The damning photograph that the Department of Justice released Tuesday night, showing classified documents spread out across the carpeted floor at Mar-a-Lago, confirmed that former President Donald Trump had kept records related to intercepted communications—possibly involving secret spy satellites or surveillance aircraft.
And the sensitive nature of those secrets, coupled with Trump’s particularly unhinged behavior in recent days, has many Democratic lawmakers nervous.
In the photo released late Tuesday, some of the documents were labeled “TOP SECRET.” Others were just “SECRET.” But either way, the White House memos cautioned that they should severely limit access to details contained within. Some of the documents can be seen with the “NOFORN” marking, indicating that no foreign nationals should ever lay eyes on them.
All of the visible cover sheets warned that the contents were “HSC-P/SI/TK,” meant to signify that the secrets they held inside were strictly controlled, clandestinely captured, and involving possible aerial reconnaissance, respectively.
Adding to the chaos, in the hours before and after that DOJ disclosure, Trump showed himself to be increasingly volatile, taking to his own social media app to share bizarre conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Q-Anon cult material, and assert that the records he had are, in fact, no longer restricted.
“Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!” Trump’s personal account posted Wednesday morning.
The implied threat is that he could, if he so desired, reveal them at any time.
And that’s a new development that has Democratic lawmakers growing nervous.
“I would not leave it beyond him to do something as insane as that. When someone is cornered, they make very bad decisions, and Donald Trump is in a very bad situation right now. We don’t know what he will do,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Lieu blasted the legal argument Trump recently adopted, namely that as president, on his way out the door, he had mass-declassified tons of sensitive documents, thereby undercutting any accusation that the documents in his possession were still state secrets.
The congressman, who holds a “top secret” security clearance, pointed out that federal prosecutors have been seeking some documents that are so sensitive that even a U.S. president doesn’t have the power to declassify them: those related to nuclear weapons.
In court filings on Tuesday, the DOJ revealed a May 11 grand jury subpoena that sought, among many other documents, those marked “S/FRD,” which stands for “formerly restricted data.” According to public Energy Department documents, that could include information that would indicate the exact strength, size, and current locations of the country’s nuclear weapons, as well as the way they’re stored and kept safe.
“A president, under the Atomic Energy Act, does not appear to be able to declassify nuclear top secret information. One of the reasons for that is, this is extremely sensitive information we don’t want our adversaries to get,” Lieu said.
“You can’t just have this lying around at Mar-a-Lago. This is crazy,” he said. “Who knows who would have seen these documents in a public place like Mar-a-Lago? This is a resort where lots of people go.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, had some ideas—or, more accurately, gnawing fears.
“Did the MyPillow guy spend hours in the office taking notes? Did Rudy Giuliani? We don’t know. We’ve got to assess that to see if there are steps we should take to mitigate damage,” Welch told The Daily Beast. “To put them in an unsecure office, where his pals can amuse themselves by looking at these documents, is appalling.”
The Vermont congressman’s concerns are supported by the cloud of suspicion that has grown over Trump and his associates for years.
Mike Lindell, the infomercial star whose MyPillow company has become the backbone advertiser to far right programs rejected by Corporate America, has become a 2020 election denier who’s shown himself willing to partner with conspiracy theorists and government officials who’ve abused their authority to illegally tamper with and access election computers. Rudy Giuliani played a key role in Trump’s attempted coup and previously played a key role in running a shadow diplomatic effort to intimidate Ukraine’s president into finding blackmail on then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. And there are dozens of MAGA clingers-on who routinely sympathize with Russia’s tyrannical government, Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian crown prince, or proto-fascist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Like others on the Intelligence Committee, which oversees the nation’s spy agencies, Welch is worried about the potential damage from Trump’s decision to keep more than 100 classified documents at his Palm Beach mansion, which doubles as a private club that’s open to rich and unscrupulous types from all over the world.
“The information contained is sensitive but also jeopardizes two things: the lives of human intelligence sources, and two, the collection methods which are used by our national security folks,” Welch said. “If those collection methods are revealed, that jeopardizes our continued ability to keep America safe. It’s a stunning breach of trust.”
But the immediate concern is that Trump at any moment could reveal state secrets with a hasty social media post.
“There’s a huge danger. We don’t have a tool in the toolkit to put some tape over his mouth and have him shut up,” he said. “Any post-president who has knowledge of extremely sensitive information... we’ve never had to worry about them maintaining the secrets.”
His companion on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), finds it particularly odd that the commander-in-chief who embarrassingly refused to read his daily spy briefing and at times had to be shown drawings instead suddenly took so much interest in national secrets once out of office.
“We kept hearing he was disinterested in his Presidential Daily Briefing. Why then would he end up taking all these boxes of highly classified documents home? It’s highly suspicious,” he told The Daily Beast.
Castro said he eagerly awaits the intelligence committee’s return this month, so that legislators can “get a clear picture of the damage” that may have been done by Trump’s decision to keep so much spy material at his private estate. He said lawmakers may also consider passing additional laws that further restrict how a president can unilaterally declassify documents, as well as new rules that would be “even more restrictive about what they can take with them when they leave office.”
But, like other lawmakers, Castro is particularly concerned about Trump’s recent ragefests on Truth Social, where the former president this week continued to peddle the lie that he won re-election in 2020 and has sicced his devout MAGA followers on a retiring FBI supervisory agent he claims is the “con man” who authorized the Mar-a-Lago search.
“It’s hard to predict exactly what he’s going to do. In the last few days, he’s been behaving very frantically,” Castro said. “It’s very erratic and strange behavior—particularly from a former president. But the entire episode of how he treated those documents was erratic and unsafe.”
Then again, Trump’s unpredictable nature has always been the norm. He’s the real estate mogul who—when cornered in the business world with failed Atlantic City casinos, bad property acquisitions, and mounting financial losses—always made aggressive plays that left scorned investors, unpaid contractors, and a path of destruction in their wake.
The damage assessment currently underway by the office of Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines will take into account what could happen if these secrets were exposed. And the FBI has seized surveillance video footage from Mar-a-Lago that might show who handled those records without permission this past summer.
But Trump continues to rage-post online, which is why Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) warned that the threat is ongoing.
“Here’s what makes it truly scary: Trump is weirdly attached to all of this ‘Top Secret’ information, he constantly throws tantrums, and he has an insatiable desire for attention including on social media,” Huffman said. “Since he no longer has White House china to smash, his next tantrum might be blurting out sensitive national secrets on Truth Social, or calling his pal [Vladimir] Putin to divulge or even sell information. With anyone else these would seem like crazy scenarios, but not with Trump.”