“Truth is indisputable,” Winston Churchill once pointed out. “Panic may resent it. Ignorance may ridicule it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.
Facts have become fungible in modern American politics. They are often replaced by plot-laden, bipartisan narratives featuring perceived or invented corruption, deception, and self-righteous reactions to victims.
The midterm elections lost the majority of candidates for governor, secretary of state and US Senate in battleground states who made unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” However, in many cases, it is just barely. And Donald Trump is still betting that he can return to the White House aboard obfuscation, exaggeration, and outright lies.
The majority of Americans agree that broad agreement on basic facts provides the oxygen that sustains democracy. Trump’s claims about the documents – many of which have been marked “Top Secret” and “Top Secret” – and the implicit or explicit endorsement of these claims by ideologically siled media outlets are dangerous to America. democracy has not passed.
The Presidential Records Act stipulates that the president’s records are the property of the U.S. government. Several laws make it a crime to delete government records and store them in unauthorized locations.
In May 2021, after many documents were confirmed missing, officials with the National Archives and Records Administration asked Trump to return the documents as required by law. More than six months later, the former president returned his 15 boxes. It contained (among other things) 184 classified documents. Of those, 67 were marked “Top Secret”, 92 were “Top Secret”, and 25 were “Top Secret”. “The documents were submitted easily and without dispute,” Trump said. Trump’s Save America Political Action Committee claimed the NARA “found nothing.”
In May 2022, the Department of Justice issued a subpoena seeking additional records. In June 2022, an FBI agent and his DOJ agent visited Mar-a-Lago to remove 38 classified documents. 5 of them are marked ‘Top Secret’, 16 are marked ‘Top Secret’ and 17 are ‘Top Secret’. One of Trump’s lawyers signed a statement that, to her knowledge, no such documents remained at her residence after a “thorough investigation.”
In August, a judge issued a warrant to search the facility, finding that there was a “probable cause” that records were concealed and removed from Mar-a-Lago vaults to “obstruct a government investigation.” FBI agents have uncovered another large cache of over 100 documents marked “confidential.” Some of the material reportedly concerned Iran’s missile program, China’s ratings, and foreign nuclear capabilities. Access to these and other documents was to be restricted to the highest levels of the US government.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for lengthy prison sentences for those who mishandle classified information. “In my administration,” he promised in his 2016. No one is above the law. In 2018, President Trump signed a law raising the penalties to felony and impose up to five years in prison for individuals who knowingly remove classified material for the purpose of keeping it in an unauthorized location.
Trump claims these laws do not apply to him.
The National Archives “loses documents and plants documents,” he says. President Trump claims he issued a “permanent order” to declassify documents removed from the Oval Office and brought into his residence the moment he removed them. You can declassify any president by just saying, ‘It’s been declassified,'” he argues. Just thinking about it… I declassified it all.”
Notably, the former president’s attorneys have never made these claims in court. Nor does it address the potential risks to national security, surveillance methods, and agents if classified documents stored in unprotected locations fall into the wrong hands. Or the implications of declassifying such documents without notifying, let alone consulting, anyone within the U.S. government, including the president-elect.
In a now-familiar tactic, Trump tried to redirect criticism of his reckless behavior to his predecessor. According to Trump, Jimmy Carter “sent the nuclear code to his dry cleaners.” Bill Clinton “left the White House with a recording in his sock.” George W. Bush transferred millions of documents “to a former bowling alley combined with an old, broken Chinese restaurant with a broken front door and broken windows.” Barack Obama kept his 30 million records in an abandoned Chicago furniture warehouse.
It’s all bull.
Rex Harrison once said to fellow British actor Robert Morley:
Donald Trump’s performance relies on lies about everything big and small. Among the dozens of false and easily-verifiable claims in his announcement this month of the 2024 presidential election were some of the hilarious ones: war. The first president to do that in such a long time. “
And sadly too many Americans seem willing to buy what he sells.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He (with Stuart Bloomin)Rude Republic: Nineteenth-Century Americans and Their Politics“