Donald Trump’s long-awaited return to Fox News’s airwaves on Monday night after a months-long absence occasioned an altogether familiar exercise: His longtime ally Sean Hannity helpfully tries to coach him to give the right answers, and Trump utterly fails to oblige. A telling exchange results, but not in the way the host intends.
This time, the subject was the Mar-a-Lago documents search.
In a lengthy interview that often landed on Trump’s legal troubles, Hannity dug in on a big one. He suggested both that Trump wouldn’t deliberately possess the documents and that he didn’t prevent federal authorities from searching for them. In both cases, Trump repeatedly declined to confirm Hannity’s thesis.
The most striking exchange came on the question of possession.
“I can’t imagine you ever saying: ‘Bring me some of the boxes that we brought back from the White House. I’d like to look at them,’” Hannity said. “Did you ever do that?”
Trump didn’t directly answer the question, saying merely: “I would have the right to do that. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
So Hannity tried again: “But I know you. I don’t think you would do it.”
It turns out Trump would.
“Well, I don’t have a lot of time. But I would have the right to do that,” Trump said, before adding that, in fact, “I would do that. There would be nothing wrong.”
His ally quickly tried to pivot to another topic — “All right, let me move on,” Hannity said — but Trump plowed forward.
“Remember this: This is the Presidential Records Act. I have the right to take stuff,” Trump said, adding: “I have the right to take stuff. I have the right to look at stuff. But they have the right to talk, and we have the right to talk.”
Whether Trump deliberately took classified documents and knew he possessed them is a significant question that looms over the special counsel’s investigation. That’s because it’s a crime both to intentionally remove them from where they are supposed to be and withhold them when the government requests them. There is evidence that he was aware of what he had, but here Trump acknowledges that reviewing documents he took from the White House was something he “would” do — even as he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that he did.
The other big pertinent legal question is whether Trump obstructed the effort to recover those documents.
This is where the August Mar-a-Lago search comes into play. Hannity tried to suggest that Trump was forthcoming and transparent with the authorities in allowing them to conduct a search before they did so without his permission in August — the implication being that the unscheduled August search was unnecessary. But again, Trump wasn’t on the same page.
“Did you ever deny the FBI any access that they requested to come back to that room or any other room?” Hannity asked, in the first of four attempts to get Trump to say he never denied access.
Rather than say that, Trump merely suggested that such access was not requested.
“The FBI could have taken the documents if they would have asked,” he said.
He added, at another point: “We would have given them the stuff had they asked for it.”
When Hannity asked a third time, Trump said that “the lawyers gave them access to the room” where the documents were stored. But he again didn’t address the idea that a request to actually search for the documents was denied.
Hannity kept pushing for a direct answer: “The question that was key to me is, like, they already had access, and I was asking you if you ever denied them access?”
Trump again talked around the question, saying he didn’t know why they conducted the surprise search and that “I would have said yes” to a pre-Mar-a-Lago-search request.
The fact that Trump wouldn’t say whether a request was denied could be significant, because the government has flatly said it was indeed prevented from looking through the documents.
Trump’s legal team had said in an August filing that he had told the agents during a June visit: “Whatever you need, just let us know.” It also said an agent had asked to “inspect” the room and that the request was granted. But it didn’t address whether agents were allowed to actually look at the documents in the room or conducted such an inspection.
The government soon indicated that the omission was deliberate. It said that agents were “allowed only a brief view of the storage room” and weren’t allowed to view the contents of the boxes.
“Critically … the former President’s counsel explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room, giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained,” the Justice Department said in another filing.
Hannity is right that this is indeed a “key” question. It just didn’t result in the answer he was looking for. And in that regard, it had company Monday night.