Trump team advances broad view of president’s powers on classified documents

Washington (AP) — A New sealed FBI document The investigation into Mar-a-Lago not only provides new details about the investigation but also reveals clues about the former president’s arguments. Donald Trumpintends to form a legal team.

A May 25 letter from one of his lawyers, attached as an exhibit in the search affidavit, puts forward a broad view of the president’s power, stating that whatever the commander-in-chief has He has an absolute right to be declassified as he wants—and also that the “primary” law governing the handling of U.S. classified information doesn’t just apply to the president himself.

Arguments weren’t persuasive enough to stop the Justice Department FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property this monthAnd in any event the affidavit makes it clear that investigators are focusing on recent activity — long after Trump left the White House and the legal authorities that came with it.

Still, the letter suggests that a defense strategy around the powers of the president, a strategy employed during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, when Trump was in fact president, may be in play again as the investigation progresses. Is.

It is perhaps not surprising that Trump’s legal team may seek ways to separate a former president from other citizens, including penalties imposed for years for handling government secrets. nine years in prison was released to a former National Security Agency contractor who stored two decades of classified documents at his Maryland home.

But many legal experts doubt that claims of such presidential power will have weight.

“When someone is no longer president, they are no longer president. That is the reality of the matter,” said Ona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor and former attorney in the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel. You have left the office. You cannot declare yourself to be subject to laws that apply to everyone else.”

It is not clear from the affidavit whether Trump or anyone else could face charges over the presence of classified records at Mar-a-Lago – 19 months after becoming a private citizen – and FBI Officials are investigating who removed Florida estate records from the White House and who is responsible for keeping them in an unauthorized location.

FBI 11 sets of classified records recovered during the 8 August searchAnd the affidavit was made public on Friday 184 documents called with classified marks Also found in 15 boxes taken out in January. The Justice Department, responding to the Trump team’s request for a legal special master to sort through the material, said on monday Officials have completed their review of potentially privileged documents.

No matter the outcome of that latest issue, the affidavit clarifies that investigators are focusing on three possible felony violations, including an Espionage Act provision that criminalizes the intentionally perpetuating or transmission of national defense information. makes.

Another law makes it an offense to intentionally remove, conceal or distort government records with a prison sentence of up to three years. And the third law, up to 20 years in prison, covers destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.

The Espionage Act law has been involved in a number of lawsuits regarding the retention of national defense information. Previous investigations have given different results, making it difficult to predict the outcome in the Trump investigation. But speculations have been made.

Harold Martin, an ex-NSA contractor, pleaded guilty in 2019 to the collection of classified information inside his home, car and storage shed, including handwritten notes describing the NSA’s classified computer infrastructure.

This is why the Trump legal team may be toying with his status as a former president.

When it comes to the handling of government secrets, there are actually a few differences that can probably be considered: for example, presidents are not required to conduct background checks to obtain classified information, they do not require intelligence. Security clearance is not granted to access the information and they aren’t formally “read” on their responsibilities to keep secrets safe when they leave office.

Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA official and senior director of the White House Situation Room, said “there is no intelligence community directive that says how the president should or should not be briefed on the material.” “We’ve never had to worry about it in the first place.”

Trump Attorney M. Evan Corcoran’s May 25 letter to Jay Bratt, head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section, describes Trump as the leader Republican Party and makes many references to him as a former president.

It notes that a president has absolute authority to declassify documents, although it does not actually say – as Trump has emphasized – that he did so with records confiscated from his home. It also says that the “primary” law criminalizing the mishandling of classified information does not apply to the president and instead covers subordinate employees and officers.

The statute cited in the letter is not one of the three that the search warrant lists as part of the investigation. And the Espionage Act law at issue deals with “national defense” information rather than “classified”, suggesting that it may be irrelevant whether the records were unclassified.

Corcoran did not return messages seeking comment on Monday.

It is possible to “imagine a good faith mistake” or a president takes something sensitive without realizing it or because they need it for a particular reason, said Chris Adelson, a scholar of presidential powers and government professor at American University. .

But this argument may be complicated by the fact that the documents had previously not been fully returned by Trump to the National Archives and Records Administration and the FBI suspected – correctly – that there was still classified information on the property.

“I think if he had returned the documents immediately, he would have been in a much stronger position legally,” Adelson said.

Ashley Dix, University of Virginia law professor and former deputy legal advisor to the president Joe BidenThe US National Security Council said in an email that the Trump team claims the letter “appears to be more of a political argument than a legal one.”

“The president’s defense team is trying to point out the magnitude of the matter going forward, rather than expressing a clear legal defense,” he said.

Associated Press writer Noman Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.

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