Alan Zendell, February 11, 2022
I was one of many Americans who held top secret clearance during the Cold War and Vietnam years. Everyone took that stuff very seriously back then. We were read the riot act concerning all the federal statutes they could throw at us if we violated even the most trivial-seeming requirement. We were threatened with huge fines and long prison terms for violations, which included things like whether our own clearance levels entitled us to see specific classified materials, where they could be destroyed, stored, or even looked at, and whom they could be shared with.
This reflected the paranoia of the times. Our superiors gave the impression of a leak-proof system hardened against spying or treason, but there was always a potential loophole. While every government and military institution and every contractor had to run all clearance approvals through a strict and detailed FBI vetting process, there was and still is one glaring exception, equivalent to leaving the barn door wide open. The exception applies only to the president, who can legally grant any level of clearance to anyone he or she chooses.
As loopholes go that doesn’t seem all that serious. After all, the president is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and the individual most clearly tasked with protecting the safety and security of all Americans. What would motivate a president to behave irresponsibly with highly classified materials?
Donald Trump answered that question as soon as he took office. In April, 2019, Reuters reported that, “A White House whistleblower has said the Trump administration overruled security experts to give questionable security clearances to more than two dozen people, including the president’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.” Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, had been granted top secret clearances by the president because he had no respect for rules and norms observed by his predecessors. From the first, Trump considered himself above the laws the rest of us have to obey.
It might seem ironic that Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 has been credited by many observers to the infamous email scandal fueled by Trump’s supporters and the Fox News Channel. It might, except that it was simply a political hit job conceived by people with no scruples for whom winning was everything, in other words, Trumpers. Clinton was never accused of deliberately misusing of mishandling classified documents. Rather, the entire kerfuffle was about a gray area in the then current rules for how they could be stored. As Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton used a private server in her home to do some of the government’s business, a practice that George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell said he had used as well. There was no evidence that Clinton knowingly acted irresponsibly or committed any act that compromised our security.
What may eventually prove to be ironic, depending on how it plays out, is evidence being provided to the House Special Committee on January 6th that Trump deliberately destroyed classified documents to keep them from coming to light. He also illegally moved documents from the White House to his residence at Mara Lago including many clearly marked “Top Secret” without securing them. It appears that there is more than enough evidence that Trump violated both the Presidential Records Act and the Rules for Safeguarding Classified National Security Information contained in federal regulations (32 CFR Part 2004.) These are serious crimes that could land you and me in federal prison for the rest of our natural lives.
It seems our lawmakers, in writing security rules, never imagined a president like Trump, who believed he could make his own rules whenever it pleased him, whose boundless arrogance extended to routinely violating federal and state statutes. People who know Trump well have often compared his behavior to that of a Mafia crime boss – total disregard for laws, morality, and common decency. If you are shocked by the latest revelations by the Washington Post about Trump ripping up Top Secret documents, flushing them down toilets, and taking a cavalier approach to national security, I’d have to ask which planet you’ve been living on for that last five years.
All this is in its preliminary stages. Eventually, all the evidence will be referred to and studied by Department of Justice investigators. If we believe Attorney General Merrick Garland, DOJ will not be intimidated by either political pressure or the media. Predicting whether Trump will be indicted or brought to trial is a losing gambit, but as the walls of justice close in on him, we can rest assured that his political star will continue to fade. I have no doubt that his actual influence is being exaggerated by the media. His fall from grace cannot happen too quickly.