The devastating photo that went viral last week of the "Top Secret" markings on documents that the FBI found in its court-approved Aug. 8 search of Donald Trump's office speaks a thousand words about a former president's utter carelessness with national security secrets.
The photo was part of a Justice Department court filing on Aug. 30. The documents were apparently found in Trump's personal office drawer, with his passports, and then placed on the floor for photographers.
Trump has already given his response, blaming the FBI for placing the documents on the floor and claiming that they were declassified — which is almost certainly untrue, and largely irrelevant. His point man for the latter claim has been Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes who has become a key Trump operative.
Patel has been all over the media, claiming that Trump declassified the documents. That purported wave of a magic wand doesn't eliminate the possible harm to the nation from national security secrets in the documents getting into the wrong hands.
Not to mention that in Trump World, reality and Trump-Patel spin-magic have little in common. Here's the reality: As a 2020 federal court of appeals case states, "Declassification cannot occur unless designated officials follow specified procedures . . . Because declassification, even by the President, must follow established procedures." Those procedures are highly detailed and limit the president's power to declassify. Neither Trump nor Patel say anything to suggest those procedures have been followed.
In addition, declassifying documents relating to nuclear secrets — documents which the Washington Post has reported were targets of the FBI search — involves a complicated process that Patel doesn't mention.
Perhaps most notably, in his latest legal filing, where it matters if you lie, Trump doesn't even claim to have declassified the documents. If all that weren't enough, declassification doesn't even matter under the Espionage Act, whose probable violation the search warrant alleges. The statute criminalizes possessing documents, whether classified or not, if they "relate to the national defense" and were officially requested to be returned.
Last year, a military officer who knew Patel in the Defense Department told national security columnist David Ignatius that Patel was a threat to lawful government. Indeed, in November 2020, immediately after Trump's election defeat, he named Patel as acting Pentagon chief of staff, meaning that he was strategically placed when the DOD slow-walked the National Guard response to the Capitol attack of Jan. 6.
Two sources also told Ignatius that the Justice Department was investigating Patel's "possible improper disclosure of classified information." Small wonder that he's Trump's point person on the subject.
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Patel has a knack for telling political tall tales. Earlier this year, he tried to monetize his political fables, and his connections to Trump, to indoctrinate young readers, publishing a MAGA polemic disguised as a children's book called "The Plot Against the King."
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It aimed to plant in youthful brains the idea that the FBI investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign's coordination with Russia was without merit; in the book, it's presented as the wicked plot of "Hillary Queenton" against good "King Donald."
In the real world, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's 478-page report, released in December 2019, debunked the lie that the FBI lacked a legitimate basis to open an investigation of the Trump campaign. The predicate for beginning the probe was a July 2016 tip from an Australian intelligence official that a Russian operative had offered a Trump campaign volunteer "dirt" on Hilary Clinton.
That crucial fact earned no place in Patel's indoctrination tract for kids Believe it or not, in his book the wizard "Patel" is the one who foils evil Hillary's plot.
Q: How do you know when a book is all about the ego of the writer?
A: When he anoints himself the story's hero.
Not that Patel would care about this, but partisan politics do not belong in young children's books. Shannon Hayes, an upstate New York farmer and mom who homeschooled her kids, has written that kids don't need political literature because "[t]hey naturally understand how to be kind and accepting, until a grown-up teaches them something different."
Patel's book is a model for teaching children something different than kindness. If he tries to explain why the Top Secret documents spirited away from the White House by Donald Trump posed no risk of harm to the nation by being left around unprotected in a Palm Beach resort, expect something different than truth.
By Kate McMullan
Kate McMullan is a New York writer of children’s books and the author of "This Is The Tree We Planted."MORE FROM Kate McMullan
By Dennis Aftergut
Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.