Winston Churchill said: “Truth is indisputable.” “Panic may complain. Ignorance may mock it. Evil may distort it. But it exists.”
In American politics these days, facts are the winner. They are often replaced by conspiratorial, hyperpartisan narratives that contain self-righteous responses to perceived or invented corruption, fraud, and victimization.
In the midterm elections, candidates for governor, secretary of state and US Senate in states that made baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” lost overwhelmingly. But often barely. And Donald Trump is still betting that he can ride indiscretions, exaggerations and outright lies to the White House.
A large majority of Americans agree that widespread agreement on basic facts provides the oxygen that sustains democracy. Even so, Trump’s claims about the government documents he took to Mar-a-Lago—many of which are marked “Top Secret” and “Secret”—and the tacit or overt endorsement of these claims by an ideologically silenced media should warn us of danger. America did not transition to democracy.
The Presidential Records Act states that presidential records are the property of the United States government. Several laws make it a crime to remove public records and store them in unauthorized locations.
After discovering many missing documents in May 2021, officials at the National Archives and Records Administration asked Trump to return them, as required by law. More than six months later, the former president returned 15 boxes containing (among other things) 184 classified documents – 67 classified as “secret”, 92 as “secret” and 25 as “top secret”. Trump claimed that “the papers were handed over easily and without fuss.” Trump’s political action committee to Save America said NARA “found nothing.”
In May 2022, the Justice Department issued a subpoena for additional records. In June 2022, FBI agents and a DOJ official went to Mar-a-Lago and removed 38 classified documents – five classified as “secret”, 16 as “secret” and 17 as “top secret”. One of Trump’s lawyers signed a statement saying that after a “diligent search” no such documents were left at the residence.
In August, a judge found there was “probable cause” to hide the records, and then issued a warrant to search the premises and remove them from storage at Mar-a-Lago to “hinder the government’s investigation.” FBI agents found another large cache of documents marked “secret” — more than 100. Some of the materials related to Iran’s missile program, China’s prices and foreign nuclear capabilities. Access to these and other documents was to be restricted to the highest levels of the US government.
Donald Trump has repeatedly called for long prison terms for those who misuse classified information. “In my administration,” he said in 2016, “I will enforce all laws to protect classified information.” No one is above the law.” In 2018, President Trump signed legislation that increased the penalties for those who deliberately remove classified material to keep it in unauthorized locations, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Trump claims that these laws do not apply to him.
The National Archives, he said, “loses documents and they plant documents.” Without specifying when or to whom, Trump says he has issued a “standing order” that documents taken from the Oval Office and brought to his residence must be declassified when he receives them. “If you’re the president of the United States,” he asserts, “you can only reveal a secret by saying, ‘It’s not a secret.’ Even if I think about it… I have revealed everything.”
It should be noted that the ex-president’s lawyers never made such claims in court. Nor did Trump consider the potential risks to national security, surveillance methods, and agents working undercover in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea if highly classified documents stored in unsecured locations fall into the wrong hands. Or the consequences of releasing such documents without informing anyone in the US government, including the incoming president.
In an already familiar tactic, Trump tried to deflect criticism of his reckless behavior at his predecessors. According to Trump, Jimmy Carter “sent the nuclear codes to his dry cleaner.” Bill Clinton “left the White House tapes in his socks.” George W. Bush transferred millions of documents to “a former bowling alley, then an old and dilapidated Chinese restaurant … with broken front doors and windows.” Barack Obama stored 30 million records in an abandoned furniture warehouse in Chicago.
It’s all bull.
“Here you are after all these years,” Rex Harrison once told his fellow English actor Robert Morley, “with the same house … and, if I may say so, the same performance.”
Donald Trump’s actions rely on lies about things big and small. Among the dozens of false and easily verifiable claims in this month’s 2024 presidential announcement, this one is unfortunate: Despite predictions that he would be a warmongering president, Trump boasted, “I’ve spent decades, decades. the battle. The first president did it for such a long period of time.”
And, unfortunately, too many Americans are willing to buy what he’s selling.
Glenn S. Altshuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He co-authored (with Stuart Bloom) “The Rough Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”