Despite the comprehensive evidence presented in the 38-count indictment accusing former President Donald J. Trump of retaining hundreds of classified documents and subsequently obstructing the government’s attempts to recover them, one enigma persists: what motivated him to seize these materials and fiercely resist relinquishing them?
The rationale behind Trump’s possession of thousands of presidential records, including over 300 classified documents, at his Mar-a-Lago residence and exclusive club in Palm Beach, Florida, is not explicitly discussed in the 49-page indictment filed last Thursday in Miami. The charges do not imply that Trump had an overarching objective beyond simply owning the items.
Although determining a motive might be advantageous for prosecutors if Trump stands trial, it may not be essential for establishing the legal foundation of the case against him. Nevertheless, the reason behind Trump’s retention of a vast array of highly confidential documents and his alleged efforts to avoid returning them remains unresolved, even after nearly 15 months of investigation by the Justice Department.
The indictment does provide some clues. It details how Trump, who often seeks retributionagainst those he perceives as adversaries, brandished a classified “plan of attack” against Iran during a meeting in July 2021 at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. He did this to refute criticism from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a recording of the meeting, Trump can be heard shuffling papers and informing those present that the document substantiated his position in the disagreement with General Milley, stating, “This totally wins my case, you know.”
Other instances in the indictment depict an aide referring to the materials Trump transported in boxes as “his papers,” suggesting that he was reluctant to relinquish the privileges associated with the nation’s highest office. Similarly, the indictment portrays Trump as attempting to prevent a lawyer he hired to search Mar-a-Lago for any remaining classified materials from examining the records he stored there. Trump is quoted as saying, “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes,” indicating a sense of personal ownership over the materials.
This feeling of ownership was so strong that his aides, as shown in text messages included in the indictment, were clearly apprehensive about moving the items too far from him. Numerous former aides and advisors to Trump have long argued that he kept the sensitive records because he regarded them as “mine” and enjoyed collecting trophies to display, regardless of their form.
Trump’s penchant for showcasing various prizes is well-documented. As a businessman and playboy in Manhattan, he sought to be seen with attractive women, purchased the Plaza Hotel as a “toy” for his then-wife Ivana, and accumulated high-end trinkets to flaunt to visitors in his office. During his presidency, he treated the nation’s secrets similarly, sharing classified information with Russian officials in 2017 and posting a classified photo on Twitter in 2019.
Throughout the case investigation, special counsel Jack Smith’s prosecutors took actions suggesting a search for motive. They subpoenaed information about the Trump Organization’s business dealings with seven foreign countries starting in 2017, seemingly aiming to determine if any documents could have been used to support his international ventures. However, the indictment makes no mention of Trump utilizing the documents for business purposes.
Chris Christie, a former friend and adversary of Trump, proposed a straightforward explanation last year, stating, “I think it’s much more likely they’re a trophy that he walks around and says, look, I’ve got this.” Christie believes Trump is unable to accept that he is no longer president and uses these documents as a way to maintain some of the trappings of his former position. This may also explain why Trump had a replica of the Oval Office Resolute Desk installed in his Mar-a-Lago office. Christie concludes, “All the rest of those things are things that are assuaging, you know, his disappointment and his disbelief that he’s not the president anymore.”