The 45th president of the United States is under investigation for potential violations of the Espionage Act.
That one potent fact was the most explosive bombshell on Friday as the saga of the FBI investigation into former President Trump took several new turns.
The story has sidelined every other piece of news in the political world this week. The starting gun was fired when Trump himself confirmed early reports of a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday. The pace of developments has not eased since.
Trump being Trump, even news of possible crimes committed by him had a downside for Democrats. The passage of a major piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, long sought by President Biden and his party, became a sideshow to the Trump-centric main event.
Political insiders of every stripe are wondering what to make of the most recent discoveries — and where the story goes from here.
The possible crimes
We now know the FBI search of Trump’s estate was premised on an investigation of three potential offenses.
One of those possible charges had been widely predicted: it pertains to the concealment or removal of official documents.
Another covers the destruction, alteration or concealment of records "with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence" an investigation — an intriguing charge given the number of other probes directed at Trump.
The biggest shock came with the inclusion of a third possible offense under section 793 of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code.
The language of the statute is complicated, but its main thrust is that it is a criminal offense for someone to misuse, mishandle or fail to guard national security information that they believe “could be to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
What that means, exactly, in relation to Trump is so far unknown — though it appears on its face plausibly consistent with a Thursday evening Washington Post scoop that asserted investigators were looking for information about nuclear weapons.
The things we don’t know
The feverish speculation that has gripped Washington is partly the result of the extraordinary nature of an FBI search of a former president’s home — something that has never happened before.
But it is also a consequence of a situation in which many key details have been revealed in part, but not entirely.
The revelation about the Espionage Act came with the release of two documents Friday — the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago and the inventory of items seized.
The previous day, Attorney General Merrick Garland had announced at a brief press conference that he wanted those documents unsealed. His request met with no opposition from the former president and his legal team.
Importantly, however, neither the Department of Justice nor Trump’s team expressed any wish to make the affidavit that underlies the search public.
That document would give much more insight into investigators’ thinking, since it made their case to a federal magistrate for believing that a crime or crimes had been committed.
The inventory is key nevertheless. It asserts that among the items seized were numerous instances of classified material, including “various classified/TS/SCI documents” — an abbreviation that refers to one of the highest levels of classification: Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.
The list also included such intriguing entries as “Info re: President of France,” “Handwritten note” and “Leatherbound box of documents.” An executive order granting clemency to longtime Trump ally Roger Stone was also among the items taken.
The broader view
The 30,000-ft view is one in which every new tidbit becomes ammunition in the nation’s increasingly bellicose partisan wars.
The past week has seen Trump critics gleeful at what they imagine to be his imminent indictment, if not imprisonment; and his diehard supporters just as adamant that he is the victim of a nefarious plot by the ill-defined “Deep State.”
Trump is arguing that the information in his possession at Mar-a-Lago was already declassified. That claim is sure to be scrutinized and tested.
The usual coterie of his staunchest allies is rallying around. Late Friday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told reporters at the Capitol that she was on her way to file articles of impeachment against Garland. She accused the attorney general of using his powers “to politically persecute Joe Biden’s enemies.”
The current moment is only likely to become more febrile with that kind of rhetoric. It's dangerous enough as is.
On Thursday, a man was shot and killed by law enforcement in Ohio after allegedly trying to breach security at the FBI office in Cincinnati.
The man was identified as Ricky Shiffer. A social media account in that name had encouraged attacks on the FBI. Another post, on the day of the Mar-a-Lago raid, alluded to a crossing of the rubicon against which citizens should rise up.
"We must not tolerate this one," the post said. "This time we must respond with force."
One account bearing Shiffer's name also appeared to indicate its author had been in or around the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
As for Trump, he faces legal dangers on several fronts. He repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment earlier this week during a deposition in a civil case in New York. At least three other criminal probes could endanger him.
Legal experts say that, when it comes to the Mar-a-Lago matter, charges could be months away if they are pressed at all.
The former president has skated away from trouble many times before. He remains, in spite of it all, the favorite to win the GOP nomination in 2024, should he enter the race.
But right now, the former president is once again sailing in uncharted waters.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.