"Cataclysmic evidence against him": Espionage Act expert explains how Trump faces "historic" trouble

"It could be 1938 all over again": Michael Nacht on what Trump's classified documents scandal means for Americans

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 27, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump waits to be introduced at the Oakland County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner at Suburban Collection Showplace on June 25, 2023 in Novi, Michigan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump waits to be introduced at the Oakland County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner at Suburban Collection Showplace on June 25, 2023 in Novi, Michigan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The legal noose is tightening around Donald Trump and his crime cabal. Special counsel Jack Smith has formally requested a December trial date for the case involving Trump's alleged violations of the Espionage Act and other related federal crimes. Smith's team has also sent Trump's attorneys a list of witnesses and other information about the evidence that will be presented by the prosecution in that trial.

Trump's response has been one of panic and even more paranoia where on his Truth Social disinformation platform and elsewhere the traitor ex-president has been lashing out against "scoundrels" and other "enemies" who are "persecuting" him in some type of "witch hunt." He has also escalated his attacks on the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Merrick Garland, telling his supporters that the United States is like a "communist" country and that the Department of Justice is some type of Gestapo force that does not have legitimacy or authority.

Contrary to what Donald Trump and his defenders in the Republican Party and across the right-wing echo chamber have dishonestly suggested, Trump's violations of the Espionage Act are not mere "bureaucratic" or "technical" disputes about the types of documents a president can take with them once they leave office. As seen with the recent crisis in Russia, where last Friday and Saturday the Wagner PMC mercenary group mutinied and led an aborted march on Moscow with the goal of removing Putin and his military commanders from power, the types of documents that Donald Trump has admitted to stealing and then concealing from the United States government contain information with literal life and death implications.

In an attempt to better understand the broad impact of Trump's secret documents scandal on the country's national security, I recently spoke with Michael Nacht, the Schneider Chair Emeritus and Professor at The Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley. Nacht served as a high-ranking defense policy official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He is a recipient of the Department of Defense (DOD) Distinguished Service Medal, the DOD's highest civilian honor.

In this conversation, Nacht explains how Trump's alleged crimes in connection to the Espionage Act are truly "historic" and without precedent and have endangered the safety of all Americans. Nacht also shares his deep concerns about Trump's corrupt motives for stealing some of America's most closely guarded secrets and that the traitor ex-president may have actually shared them with Vladimir Putin or some of the country's other enemies. Towards the end of this conversation, Nacht warns that Trump must never be allowed to become president again because such an outcome would be "cataclysmic" for the country's future and safety.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How are you making sense of Donald Trump and this moment with his indictment for violating the Espionage Act and his continuing threats to the country?

I think it's very tragic. He's a troubled man, a flawed man — more flawed than most who due to various reasons rose to become elected president. As president Trump made one terrible decision after another, which obviously includes his attempt on Jan. 6 to overthrow the government. Trump then absconded with all these classified documents.

What type of institutional culture was at work in Trump's White House that would allow him to apparently steal top secret and other highly classified information? 

I can't really relate to it because Trump is a unique figure in American history. To my knowledge, no one with Trump's ethics and beliefs — and career background — has ever served in the role of President of the United States before. Hopefully, such a person will not become president again. It must have been awful to work in the Trump White House and administration because people knew that he plays loose and fast with the facts, that he constantly lies, and that he abuses people all the time. Trump loves to belittle people; that is a sign of Trump's weakness not a mark of strength.

"Trump knows this about his power, he said as much with his observation that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and he wouldn't be punished for it. It's Hitlerian."

The people around Trump that should have tried to stop him and tell the public what was going on instead chose to butter him up, to enable him, to tell him what he wants to hear in the form of positive support and encouragement. Trump wants to be told that he is doing the right thing and that he is brilliant even when he obviously is not. The people who served in the Trump administration, the White House, knew that they had to be sycophants, or they would be out.

What is the lesson here about Donald Trump and the types of informal norms and rules that we incorrectly expected to limit any president's behavior? An obvious one being a respect for the office of the presidency and love for the country's democracy and well-being.

He was freely elected president. It wasn't a rigged election. Trump has a type of charisma and set of beliefs that are appealing to lots of voters. Trump knows this about his power, he said as much with his observation that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and he wouldn't be punished for it. It's Hitlerian. Such a person comes along once in a great while. Trump's power is shown by all the millions of Americans who continue to support him even to this day given all the horrible things he has done. Trump compiled all these secret documents in cardboard boxes, put them on shelves on stage, and put them in a bathroom and bathtub. Trump realized that this is unprecedented and that's what attracted him to do it. It is a type of pathological behavior that demands explanations by psychiatrists and other mental health experts.

I was trying to think of a historical comparison for what Trump is alleged to have done in terms of betraying some of America's most closely guarded secrets. This isn't to the level of the Rosenbergs — that we know of. Trump isn't Aldrich Ames either. What comparison would you make?

I really can't think of someone with Trump's behavior and skill set. Aldrich Ames was a spy. He and others like him were traitors to the country because they purposely stole highly sensitive information and passed it on to the Russians. We don't know what Donald Trump has done with this secret information. How much has he passed on? Whether he's been rewarded in any way for it or not? There is no parallel situation for Trump. He's not some young kid who becomes idealistic about wanting to save the country. Trump is most certainly not like Daniel Ellsberg who saw the wrong in the Vietnam War and then released classified information. There's no parallel to what Trump has done. I really think Donald Trump is a totally sui generis figure.

