The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Document retention sounds like a boring bureaucratic matter. Who cares what elected officials do with the potentially thousands of documents and records that they create and handle while in office?
We all should, it turns out. If we learned anything from the Nixon administration it should be that presidents have enormous power, and they may use that power in nefarious ways. And, then they may use their power to try to cover up that activity.
So, after FBI agents searched the Palm Beach, Florida, home of former President Donald Trump on Monday and reportedly removed boxes of documents, it was interesting that the former president chose to compare the situation to Watergate, perhaps the most egregious example – until Trump himself – of an American president’s misuse of power.
“What is the difference between this and Watergate, when operatives broke into the [Democratic] National Committee? Here, in reverse, Democrats broke into the home of the 45th President of the United States,” Trump said in a statement posted on social media Monday night.
Let’s analyze this assertion.
First, no one broke into Trump’s home. FBI agents, with a search warrant, searched his home. Because the warrant is not public, we do not know what the agents were looking for or what they took from Mar-a-Lago. But, Trump’s attorneys would have a copy of the warrant and a list of what was taken. If they wanted to show how egregious this “raid” was, they presumably could share these documents.
The Department of Justice filed a motion to unseal the search warrant and receipt of material taken from the property, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday, so we’ll soon likely know more about the details of the search. Trump said it would not fight the unsealing.
With new details coming out, the Washington Post has reported that some of the documents the FBI sought related to nuclear weapons. Such documents would be highly sensitive and only a small number of people would have clearance to view them.
Because the search involved a former president, it was likely approved by numerous people, including those inside the FBI, and possibly, other agencies. Garland also said during a brief appearance before the media that he approved the decision to seek a search warrant. Subsequently, a judge, believed to be federal magistrate Bruce Reinhart, had to approve the warrant, which requires an assessment that there was probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed.
Second, blaming Democrats is a stretch. There has not been a Democratic head of the FBI for decades. Democratic presidents have long appointed Republicans to the position. And, Trump himself appointed the current director, Christopher Wray.
The Watergate saga began when several men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington. They installed (and broke in a second time to fix) wiretaps on phones in the office and took campaign documents. It took months of investigations and congressional hearings before the break-ins were tied to then-President Richard Nixon. He initially vehemently denied any involvement in the break-in and he and his administration fought the release of information in the case. Tapes that were ultimately released showed Nixon and his members of his cabinet discussing the break-in and subsequent broad coverup. Nixon ultimately resigned.
Interestingly, it is Nixon’s attempts to coverup the Watergate scandal that spurred some of the record-keeping laws that Trump may have violated. The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act was signed into law in 1974, by President Gerald Ford. Even after he resigned, Nixon waged several legal battles in an effort to keep much of the Watergate information out of public view, which led to a second presidential records retention act, the Presidential Records Act, which became law in 1978.
In another interesting twist, it was Trump who toughened the penalties for mishandling classified information in 2018 after he and his campaign hammered rival Hillary Clinton for storing government emails on an unsecure server. Earlier this year, the National Archives and Records Administration said classified material was found among boxes of things that had been taken from the White House to Mar-a-Lago when Trump left office.
There’s a lot we don’t know about why the FBI searched Trump’s home. But, we do know that comparing the search to the Watergate break-in is a dangerous analogy for a president who, mounting evidence suggests, went to extreme lengths to stay in power.