Why did he steal the documents? Maggie Haberman's book may hold the answer

Let's review: He's a pack rat; he hoped to sell them; he meant to use them for blackmail. Yes, yes and yes

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 26, 2022 9:08AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Mar-A-Lago (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Mar-A-Lago (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The latest Trump tell-all book is New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman's "Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America," to be published next week. An article adapted from the book appeared in the Atlantic over the weekend, dropping least one major hint at the answer to one of the great questions hovering over the former president since the FBI executed that search warrant at Mar-a-Lago early in August: Why did Donald Trump take all those classified documents from the White House?

Speculation so far basically boils down to three main possibilities. The first is that Trump is a hoarder who can't throw anything away. He just throws stuff into boxes with the idea that he'll get back to it later and he never does. So they just taped up the boxes and sent them off to Mar-a-Lago without even looking at the contents. This sounds like a reasonable guess. Trump had no idea how to do the job of president. Throwing stuff in boxes "for later" is exactly how someone who's in way over his head might deal with his inability to understand whatever he's looking at in the moment. Adding in random unrelated items — golf balls, newspaper clippings, knickknacks — would be an accurate reflection of his chaotic mind.

But come on. There's more to this than that.

The second speculation is that he took the items with the intention of selling them, to someone, somewhere down the line. Considering that Trump considers himself the greatest dealmaker the world has ever known, this is also a plausible explanation. While it's hard to imagine that he would sell classified intelligence to an adversary outright, it's not out of the question that he might have thought they'd be worth hanging on to as a sweetener in some future transaction.

The last speculation is the one that seems most likely, considering his known penchant for blackmail. Haberman's piece in the Atlantic focuses on three interviews she had with Trump after he had left office but before the Mar-a-Lago search. In one of them she asked him about his promise to declassify and release the texts between former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page on the night before Biden's inauguration, which he had not done. He told Haberman that Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, had the texts in his possession and offered to put her in touch with him.

If we're looking for the most plausible explanation for why Trump kept all those documents, we have to consider his known penchant for blackmail.

Trump's last-ditch promise to release the Strzok and Page material wasn't the first or last time that he or one of his associates have suggested that he planned to publicly dump a load of classified documents pertaining to the Russia investigation, the impeachments and various other intelligence secrets that the very stable genius believed the world should see. From last May through August, as the FBI investigation into Trump's theft of government documents was heating up, his top lieutenant in this matter, Kash Patel — a former White House aide and acting Pentagon official in the waning days of the Trump administration — was telling anyone who would listen that Trump planned to release a huge cache of classified information to the public. Patel claimed that in October of 2020, Trump had "issued a sweeping declassification order for every Russiagate document and every single Hillary Clinton document," and then, on the way out the White House door, had "issued further declassification orders declassifying whole sets of documents."

Patel had been selected as Trump's personal envoy to the National Archives and states said in those interviews that he would obtain the alleged declassified documents from the archives and then release them. He didn't say that Trump had a bunch of classified documents in his desk or in cardboard boxes at Mar-a-Lago, but in all these interviews Patel sends a clear, unambiguous threat that sooner or later Trump was going to release government secrets that he had declassified (whether through normal means or his special presidential Jedi powers).

Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was right on the money when he told the House Oversight Committee that Trump would never leave office peacefully was asked last August what he thought all this was about:

He's gonna use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's a way to extort America, turn around to say, if you put me in jail, if you go after me — he'll even say his children — I will have my loyal supporters who you do not know who [have] copies of information ... again this is my conjecture, that I would take those documents, I will release them to Iran, to China, to North Korea, to Russia.

I don't know if Trump would really go that far but I can easily see how Trump might believe that having those documents in his possession gave him an advantage in dealing with a possible prosecution.

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Think about how he operates. He tried to extort false information on Joe Biden from the president of a foreign country. He reportedly "devoured intelligence briefings about his foreign counterparts," especially to get leverage over allies he personally disliked, such as French President Emmanuel Macron. (Documents relating to Macron's personal life were reportedly seized by the FBI.) According to Andrea Bernstein of ProPublica, this goes way back:

I've covered Trump and his business for decades and people around him have told me over and over again: Trump knows the value of hoarding sensitive, secret information and wielding it regularly and precisely for his own ends. If people's gambling and hotel habits can be valuable, top secret intelligence has the potential to be even more so.

It's very likely that Trump took classified documents he thought would be valuable as leverage against specific individuals. The reported Macron documents certainly might fall into that category. But it also seems to me that his claims that Meadows had custody of the Strzok/Page texts and Patel's wild talk about Trump declassifying a huge pile of documents with the intention of releasing them also serves as a form of blackmail against the U.S. government. After all, until recently the FBI and other executive agencies had no idea what documents Trump might have and obviously couldn't be sure that he hadn't already given them to someone else. As president, he had access to everything and he clearly has no sense of responsibility for national security.

Trump's weird message to Merrick Garland in the days after the Mar-a-Lago raid sounds even more sinister when seen in that light:

President Trump wants the Attorney General to know that he has been hearing from people all over the country about the raid. If there was one word to describe their mood, it is "angry." The heat is building up. The pressure is building up. Whatever I can do to take the heat down, to bring the pressure down, just let us know.

We all assumed he was talking about his rabid following getting violent, which certainly seemed like a possibility. But could Michael Cohen be right once again? Was that a threat to release national security secrets if Garland and the FBI didn't back off?  

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Books Commentary Donald Trump Maggie Haberman