Based on what is publicly known, what is the potential harm to America's security and national interests if these secret documents were compromised?

From what has been publicly discussed there literally may have been war plans regarding Iran. There may have been operational information about how the U.S. operates its nuclear forces and the vulnerability of those forces, and how the Chinese or the Russians are going to attempt to defeat America's nuclear forces and how we would counter those efforts. There could have been personal information and profiles about our assessment of Kim Jong Un, or Putin, or Xi Jinping, or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It's all very sensitive information that is classified for a good reason. I had clearances for 30 years and from the very beginning you're instructed that this is very sensitive information that you cannot reveal to anybody. And of course, you cannot take a single piece of paper with you once you leave the government. You can't even take notes with you. That is made crystal clear when you get a security clearance, even at the lowest levels. Anyone familiar with the process of how the nation's secrets should be handled knows that every single thing Trump did with these documents was incorrect.

I didn't realize the scope and extent of what Trump's violations of the Espionage Act would ultimately be revealed to be. What Trump has done is far beyond anything I thought even he could do. The photos of the boxes are just cataclysmic evidence against him. No one has ever done something like this before because only a former president would have the ability to do such a thing. Nixon, for example, left office when he was told he would be impeached. Donald Trump says he will never quit. He means it. Donald Trump will run for office from jail.

How is the national security state reacting to what Trump did with these secret documents?

They're doing a damage assessment. What is actually in all the boxes? Who knows what our allies are saying and doing? What of America's adversaries? Donald Trump may have shared this secret information with Putin. I always believed that Donald Trump was connected to Putin and the Russians in some capacity. He was either being paid by the Russians or there were real estate or other dealings. Maybe Trump was going to be paid off by giving them secret information. In all, that's why Trump is unwilling to be critical of Putin and Russia. Consider how Trump will not clearly state which side he supports in the war between Ukraine and Russia. At the Helsinki Summit, Trump took the side of Putin and disparaged and dismissed America's intelligence agencies. Trump has taken a whole series of pro-Russian positions.

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Trump and his defenders are trying to spin Trump's obvious crimes against the nation as some type of petty bureaucratic dispute about documents. What is at stake here for the average American in their day-to-day lives? How do you make the importance of what Trump is alleged to have done by stealing these top-secret documents clear to the public?

If our systems are vulnerable to attack, you don't know when an adversary will attack the country and how. There could be a war very soon with China over Taiwan, for example.

In terms of nuclear weapons, we have had threats by Putin to use them in the Ukrainian conflict. Would this just be in Ukraine? Against NATO? Against the United States? So any information on our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and the ways our nuclear forces could be counted will be terribly damaging and threatening to our survival.

It may seem too remote to many Americans, but it could be 1938 all over again with an attack by America's enemies.

One of the ongoing media narratives about Donald Trump is that he is "stupid" or "dumb." Many people are pointing to Trump's recent Fox News interview where he publicly incriminated himself, repeatedly, as proof of Trump's stupidity. When I hear people making such claims, I respond by telling them that Donald Trump is a criminal mastermind.  When you see Trump how do you assess him?

Donald Trump is not stupid. He is not a genius given how uninformed he is on many issues. Trump is only informed about those things that matter to him, and where he himself can personally benefit. Trump is very clever in terms of how he uses that information.

How would you evaluate President Biden's approach to the war in Ukraine as compared to the Trump administration? In what ways is America safer with President Biden than under Trump?

President Biden has been very adept at sustaining and strengthening the NATO alliance and its cohesion and getting all the members to work together. The war in Ukraine is a very dangerous situation. We don't know how far Putin will go — especially if he is in trouble. Fortunately, Trump is no longer in office. Trump talked about getting out of NATO, dissolving the alliance and being pro-Russian in our country's policies. Biden is the opposite of Trump in terms of Russia and Ukraine policy. If Trump were president when Putin invaded Ukraine, I believe that he would make excuses for the aggression. Trump would say it is a "border dispute" or otherwise minimized what really happened. Trump would also downplay any threat that Russia poses towards our democracies, the response would have been 180 degrees different than the one that Biden took. It's plausible to believe that Putin's current strategy is to hold that to the US presidential election in 2024 and hoping that lightning will strike again, and Trump will be reelected. A Trump win is Putin's way to get out of the Ukraine mess.

What will happen to America if Trump returns to power? In particular, to the country's foreign policy.

If Trump was reelected, he would act like there are no restraints on his power. Trump would seek to withdraw from NATO and destroy the alliance. Trump would also encourage Putin to be more aggressive. If Trump returns to office, it would be a catastrophe for American security.

What gives you the most hope for the country's future? And what gives you the most cause for concern or alarm?

Churchill said, "democracy is the worst form of government except for all others". It's sloppy, it's slow. It's complicated. We make a lot of mistakes, but eventually, we get it right. To that point, we're seeing the erosion of Trump's support, albeit very slowly. We cannot allow him to become reelected president. It just would be cataclysmic for the country. I'm hopeful that Donald Trump will not win reelection because we are slowly and surely making progress in standing up against him. That must be the top concern for the country. I am most concerned that Biden gets sick. I am also worried about the Democrats fracturing and fighting against one another. I'm also concerned about another rash move by Putin in Ukraine. I can't decide whether it's better that he's losing or that he's winning. They're both pretty awful situations, because Putin will never accede to anything other than victory in Ukraine. I just can't imagine any situation in which Putin would pull out and negotiate an agreement because that would be the end of his time in power.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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