at his residence (something his lawyers still won’t actually claim in court). On the other, he’s saying all of the documents are his and should be returned.

Specifically, Trump is suggesting it was the Archives that planted evidence. (That quote came after the “trigger warning” quote above.) But the Archives didn’t conduct the search of Mar-a-Lago; the FBI did.

All of which suggests, more than two months after the search, that Trump is still just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what will stick with his base of supporters. But if shoddy whataboutism and baseless accusations are the best he has, he might be in some real trouble.

Update: The National Archives issues another statement Tuesday. It called Trump’s baseless claims that the documents were in the possessions of the former presidents or that they were kept in substandard conditions “false and misleading.”