By Ethan Oppenheim
Both sides of the political aisle are exploding over the ongoing investigation into former President Donald Trump’s possession of confidential documents that the FBI seized from his Mar-a-Lago residence last month. Democrats and those on the left claim that Mr. Trump’s actions are a violation of several laws, including the Espionage Act, and that they obstructed justice and put national security at risk. On the other hand, some Republicans and allies of the former president claim that President Joe Biden’s administration, particularly Attorney General Merrick Garland, is weaponizing the Department of Justice in an effort to dig up dirt on a political opponent. But what both sides fail to see is that the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. In fact, both sides may have legitimate claims.
On Aug. 8, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, citing Sections 2071, 1519, and 793 of Title 18, which relate to the mismanagement of government documents or obstruction of justice, as grounds for it. Of the 13 boxes of evidence the FBI seized that day, over 100 of the documents had classified markings, some of which were even labeled “top secret.” Clearly, the FBI has valid reasons to question Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump, however, claims that the president reserves the power of declassification and that he used it to declassify the documents in his possession. However, as legal experts have pointed out, there needs to be “traces of such a decision,” and all federal agencies should be aware if documents are declassified. Regardless, this poses the question of whether declassifying documents justifies Mr. Trump having stored sensitive national defense information at his residence at all.
But even if this claim holds and one were to take the position that his actions do not directly violate any laws on the books, the fact that they have the potential to put national security at risk is enough reason to be concerned over his actions. Further, Mr. Trump taking hundreds of highly confidential documents to his residence without notice and refusing to comply with investigators for months is undoubtedly problematic as well.
However, the former president isn’t the only one Americans deserve answers from. Those who are questioning the fairness of this investigation have legitimate reasons to do so. For one, a majority of the Justice Department’s heavily-redacted affidavit regarding the FBI’s approved search warrant was left blacked out, leaving many outstanding questions unanswered. Further, the FBI previously spent nearly three years investigating Mr. Trump’s collusion with Russia and their interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Mueller Probe concluded that there was no evidence of collusion with the Russian government, suggesting that the FBI’s actions in targeting Mr. Trump may have been politically motivated to begin with (something the Durham probe is currently looking into). Given these troubling facts, it is fair for Americans to demand transparency from the federal government.
Some who defend the investigation have argued that full transparency would only further put national security at risk and that there are certain things that should be kept confidential, not just to preserve the integrity of the investigation and to prevent it from being compromised, but also to keep those involved in the investigation safe. While this claim is legitimate, the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this case, specifically the fact that a Democrat administration is conducting an investigation into the most powerful figure and likely 2024 nominee of the Republican Party, certainly warrants transparency. In addition, the current lack of transparency only lends further credence to the claims posed by Mr. Trump and his loyal allies that the investigation is nothing more than a partisan hack designed to discredit him and the Republican Party.
If Mr. Trump committed a crime, obstructed justice, or put national security at risk – and it appears that he very well might have – then he should be held accountable. However, given the FBI’s troubling history of corruption and politicization, as well as the fact that Mr. Biden’s administration is targeting its primary political opponent ahead of the 2024 elections, it is imperative that the investigation is as transparent as possible. Otherwise, this troubling affair will only result in a further exacerbation of both political polarization and distrust in not just the United States government, but its entire justice system.
Mr. Oppenheim is a junior at Chapman University. He is majoring in political science and philosophy and minoring in film music and history.