(CNN) — Donald Trump’s scattered defense in the weeks since FBI agents descended on his Mar-a-Lago compound has only exposed the depth of the mess he faces over his refusal to return classified documents that led to an unprecedented search in the house of a former president.
As he continues to inadvertently give the Justice Department new opportunities, there are also signs that Trump’s increasing drain on time and attention is having a political impact, as he considers pushing back his timetable for launching a likely White House bid in 2024, as CNN’s Gabby Orr and Kristen Holmes reported on Wednesday.
But Trump is not done with the time-honored strategy of delaying, distorting and trying to tie the legal system in knots, which throughout his life in business and politics has often succeeded in postponing or preventing accountability.
In a legal filing Wednesday, with characteristic brazenness ahead of a new critical hearing in Florida, Trump abandoned a central argument he has made for days: that he had already declassified documents found on his property.
In a head-bobbing twist, Trump’s legal team effectively argued that no one should be surprised that he had classified documents in his home: He was president, after all. “Simply put, the idea that presidential records contain sensitive information should never have been cause for alarm,” the filing said.
The no-holds-barred statement was a classic Trump tactic. He recalled the former president’s insistence that the official account of a conversation in which he himself coerced the Ukrainian president into investigating Joe Biden with the promise of military aid was instead evidence of “a perfect call.” .
Trump’s approach immediately gives his supporters in the GOP and conservative media new material to muddy the waters, distort the case against him, and accuse the Justice Department and the FBI of political motives.
But he has not addressed the fundamental questions that revolve around him in the case of the documents. Among them: why would a former president need material, some of it with the highest classification designations in the intelligence community? And why did he store material that could harm national security and endanger US agents abroad in unsafe locations in his much-visited resort?
And he also ignored a fundamental principle underlying the Justice Department’s investigation: Under US law, the documents of former presidents do not belong to the individual who once sat in the Oval Office. They belong to the nation and should be in the custody of the National Archives, an agency that made exhaustive efforts to recover Trump’s loot before turning to the Justice Department.
Trump’s political and legal strategies often intersect. This was very successful in the Ukraine call case, which led to his first impeachment, although he avoided conviction in the Senate, which could have removed him.
The complication here, however, is that Trump is not facing political scrutiny, but the trial of the law. And the last few days suggest that he is deeply exposed, among other things, by Tuesday’s scathing Justice Department presentation, which overturned many of his earlier defenses and raised the possibility that Trump and his lawyers could face obstruction charges. .
However, this Wednesday’s presentation by Trump, in support of his request to appoint an independent official known as an independent expert to determine whether the FBI legally seized documents privileged from home, it might still work for him in the short term. If a judge agrees with the expansive definition of his role, Trump could throw a stick at the spokes of the investigation. He could launch court challenges based on claims of legal and executive privilege that might be frivolous but would take time to get through the system. And he could challenge the Presidential Records Act through several exhaustive levels of the legal system.
If he manages to push the investigation into 2023 and possibly beyond, it could run afoul of the presidential campaign and help Trump portray the episode as a politicized effort by the Biden administration to thwart his return to the White House. And it could once again frustrate political opponents desperate to see him quickly pay a price for his refusal to abide by presidential norms and his constant challenges to the rule of law.
This is one of the reasons why the Justice Department urged the judge to provide any independent expert she appoints with excessively limited operating guidelines.
How the former president continues to sabotage his own defense
At the same time, however, Wednesday’s filing also threatened to backfire, appearing to admit to the transgression Trump is accused of: keeping classified information in his home. This could be another self-inflicted legal blow. Like the revelations of the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the longer the process drags on, the more damning it appears to be for Trump.
While the former president has managed to politicize the investigation, and rally much of the GOP behind him, his gambits so far have often only uncovered more and more damning evidence about his own conduct.
The Justice Department, for its part, seems to consistently circumvent Trump’s politicized and emotional defenses, which typically fail to address the underlying legal issues.
The most concrete example of this is Tuesday night’s notable legal filing that argued that highly classified material was “probably concealed and removed” from a storage room at Mar-a-Lago. In a stunning photo, the filing showed the title pages of documents with highly classified markings on the ground after they were found on the former president’s property. The Justice Department filing also suggests that Trump’s lawyers misled the FBI when they testified that all the secret documents had been redacted earlier this year, a potential trigger for obstruction charges.
What is striking is that Americans would never have had this level of awareness of the case were it not for Trump himself.
“The response that the Justice Department gave was perfectly appropriate,” conservative attorney George Conway told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Wednesday. “The Trump people basically asked to be punched in the face and they were punched in the face with the answer,” Conway said.
Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, where Mar-a-Lago is located, agreed that Trump’s request for an independent expert had only worsened his position.
“This is another self-inflicted wound by the Trump legal team. (The independent expert’s motion) opened the door for the Justice Department to respond with a 36-page missile right into the heart of Trump Tower,” said Aronberg, a Democrat, on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
“You have this response that decimates Trump’s claims that his team was fully cooperative all along. It actually exposes a case of obstruction,” he added.
It was not the first time that Trump seemed to sabotage his own position. In early August, Attorney General Merrick Garland pushed for the release of a search warrant showing that classified documents had been removed from his home three weeks ago. This disclosure, which undermined Trump’s criticism of the search and revealed that the FBI had reason to believe there was classified information on the property, only came after Trump himself announced the search and then unleashed a firestorm of misinformation and threats. against the office
Like many of Trump’s legal filings, Wednesday night’s document seemed as designed to address a political audience — and stoke his campaign of fury against the Justice Department — as it did to ease his legal dilemma.
There are many things that are still unknown about this case. It’s reasonable for Trump and his allies to demand answers about how the Justice Department handled a hugely sensitive case against a former president and potential 2024 presidential candidate.
So far, however, everything indicates that the Justice Department is playing by the rules. The search, for example, was not illegal as Trump claims, but was instead permitted by a search warrant signed by a judge who had to be satisfied with probable cause that a crime had been committed. It is also impossible to have a complete view of the case because the underlying affidavit that precipitated the search warrant has only been released in heavily redacted form to protect witnesses and FBI agents from backlash and to maintain the integrity of the investigation.
Trump’s calculation for 2024 gets complicated
The fallout from the FBI raid on Trump’s properties has returned the former president to the headlines in a way that Republicans, keen to focus on inflation and Biden’s low approval ratings in the midterm elections, are not. see with good eyes.
He has also raised questions about how the legal pressure hanging over him will affect his likely 2024 presidential campaign.
CNN’s Orr and Holmes reported that after months targeting Labor Day weekend as his 2024 campaign launch date, he has spent the last few weeks backtracking on that schedule.
A spate of political concerns — stemming from the possibility that some of his handpicked candidates are underperforming in the midterm elections — and his mounting legal concerns have Trump nervous about jumping into the race prematurely. according to nine former and current Trump aides and allies who requested anonymity to discuss internal affairs.
“Everyone was operating under the assumption that shortly after Labor Day would be the best possible time to launch, but that has changed and they are telling him to take care of the FBI stuff first,” a Trump adviser said.