It isn’t every day that a former president gets investigated for espionage. One more first for Donald Trump.
Yes, we’ve all been titillated by every sordid new development in the ongoing saga of the Mar-a-Lago files. But the big question, at least for me, remains: What was he thinking? Why would he take state secrets out of the White House, knowing full well it’s a felony?
Not that he’s a stranger to felonies, but still.
The press has focused mainly on the make-believe theories thrown up by the wingnut right to explain away the obvious. But I’ve not seen much on the espionage angle itself.
Which is strange. Because the very word ‘espionage’ puts an unmistakably sinister spin on Trump’s motives. It’s not a word that either CIA or DOJ throws around a lot. But it’s a word both are using.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Trump it’s that life is about transactions, about trading favors. He is, by nature, a quid in search of the perfect pro quo. So while we don’t know how sensitive these documents actually are, we can be quite sure they’re for sale.
It seems likely that they’ve long since been gone through, evaluated for market value, and digitally scanned. They could now be in the cloud, or on a hard drive, or on a dozen thumb drives. They could be sold outright, or used for blackmail.
There is plenty of speculation that snakes like, say, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, or Kash Patel could have cherry-picked the documents and converted them to digital files.
In which case people like, say, Mohammed bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin could, right now, be looking at a thumb drive containing America’s deepest secrets.
Keep in mind, heads are still scratching over bin Salman’s commitment of $2 billion to Jared’s new investment fund. Yes, this is pocket change for MBS, but it still feels rash given Jared’s stellar record of business failure. Until you realize how very interested the Saudis are in nuclear technology.
For all we know, Trump and his flunkies — Mike Flynn? Rand Paul? Ron Johnson? Rudy Giuliani? — could all be hawking American nuclear secrets to every dictator and jihadist on the planet.
Surely Russia would pay well to know the names of the moles burrowed deep in the Kremlin, especially the ones who tipped off Biden that Putin was about to invade Ukraine.
Wouldn’t Iran lust for inside knowledge of Israeli-American military technology? Wouldn’t China love to see America’s plans for defending Taiwan? Wouldn’t North Korea cherish any nuclear information at all? Come to think of it, what country — friend or foe, legitimate or rogue — wouldn’t want American secrets?
Then there’s Michael Cohen’s theory, that Trump will use the documents to blackmail the U.S. government itself. That he’ll threaten to release military secrets if DOJ doesn’t call off its investigations. That he’ll try to make a deal for non-prosecution of all crimes, past and present.
It would be, for Trump, the transaction of a lifetime. I doubt he can pull it off, but I don’t doubt he’d try it.
Then again, he could flee the country on a private jet, one step ahead of the sheriff. He could use the thumb drive as his ticket to a cushy new career in Moscow, complete with his own TV channel. He and Putin can bring their love affair out into the open, and Trump can act as president-in-exile, manipulating his idiot base from Russia, plotting his triumphant return to an America finally made great, thanks to him.
You don’t need an especially dirty mind to see the plausibility of any of these scenarios. We would not put any of them past him.
But what’s largely being overlooked, or at least under-examined, is the harm that has already been done with these files.
Because even if that thumb drive doesn’t exist, the intelligence community absolutely must assume that it does. Too much time has passed between the theft and its discovery to assume otherwise.
All of NATO — as well as every intelligence service in the West — is right now scrambling to see which of their assets might have been compromised.
We keep hearing how these files could ‘jeopardize national security,’ but the phrase feels euphemistic. Like they're trying not to call it a catastrophe.
CIA has sent a letter to Congress, announcing a “damage assessment” of the Mar-a-Lago cache. The word ‘damage’ says it all. They’re not calling it a risk assessment or a breach assessment. They’re acknowledging that there’s conclusive evidence of harm done. And they’re using the word ‘espionage.’
Clearly they have their hands full. They have to investigate who might, or might not, have a copy of a thumb drive that might, or might not, exist. They have to figure out what might be on it. They have to find out whose cover might be blown by it. And they have to identify which secrets can no longer be considered secret.
Depending on what they find, the implications could be dark indeed.
Already, agent networks that took decades to build could be gone. Already, NATO-aligned spies, all over the world, could be disappearing off the streets. Some could be tortured. Some could be killed outright.
Last week, the chairman of Russia’s largest oil company somehow fell out the window of his hospital room and died. He was exactly the kind of guy we’d want inside the Russian energy establishment, working for us. And ‘falling’ from high places is a very Russian way to die.
It gets worse. These documents could give away all sorts of spy technologies, weapons systems, military strategies, and dirt on NATO politicians. Not to mention nuclear secrets. We’ll never know.
Okay, I could be jumping to conclusions. Maybe the Mar-a-Lago files aren’t that important. Maybe the whole espionage thing is overblown.
But the idea that Trump could be working side hustles with foreign dictators is hardly new. We’ve suspected it for years, and the circumstantial evidence keeps pouring in. Plus, we know it’s totally in character for him.
But whether he is or isn’t a foreign agent, his intentions have clearly not been honorable.
Which is why governments all over the world are surely jumping to the same conclusions I am. And why we wouldn’t be talking about damage assessment if there weren’t real damage to assess.