Trump’s strategy in the classified documents case is quickly crumbling


No judge would put it that crudely, but the court system is effectively telling Donald Trump to drop or shut up on his wild claims and outlandish defenses about his hoarding of classified information at his Florida resort.

The case has turned against the former president and the Justice Department in recent days, suggesting that classic Trump legal strategy of delay, denial and distraction is not working as well as it used to.

In a sign of how quickly Trump’s position on this particular drama could erode, several Republican senators took the unusual step Thursday of criticizing his handling of the documents despite his firm grip on their party.

Following the latest developments, a judge serving as Thursday’s special judge gave Trump’s legal team until the end of next week to officially state whether they believe his claim that the FBI found incriminating evidence during a search at Mar-a-Lago have placed in the past month. This comes a day after an appeals court dealt a blow to Trump by ruling his team had failed to produce evidence to support his claims that as president he had declassified the roughly 100 classified documents the FBI extracted from his home had stolen.

In a way, Trump gets his day in court and every chance to prove his statements. He is under investigation by the Justice Department for possible violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice for mishandling classified documents. So far there is no evidence that he will be charged.

The search, an unprecedented move against a former president, provoked questions about whether the DOJ had gone too far given the case’s tense political sensibility — particularly as Trump has shown all signs that he has another run for the White House in the year 2024 prepared.

But if the former president cannot prove his allegations, as many outside observers expect, his legal position will deteriorate significantly.

The clue here may be that Trump’s attorneys, who understand they cannot lie under oath, failed to repeat many of the ex-president’s testimonies before a judge. The latest twists in the case therefore sandwich her between her obligation to tell the truth and her client, who has a notoriously flexible notion of fact and reality.

The former President’s strategy is well known and has been remarkably successful throughout much of his long and controversial business and political career.

Trump often substitutes a public relations defense for a legal defense, lashing out at institutions, departments, courts, officials, and the media that seek to impose accountability or ask him to justify his allegations with facts. His strong support among grassroots GOP supporters reflects Trump’s talent for creating a version of events that can become a politically effective narrative.

Oftentimes, Trump seems to be inventing a new counterattack on the spot to get him through a particularly sticky moment, like when he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday that he was a president could declassify a document just by thinking about it—an absurd departure from intelligence procedures.

This approach fails, however, when allegations that work well as a political strategy encounter the actual threshold of a courtroom, where testimony must be made under penalty of perjury.

“The power of our courts lies in bringing out the truth,” said the CNN legal analyst Eli Honey said on Thursday’s Erin Burnett OutFront, adding that anyone can say whatever they want, publicly or in the media. “But when you ultimately go to court, and that’s going to happen here sooner rather than later, the judge or jury will say, ‘Well, that’s your claim, now prove it.'”

The tension between Trump’s public statements and what is permissible in court now unfolding in the classified case is reminiscent of what happened after the 2020 election. Trump and his political cronies made extreme allegations of voter fraud and public fraud. But their claims have been repeatedly dismissed by multiple courts when his lawyers either failed to produce evidence or refused to repeat the allegations before a judge.

Unless the former president can provide credible evidence of FBI wrongdoing and that he went through a legal clearance process for the documents Soon, he’ll likely have more bad days in court than he’s had this week.

“It will only expose that lie. The attorneys know they can’t lie to the judge, they could be penalized, they could lose their license,” said Dave Aronberg, the Palm Beach County, Fla., state attorney in The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.

“Trump can say whatever he wants in public with impunity, but it’s different for his attorneys,” Democrat Aronberg added.

New twists in a case that has had the political world in suspense came when Judge Raymond Dearie, the court-appointed special master, said in a filing Thursday that Trump’s team must file an affidavit saying whether they believe the Justice Department has included items in its “inventory” of materials from Mar-a-Lago that were not seized in the search.

Trump’s claims in this regard sparked a political uproar shortly after the search and were widely picked up by conservative media anchors and even some prominent GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But there could now be a price Trump has to pay.

It was the second time this week that Dearie, who had been nominated by the ex-president’s team for the role of special master for filtering documents from Mar-a-Lago, had dealt a blow to his defense. After Trump’s attorneys refused to testify in court that Trump released documents he took to the resort, Dearie told them, “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

In the other big move in the case this week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision that prevented the Justice Department from examining some 100 classified documents extracted from Mar-a-Lago. Once again, judges — two of whom were appointed by Trump on the three-judge panel — clashed with the idea that the documents had been declassified.

“The recording contains no evidence that any of these recordings were released. And before the special master, the plaintiff refused to provide evidence that he had released any of these documents,” the court decision reads.

This came on the same day that Trump’s legal exposure deepened on multiple fronts, when the state of New York filed a civil lawsuit against him, three of his adult children, and the Trump Organization, alleging and seeking massive insurance and tax fraud a series of harsh penalties. Trump said he was the victim of another example of political persecution and denied the allegations against him.

The apparent erosion of Trump’s legal position is also leading to a weakening of the ex-president’s base of support among senior senators in his party.

When asked about Trump’s claim to Fox News that he could declassify documents just by thinking about it, Senate GOP whip John Thune told CNN there was a process for declassifying documents.

“I think it should be respected and followed. And I think that should apply to anyone who has access to or is involved with classified information,” said the South Dakota Republican.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN that he believes there is a process a president must follow to release the records.

“I believe there’s a formal process that needs to be followed that needs to be followed and documented,” Tillis said. “And to the extent that they’ve been cleared, gone through the process, that’s fine. … As far as I understand the requirements of the executive branch, there is a process to go through.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the handling of classified documents a “very serious” problem.

“People can get hurt, people can get killed if it’s not stored properly and if that information comes out,” Rounds told CNN’s Manu Raju.

Other GOP senators dodged questions on the matter.

“I think the president has the prerogative to break the secrecy,” Indiana Senator Mike Braun said, showing that while the ex-president’s legal strategy is increasingly in shambles, there are still Republican lawmakers who fear to pay a political price for traversing it.

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