On Sept. 21, famed conservative talk show host Sean Hannity televised an exclusive interview with former President Trump. With mounting pressure on Trump and his legal team, discussion of the search warrant that found classified documents on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property was inevitable. However, an attempt by Hannity to lob softball questions at Trump and allow him to continue his talking points about the politicization of the Department of Justice quickly made for a revealing interview.
Responding to Hannity’s question about the process to declassify documents, Trump argued that he could declassify documents “just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.” Trump would go on to make the unsubstantiated claim that the DOJ may have been looking for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails during the raid on his property.
However, beyond the absurdity of Trump’s comments, the implicit assumption that Trump never announced the declassification of the documents in question proved troubling for his legal claims. Judge Raymond Dearie, the special master assigned to review the documents seized for executive and attorney-client privilege concerns, has asked Trump’s legal team whether Trump did or did not declassify the documents. This forces Trump’s legal team into a Catch-22 scenario: admit that the documents were not declassified and face the potential repercussions or claim that the documents were in fact declassified and be forced to substantiate the claim.
What is clear from the evidence that has been made public in the search warrant and receipt of seized materials is that Trump’s legal team was noncompliant with the National Archives and Records Administration over the return of classified documents under the Presidential Records Act. Furthermore, it has been shown that a Trump lawyer claimed that all classified documents had been turned over — which was later proven to be false. Among the classified documents, some were marked TS/SCI — a designation which indicates that documents are both top secret and contain sensitive compartmented information. To a neutral observer, the presence of such sensitive documents should raise alarm.
Now that Judge Aileen Cannon’s ruling preventing the DOJ from accessing and using the documents seized has been stayed, the DOJ is open to continue their criminal investigation. The special master also seems eager to expedite the investigation so that the DOJ can resume its investigation without unnecessary delay. Trump’s attempt to use the convoluted bureaucracy of the legal system to grind the investigation to a halt seems to be, thus far, ineffectual.
The most interesting variable in the Trump documents affair is how the media, and especially Fox News, has covered the DOJ’s investigation. On the night the search warrant was carried out, Fox News host Jesse Watters claimed that it was all a witch hunt. After more details came to light about what the DOJ was searching for, he implied that the search warrant for classified documents was akin to a bunch of disgruntled librarians upset about an overdue library book. Many of Watters’ fellow coworkers repeated the claims on air to a Trump-supporting audience who was all too eager to feel justified in their feelings of unfairness and political persecution.
After special counsel Robert Mueller acknowledged Russian interference in the 2016 election but claimed that there was no evidence tying Trump’s team to any of these efforts, Trump supporters have felt consistently under unfair attack by — in their view — partisan liberals eager to stop Trump by any means necessary. Consequently, the investigation over these documents played right into fears which have already been inflamed and manipulated by conservative media outlets. This argument is evidenced by the fact that a poll conducted a few days after the search showed that Trump was still at 80% approval among Republicans. The message is clear: Among Republicans, Trump is here to stay.
In our polarized political moment, it is imperative that the Department of Justice follows the law to the letter when conducting this investigation. That means there can be no leaks or overzealous prosecution if the department finds evidence of wrongdoing. Because of the delicate nature of the documents involved, it is also of the utmost importance that the investigation is carried out quickly, without delay or hindrance.