How the DOJ Used Trump’s Methods Against Him

The power of dramatic flair

Donald Trump's back as he stands at a lectern, lit from the front
Donald Trump speaking at a rally on April 02, 2022 (Scott Olson / Getty)

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“Trump can’t hide from the Mar-a-Lago photo,” my colleague David A. Graham wrote yesterday. I called David today to talk about what makes the DOJ’s latest filing so powerful.

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


A Dramatic Flair
files, many labeled "secret" and "top secret," scattered on a carpeted floor
(Department of Justice / AP)

This week, the Department of Justice released a damning court filing in its case over Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. Although the entire filing is a clear rebuttal to the excuses Trump and his team have made for the former president’s failure to hand over all requested classified materials, the last page is “prosecutors’ deftest maneuver thus far,” David wrote. On that page, a now-viral photo shows documents laid out on the floor of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, many of which are emblazoned with bold red lettering that reads “Top Secret//SCI.” Below, David and I talk about the DOJ’s latest filing, that photo, and how the government is outsmarting Trump at every turn.

Isabel Fattal: Why has the Mar-a-Lago photo been getting so much attention? What, if anything, did it reveal?

David A. Graham: I don’t think the photo’s substance is new, but it puts everything into dramatic relief. It’s one thing to hear that Trump had top-secret or classified documents, and it’s another thing to see these folders with these big red letters saying “Top Secret//SCI” on them. Trump has hemmed and hawed about whether he had anything sensitive in his possession, but you’ve got the picture right there.

Isabel: Let’s talk a little about the aesthetics of the photo and the strategy behind it. You wrote that the photo “is prosecutors’ deftest maneuver thus far”—and even a co-opting of Trump’s own methods. How so?

David: Trump has such a great sense for the visual. You can see this going back to his real-estate career, the elaborate spreads you get of his penthouse at Trump Tower, the aesthetics of his campaign announcement speech in 2015 where he came down the gold escalator. All of these things are a testament to how he understands that it’s one thing to say things, but it’s another thing to look a certain way.

The photograph is the last page of the DOJ filing—they tuck it in at the end, but I think they must have understood that it’s what was going to grab attention. Which is why it’s there, and it’s the only photo there. It’s not all of the exhibits they’re presenting in court; it’s just one that shows some of the documents. I think they understand that it’s one thing to put this stuff in writing, but if you can show people a picture, it really hits home in a different way.

Isabel: And did the DOJ stage this photo, with all the documents laid out like they are? It’s a really effective way to present the evidence.

David: You’re right that the staging is really intriguing. Trump complained that they made it look like he had had these documents scattered on the floor and insisted, No, the DOJ put them out, which seems to be true. It’s common for them to take photos like this to get the evidence and show what they found. But it also reminded me in a weird way of when sheriff’s offices or local police departments or even the DEA will do a drug raid and put out a spread of all the things they seized: the contraband, packages of drugs and guns and bullets. There’s the same kind of dramatic flair in this picture. So it’s both protocol and also a little bit of drama.

If you look closely at the picture, there’s a ruler they put in these photos, so they can show what the size of things are—

Isabel: Oh, right, on that not-so-subtle rug.

David: Yes, exactly. I think the rug is a part of it too. If you had any doubt, the fact that there’s an over-the-top, baroque rug really demonstrates that this is at Mar-a-Lago.

Isabel: Do you think the DOJ has been more successful in this case so far than government agencies have been at holding Trump accountable for alleged criminal behavior in the past?

David: I think so far that’s true. This is still a relatively early stage in the investigation; we had a subpoena, and the search warrant, but there are no charges filed. We’ve gotten some investigations to this point before, but this one does seem to be proceeding really quickly and cleanly. As I wrote yesterday, it seems like every time Trump comes up with some sort of response, the DOJ is one step ahead of him.

I also think it’s a bit simpler of a scandal to understand, and a bit easier for prosecutors to move forward than on some of these more elaborate cases. Think about some classic Trump scandals: Russiagate is all over the place. There’s all this miasma of confusion about where Trump is involved. Or January 6: There’s a running debate about whether Trump himself incited the riot, or what role he had. But this one is really simple: Either you took records or you didn’t. Either they’re top secret or they’re not. And either you turned them over or you didn’t. And what we see here is: He took the documents; they’re top secret; he didn’t turn them over.

Isabel: What’s the DOJ’s next challenge?

David: The big question now is whether they think they have the material to charge a crime, and whether they think it’s prudent to charge a crime. We now know that there are these documents and they were taken, and the DOJ says they have reviewed them. So they may have a lot of the substance here. But they have to decide whether they want to charge Trump with a crime: whether there’s an upside to it in terms of rule of law versus the political downside, and whether they think they would be able to get a conviction.

We’re not going to know that soon, because the Justice Department tries to avoid politically fraught announcements and prosecutions within some time of elections. Unless they charge him in the next week, which seems very unlikely given where things are, we probably won’t know until after the November election what their next step is. A federal judge said today that she was open to granting Trump’s request to appoint an independent arbiter to review the files, so that may also slow down anything the DOJ does.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. California lawmakers passed a group of new climate bills late last night, which included a record $54 billion in climate spending.
  2. Today was Ukrainian students’ first day back at school. The past six months of war have damaged 2,400 schools across the country, but 51 percent of schools in Ukraine are now reopening for in-person education.
  3. A new national report comparing student achievement from right before the pandemic with that of two years later found that test scores in elementary-school math and reading have fallen to levels not seen in decades.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Corn Kid, the viral internet star, placed under an illustration of a smiley face
(Instagram; Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic)

Don’t Worry About Corn Kid

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

A viral video starring an adorable child has briefly united the world in shared understanding: “It’s corn!”

The child, whose first name is Tariq and whose last name is unknown, but who also goes by “CEO of Corn,” appeared in a video on a popular Instagram account called Recess Therapy. (Recess Therapy is a man-on-the-street-style interview show on which all the guests are children.) Tariq is missing a front tooth, so he’s approximately whatever age at which that typically happens. He’s in a park in Brooklyn, and he is eating corn on the cob. “Ever since I was told that corn was real, it tasted good,” he explains. His grandmother is cracking up in the background. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing,” he says, of corn.

Read the full article.

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