Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
August 8, 2022
It’s been quite a day.
It began with Axios sharing photos of what purported to be White House toilets with torn up paper in them. The notes on that paper appear to have former president Trump’s distinctive handwriting on them. Axios got them from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who has previously reported that Trump used to get rid of documents by flushing them. (By law, all presidential records must be retained.)
I am skeptical of these photos, myself—they seem a bit too perfect—but I do find the timing significant. If the photos are real, someone has had them for a long time but now feels that it is worth sharing them. If they are fake, they nonetheless demonstrate that Trump is a significantly diminished figure.
Next came news from the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, has written a book, and to sell it, he gave a long interview to Mattathias Schwartz of Insider. In the interview, Manafort admitted what the Senate Intelligence Committee said in their report about Russian interference in the 2016 election: he gave internal polling data from the Trump campaign to Konstantin Kilimnik, who, according to the Senate report, was a Russian intelligence agent. Manafort had previously denied this story.
Manafort told Schwartz that he was not trying to swing the election but hoped to convince pro-Russian oligarchs to do business deals with him by showing that he had access to Trump and that Trump could beat Democratic presidential candidate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Manafort says he didn’t know Kilimnick worked for Russian intelligence. Reached for the story, Kilimnick says he is a victim of people’s dislike of Russia.
Then, Trump’s presidency. In the New Yorker today, Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker revealed that Trump and the generals of the United States Army were fundamentally at odds about how they viewed the United States. Trump wanted the generals to be loyal to him, as he believed “the German generals in World War II” were loyal to Adolf Hitler. (In fact, they tried repeatedly to assassinate him.) Trump tried to pack the military with loyalists; military leaders insisted that the military must not be taken over by a single leader.
After June 1, 2020, when Trump had nonviolent protesters cleared from Lafayette Square with tear gas and batons, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley drafted a resignation letter in which he told Trump, “It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country” with his actions over the past weeks.
Milley explained that our Constitution means that “[a]ll men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is—what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans.”
But Trump, he said, was siding with “tyrannies and dictatorships,” “fascism,” “Nazism,” and “extremism” and “ruining the international order” that the Greatest Generation defended in World War II.
While Milley did not, in the end, resign, he did take a public stand against Trump’s use of the military against Americans.
The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was also in the news today: CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that two years of text messages to and from conspiracy theorist and January 5 rally speaker Alex Jones have been sent to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jones’s lawyer had inadvertently sent the messages to opposing counsel during his recent trial.
And then, although the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t tip off anyone about this, even after it had begun, Trump tonight released a statement saying that the FBI was raiding Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, property. “They even broke into my safe!” he complained. He called it “an attack by Radical Left Democrats” and said it was a sign that America has become a third-world country. But Trump himself appointed the current director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, after firing former director James Comey for investigating the ties of his 2016 campaign to Russia. Wray is hardly a “Left Democrat”; he served in the George W. Bush administration and is a member of the Federalist Society.
Legal analyst Joyce White Vance reminded people on Twitter: “We don’t know yet what crimes the FBI had sufficient evidence of to convince a federal judge there was probable cause to search Trump’s residence, but the execution of a search warrant isn’t a raid. It’s a judicially overseen process.” It appears that the search was about Trump’s removal of classified documents from the White House. (I told you: no one with any brains at all ever messes with archivists.)
As legal analyst Asha Rangappa noted, “a search warrant has to demonstrate probable cause that evidence of a crime will be found in the places and things searched.” And legal analyst Renato Mariotti adds that the Department of Justice doesn’t usually prosecute cases unless the material was deliberately transferred to a third party, and that it is unlikely DOJ would have obtained a search warrant if it did not expect to pursue a case.
Tonight, chief White House correspondent for CNN Kaitlan Collins reported that in early June, investigators had gone to Mar-a-Lago to learn more about the materials Trump had taken when he left the White House. They asked to see where the documents were stored, and Trump’s lawyers took them to a basement room. The search warrant executed today included a safe in Trump’s office, and journalist Laura Rozen reported that agents suspected that Trump had taken and was holding other classified documents after he returned many of them.
Political commentators noted that the law disqualifies from “holding any office under the United States” anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies or destroys…any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited with any clerk of officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States.”
Tonight, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expressing outrage, the Fox News Channel is talking about Hunter Biden, and Trump’s base is calling for war, but Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is silent. For his part, Trump is fundraising off the executed search warrant.
One final story from today illustrates a central principle of democracy: the principle of accountability.
Today, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced the men who stalked and murdered Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 as he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. She sentenced Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael to an additional life sentence in prison on federal hate crime charges. Unlike the other two, their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan did not bring a gun to the scene, a fact the judge noted when she sentenced him to 35 years. They will serve their sentences in state prison, although they asked for federal custody, saying they feared for their lives in state prison.
Accountability is not only about justice; it’s about deterrence.
On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the office of the presidency the next day at noon. He did not admit wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal, although the House Judiciary Committee had voted to impeach him, the full House was sure to follow, and Republican senators warned him the Senate would vote to convict.
He never did admit wrongdoing, and he was never held accountable. Instead, the next president, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him. And here we are, 48 years later, with a president and his followers outraged that he, like everyone else, must abide by the law.