Paradise for pundits and partisan politicians. That’s the federal case charging former President Donald Trump with keeping classified documents.

His indictment has also launched attacks by Trump’s supporters against anybody they believe seeks to disrupt their leader’s way back to the White House.

The Republican Right, which now dominates the GOP, and the former president go after the prosecutor and President Biden, who they say is the power behind the indictment. For them, the best defense is counterattack. The Democrats, fearful of offending anybody, have done little to defend themselves, leaving the case to speak for itself.

Despite the counterattacks, some facts are beyond doubt. Despite the fervor of the GOP Right and the hasty analyses of the armies of pundits, many questions remain to be answered. Here are some known facts and open questions.

Trump took classified documents with him to Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort he calls home, when he left the White House. These documents, listed in the indictment, contain sensitive intelligence. That makes his actions and the pursuit of the documents more than a mere paper chase.

Evidence that Trump knowingly kept sensitive documents and tried to keep them from the National Archives has come from his own aides, people helping him in these efforts, not from his opponents.


Jack Smith, the federal prosecutor, has proceeded in a systematic manner. He has sought the indictment in the federal District Court closest to Mar-a-Lago, even accepting the risk that he would draw the judge who has previously been blatantly favorable to Trump. Smith is a professional prosecutor not a political appointee.

There is no evidence that either Biden or Attorney-General Merrick Garland gave instructions to Smith. As Special Prosecutor, he was meant to be insulated from political pressure. It may seem logical to the right-wing GOP that Biden is behind the indictment, but partisan logic is not enough. Evidence is needed.

Possibly to minimize the problem, Trump has suggested that he could declassify documents merely by thinking they were declassified. Otherwise, why would he do that? Also, there is a formal declassification procedure, because the documents would have become public. But if only he knew, how would people learn they were now open?

His reasons for keeping the documents remain unclear. He kept them for many months after his term ended and did nothing with them during all that time. Why risk indictment if there is no good reason for holding the documents?

Trump claims that the charges are a Democratic effort to undermine his reelection campaign. Should the Justice Department never bring a criminal case against a person who has announced their candidacy for public office? Or just for president? Or just Trump? Exempting candidates could mean a person could avoid criminal prosecution by continually running for public office.

Assuming the indictment is politically motivated, does that mean the serious charges should not be pursued? Unlike Smith, some prosecutors are elected and may act out of partisan or personal bias. The same is true for some judges, whether appointed by politicians or elected. That’s one reason the judicial system includes juries, composed of average people who don’t make a career of it.


In the current situation, Trump has tried to expand the bounds of the judicial process by making personal attacks. At the outset, he questioned whether Jack Smith was the prosecutor’s real name. What was he implying? He has resorted to labeling Smith a “thug,” perhaps because Trump thinks he’s too tough. It’s doubtful he’ll be that critical of his friendly judge.

The main argument used by Trump and his supporters is that the Justice Department and the FBI discriminate against him and let Democrats off. The message is that Democrats get away with illegal acts, so Republicans ought to be allowed to do the same. There’s no point in trying to distinguish the facts of each case; the generalization is as far as we need to go.

This reaction to being criticized or charged has come to be called “what-about-ism.” In fact, it is based on the belief that “two wrongs make a right.” That’s contrary to much traditional religious and family teaching. It is also the way to completely destroy the judicial system. If crimes must go unpunished because somebody else got away with them, where does this end?

In case after case, Trump stirs conflict by using political and personal attacks to minimize the charges. He and his supporters resort to lying, mob action, or what-about-ism. Possible criminal action should be judged according to law. Period. That’s the case the Democrats could be making a lot more forcefully.

This case and its opponents place the judicial system itself in grave danger. It may not be perfect, but mob rule isn’t better, and, despite its claims, it isn’t democracy.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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