The C.I.A.’s Trump Deja Vu

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
August 16, 2022

It’s hard not to feel these days like we’re back in 2017 or 2018, when the biggest threat to America’s national security was very clearly the American president, who was then Donald Trump. Who can forget the heart-stopping Helsinki press conference when Trump, in front of the whole world, took Vladimir Putin’s word on Russian election interference over that of American intelligence agencies? Or when Trump, still a candidate, publicly invited Russian intelligence to hack Hillary Clinton? Or when he nearly started a nuclear war with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un only to have the standoff devolve into an epistolary romance? 

On top of that, even according to his own advisors, the man seemed to know little about the basics of foreign policy. That’s not a statement meant to be classist or elitist—though it’s hard to argue that against a self-proclaimed billionaire who went to Wharton—but I think that, if you become the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful and lethal military on Planet Earth, you should probably know where Ukraine is on a map and know that Finland is not part of Russia, two facts that, according to his erstwhile national security advisor John Bolton, Trump did not, in fact, know. And, arguably, being a novice at such things is not great tactically when you’re going up against a K.G.B.-trained man like Putin, who was by then on his fourth American president and knew exactly how to handle them. It was why, as Fiona Hill explained to me this past winter, Putin regularly and expertly manipulated Trump with elementary tricks like bringing young, attractive translators to their meetings. You can claim, as Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro did, to be in the Situation Room representing Johnny Six Pack, but I would argue that you’re not representing them very well if you’re letting every American adversary eat your lunch.

Which is why, when Joe Biden was elected and sworn in as president, the American foreign policy and national security establishment breathed a massive sigh of relief. Not only was Trump leaving the building—and the nuclear codes—he was being replaced by one of their own, a trusted member of the so-called Blob. He was well-versed in international affairs and he was bringing with him a whole coterie of foreign policy experts, the Tony Blinkens and the Jake Sullivans and the hundreds of people you have never heard of but who really know their stuff and really cared and had been waiting anxiously to save the ship of state from its deranged captain. Their moment had finally come.

Well, it turns out that Trump never really leaves. He never let go of the reins of the Republican Party and, as we’ve learned in the last week, he hasn’t let go of our national security secrets either. It turned out that Trump had waltzed out of the White House with a trove of top secret national security documents, including, reportedly, some that deal with America’s nuclear weapons. 

There were several types of documents discovered somewhere in the vicinity of the pool at Trump’s Palm Beach social club, scored differently on the secrecy scale. There were some that were merely “secret.” Those are documents that current national security officials can take off work premises to, say, continue their work at home. To do that, they have to carry them in a locked bag that must be on their person at all times and, while they are at home, have to be kept in a government-issued safe. (Electronic documents, like work classified emails sent after hours or on weekends, have to be sent through a special, secure system.) 

Far more troubling, however, was Trump’s alleged mishandling of documents that were so sensitive they are only allowed to be viewed inside a SCIF. A SCIF, or a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, is a room or a building that is designed to be impenetrable to outside surveillance. (The most famous SCIF is the Situation Room.) It is sound-proofed, for example, so that conversations cannot be tapped, even by picking up vibrations. Windows are not recommended. Here is a nearly 200-page document on the building specifications, down to the ducts and the wiring, on how to build a SCIF, which the U.S. government has to do whenever, say, the president or the director of the C.I.A. travel somewhere. 

Suffice it to say that Mar-a-Lago is not a SCIF nor does it have one, which is why the Department of Justice was so concerned and why the D.O.J.’s Jay Bratt reportedly asked that the good people of the ex-president’s country club at least put some kind of lock on the room where these documents, perhaps containing America’s nuclear secrets, were kept. 

Bratt heads the counterintelligence and export control section at the D.O.J., which does make you wonder if there were, indeed, nuclear secrets involved—and if they were being exported. Why had Trump held on to them and other such sensitive national security documents for more than 18 months after leaving office? If it was pure carelessness, why did his lawyers fail to comply with a subpoena in the spring? Why did they lie—in writing—to the D.O.J. that they had returned all classified documents when they, in fact, hadn’t? Did Trump have a plan for what to do with them? Given the fact that counterintelligence and export control was investigating, was there a concern that he could sell this information? And if so, to whom? (Remember the time we learned about a Chinese businesswoman who just happened to wander into Mar-a-Lago—while carrying a device to detect hidden cameras in a bag designed to block electromagnetic signals—while Trump was still president? How often have there been other such incidents that haven’t been publicly reported?) Or were these national secrets just a trophy for Trump to burnish for his fellow geriatric golfers? 

It’s true that the president, as the head of the executive branch, can declassify whatever he wants, even if it makes his advisors go gray overnight. That said, it’s not simply a verbal arrangement. You can’t “Beetlejuice” your way to declassifying a national security document. There is a process and that process produces a paper trail. No such paper trail has so far been uncovered. Moreover, now that he is out of office and no longer president, Trump no longer possesses the power to declassify anything. Despite his supporters’ belief in both his electoral victory in 2020 and his endless legal immunity after leaving office, Trump cannot, in fact, declassify anything, now or retroactively, nor could he at any point after noon on January 20, 2021.

There is another reason that this stash of top secret documents gives national security types heartburn. “More sensitive and important than the information itself are the sources and methods that you use to get that information,” a former senior Pentagon official told me. “That’s where I’d be most afraid from a national security perspective. You can always figure out a new way to tap someone’s phone, but if it comes from a human source and it endangers a member of our clandestine intelligence service or one of their sources—that’s definitely not good.” 

The former defense official also pointed out something like the vague note in the F.B.I. manifest having to do with French President Emmanuel Macron. At first glance, the official said, this seems anodyne, except it could end up being something like U.S. intelligence on Macron’s communications. If that were in fact the case and it got out, it would create a massive international backlash and tension with a crucial ally the U.S. badly needs to hold the line against Russia. (It’s worth noting that the Wikileaks dump of classified State Department documents produced exactly this result: German officials, including Angela Merkel, one of the Obama administration’s closest allies, learned that the N.S.A. had been wiretapping her and officials in her government. The blowback was intense—as was the headache for Obama.)

So far, though, much of the contents of these secret and top secret documents are speculation—which is one of the few things giving any solace to the national security folks I’ve spoken to about this story. The fact that Trump is back in the news as a wielder of any kind of sensitive national security information, however, is triggering all kinds of PTSD all over town. The man who tormented their sleep for years with nightmares of nuclear war has returned because, it turns out, he might still have the nuclear codes after all.