Why Trump’s Safe Was Not Safe

U.S. national security depends upon our allies’ ability to trust us with intelligence. Mar-a-Lago was no place to keep top-secret documents.

Two Secret Service agents stand at the Mar-a-Lago gates.
Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, is the faculty chair of the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters.

French President Emmanuel Macron has to be wondering why former President Donald Trump retained, of all things, information about him. I certainly am; aren’t you? According to an inventory of what the FBI took from Mar-a-Lago during last week’s search and recovery of materials from Trump’s home, the French dossier, so to speak, stood out. Why Macron? Lest we forget, France is a friend and partner to the U.S., most notably in the unified response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For now, we’re stuck with a maddening uncertainty about the true stakes of the matter: If Trump was holding on to personal information—perhaps mere tittle-tattle—about the leader of an allied nation, as well, reportedly, as top-secret intelligence about nuclear capabilities, then why? We swing between gossip and fear, the scurrilous and the deadly serious, The Real Housewives and The Walking Dead. We parse the judicial warrant, including an Espionage Act charge, for clues. The temptation to indulge in overheated speculation, particularly for some of Trump’s more partisan critics, is irresistible—but irresponsible, as The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols has warned.

Amid all of this, we have a tendency to think of the drama as an internal U.S. issue about a reckless former president, the legal claims against him, and how the politics will play out. Still, it is the mere fact of the papers—regardless of what is in them—that poses a significant national-security problem. From the point of view of America’s international partners and allies, France included, the documents were in the hands of a rogue, possibly dangerous former president. That they are in the possession of the FBI now is important, but the damage is done. Trump, even out of the Oval Office, continues to make the U.S. an unreliable ally.

The best case here for Trump—that the substance of the papers proves insignificant—is still a challenge for the United States, because we are finally a nation among other nations. If we are haunted by speculation about what is in the documents, so, you can be sure, are our allies. They will be concerned about whether any of the information in the documents is about them, whether any of it has been shared by Trump, and whether, perhaps most worrying, their intelligence efforts—resulting in information they shared, trusting the U.S.’s capacity to safeguard secrets—may have been compromised.

Intelligence is about collection and consumption. Most nations, enemy and ally alike, use similar methods. Their intelligence agencies collect information by a variety of means that includes old-fashioned spying as well as high-tech efforts. That collected data is then analyzed and results in intelligence assessments that are disseminated through a nation’s national-security apparatus. Who gets to read what is carefully controlled by varying degrees of classification status.

In between collection and consumption of information, the U.S. will work with the intelligence agencies of its allies to supplement, cross-reference, and even challenge such assessments. This can take place either through bilateral nation-to-nation contacts, or through more formal multinational institutions such as NATO, the European Union, and the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as “Five Eyes” (a legacy of radio-transmission monitoring during World War II).

Presidents are not collectors of intelligence information; they are consumers of it. Their prerogative is then either to challenge it or to make policy recommendations based on it. And responsible presidents and former presidents are trusted protectors of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

During the Trump administration, our intelligence agencies adapted to the president’s wayward behavior by limiting his access to sensitive information, including to that derived from foreign sources. This seemed wise after Trump revealed information in 2017 about Israeli intelligence sources in Syria to Russia’s defense leaders. This indiscretion resulted in Israeli concern that Russia would pass on that intelligence to its military partner in Syria, Iran.

Joe Biden’s team has returned some normalcy to an intelligence community that knew little of it for four years. But the disclosures about Trump’s retention of top-secret classified material at Mar-a-Lago have catapulted past misconduct into the present-day national-security arena. With the FBI raid, the Biden administration will need to assure allies that their shared efforts with us are still reliable.

Intelligence is a worldwide enterprise, not ours alone. Although we Americans tend to focus on our own foes—worrying, for instance, whether Trump was too cozy with the Russians or North Koreans—reclaiming the documents, regardless of their contents, was essential to restoring confidence in the U.S.’s ability to protect other nations’ secrets as well as its own. Our allies surely feared what has now been confirmed: that Trump had sensitive documents at a Florida home that was insecure and potentially vulnerable to foreign intelligence agencies. Our adversaries seem to have made this assumption: China is suspected of trying to gain access in 2019.

When Biden came to office, he ensured that Trump would have no access to real-time intelligence by depriving him of the daily briefings that were a traditional courtesy for past presidents. That decision was right and necessary. The Department of Justice in effect continued that effort last week.

Even past classified information has present consequences. NATO is expanding, with Finland and Sweden set to join, and that will involve a further extension of the alliance’s intelligence-sharing arrangements. Russia has hinted at a possible last-resort use of tactical nuclear weapons, and China has been launching missiles menacingly close to Taiwan. Such threats are creating a new urgency at the U.S. Strategic Command to rewrite our nation’s nuclear-deterrence protocols. This seems a particularly crucial moment for the U.S. to have a secure grip on its classified documents, whether they contain nuclear secrets or gossip about the leader of an allied nation.

It’s not about Macron. It’s not even about Trump. It is about the papers—and whether our allies can trust us to keep them safe.