Trump’s Vault of Secrets

What was in the boxes, and why does it matter?

Police officer standing in front of Mar-a-lago
A police officer standing in front of Mar-a-Lago on August 9. (Giorgio Viera / AFP / Getty)

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Everything that crosses a president’s desk is valuable intelligence to our adversaries. Why were boxes of such materials in Donald Trump’s home in Florida?

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

The Basement Crates

It’s been a bad week for nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The Russians are (yet again) imperiling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, and in Florida, a former president of the United States has apparently been storing some of America’s most important secrets about nuclear weapons in his literal basement with nothing more than a few padlocks on the door.

Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is run by the Ukrainians and occupied by the Russians. Every day that goes by is another day when an errant artillery shell could cause a global disaster, but until the Russians come to their senses—which is unlikely to be anytime soon—there is not much that we can do. So let’s focus for a moment on what might have been hiding at Mar-a-Lago, a problem the Justice Department has now moved to fix.

Unnamed sources told The Washington Post that the search warrant for Trump’s home included “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons,” but that could mean almost anything. Nuclear issues could, and almost certainly would, sometimes be included in the President’s Daily Brief, a highly classified digest of the most important issues facing American leaders summarized in a single report every morning. Other documents, however, might include almost anything: budgets for modernizing America’s nuclear deterrent, proposals for new weapons, evaluations of enemy nuclear developments, the status of allied nuclear forces, and multiple other sensitive issues.

These nuclear-related materials are classified at stratospherically high levels. Although most people are familiar with categories such as “Secret” or “Top Secret” (TS) certain kinds of documents and reports are even more tightly controlled with additional categories such as SCI, for Sensitive Compartmented Information; CNWDI, for Critical Nuclear Weapons Design Information; and SAP, for Special Access Programs. According to The New York Times, Trump was holding documents marked TS/SCI, among other classifications.

Sitting presidents can see them all; contrary to popular belief, they do not have a security clearance. Instead, their election to the office means that they have the trust and confidence of the American people. Former presidents, however, have no such access, and when the Justice Department demanded that Trump return what he took, (including by subpoena), he failed to do so. This is something of a mystery in itself; Trump had already handed back 15 boxes of documents, but he dug in his heels on returning anything more.

Perhaps the former president is worried about documents mixed in among other materials that could implicate him in various kinds of wrongdoing; this is my working theory, based on the fact that the search warrant cites three criminal laws, two referring to the unlawful removal and retention of records (including information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary) and one regarding the destruction or concealment of documents in order to obstruct government investigations or administrative proceedings. (Interestingly, none of these laws require the information involved to be classified.)

I know it’s been said many times, but this time, Trump could finally be facing real legal trouble. In the meantime, however, we should all remain calm. If any of the materials in Trump’s possession were compromised, they may (by definition) cause exceptionally grave damage to our national security—but so far, we have no evidence that this has happened, and we should be cautious in any further speculation. I am concerned, in particular, by conversations I have seen (and some in which I have participated) on social media that suggest to me that Trump’s critics are letting their imaginations run away with them, including accusations that Trump has, or soon will, sell these secrets to America’s enemies.

Nothing can ever be ruled out where Donald Trump is concerned, and it’s certainly possible that Trump—whose history suggests that he never does anything for reasons other than profit or to service his debilitating narcissism—thought he could use America’s secrets for his own financial or political gain. But there’s no point in trying to pin this kind of intent on the former president, thus setting up impossibly high expectations of prosecution that will likely be dashed in the near future—especially when Trump may have already committed severe violations of a law that he himself signed in 2018 that makes his current actions a potential felony.

The short-term danger that the U.S. government had to avert comes from the possibility that Donald Trump as a citizen is as incompetent and lazy as he was when he was president, and that he could lose control of the materials he was keeping in his house. Foreign agents might not bid on such documents, but they might try to steal them from an estate run by a small circle of loyalists and staff who likely hate Trump as much as anyone else who has ever worked for him. A break-in, arson, a power outage: There are multiple ways in which foreign spies might try to get into Trump’s stash. Another security challenge is that Mar-a-Lago is a busy resort and event space; add to this Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut about almost anything, unless he’s under oath in New York.

Those documents needed to be returned to safekeeping. Unfortunately, it took a search warrant served on a former president to get them. Trump, whose loyal supporters wanted to jail Hillary Clinton for far less, should be held accountable. In the meantime, the rest of us should hold back on guessing games and let the Justice Department do its work.


Today’s News
  1. The author Salman Rushdie was stabbed while onstage in New York.
  2. A former Louisville, Kentucky, detective intends to plead guilty to federal charges connected with the shooting of Breonna Taylor, her lawyer said. This would be the first conviction in the case.
  3. The House of Representatives passed Democrats’ landmark health-care, energy, and climate bill.


Evening Read
A psychedelic, colorful composite of several images of a woman in childbirth overlaid on top of one another
(Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Grace Robertson / Getty)

The Pain That Is Unlike All Other Pain

By Stephanie H. Murray

Not long after wheeling me into the room where I would eventually give birth to my eldest daughter, the nurse asked me what my plan was for pain management. I didn’t have much of an answer. I had just completed my second semester of graduate school, a feat managed largely by underpreparing for parenthood. My only birth plan was to listen to my doctors and nurses. “What do you think I should do?” I asked. The nurse walked me through my options and then suggested the common approach of at least attempting to give birth without medication. If I felt I needed pain relief, she told me, I could start with less invasive methods, such as nitrous oxide and morphine, before considering an epidural.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
still from Netflix's "Never Have I Ever"
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Lee Rodriguez, and Ramona Young in Netflix's "Never Have I Ever." (Lara Solanki / Netflix)

Read. Try Heavy, Kiese Laymon’s incredible memoir, or another pick from this list of compelling books about difficult childhoods.

Or start one of these 12 books to help you love reading again.

Finally, as observers wait for more news about Salman Rushdie’s health after the attack on him today (see Today’s News above), we’re revisiting a short story he published in The Atlantic in 1981.

Watch. Netflix’s The Sandman is a fan’s dream. Bullet Train, in theaters, is stupid fun—but Brad Pitt injects whismical energy into every scene.

Our critic rounded up the 10 must-watch indie films of the summer, some currently in theaters and others available to stream.

And Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age comedy that puts a young woman of color at the center, returns to Netflix today for its third season.

Play our daily crossword.


I hate ending the week with doom and gloom about nuclear issues, but if you really want to fall down the rabbit hole of despair, I have just the thing for you. In 1984, the BBC made a movie about nuclear war called Threads. (The ambiguous title refers to the slender and fragile connections, both physical and psychological, that bind human civilization together.)

This was the British version of the American TV movie event The Day After, and although The Day After is a fine movie with Hollywood production values, the BBC and director Mick Jackson made a smaller but more terrifying film that follows a young woman from a few months before a massive nuclear exchange (when she learns she is pregnant) to 13 years after. The script relied on experts (two of them my professors, from back when I was studying such things) for the scenario and its aftermath, including explanatory voice-overs that lend the movie a docudrama feel, and it is so accurate that I assign it as required viewing in my nuclear-weapons class at Harvard Extension School. Be warned, however, that the film contains some deeply disturbing and graphic images. I don’t recommend watching it alone.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.