How the DOJ used Trump’s methods against him

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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 recent filing so compelling.

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

A dramatic flair
files, many labeled "secret" and "hush-hush," scattered on a carpeted floor
(Department of Justice/AP)

This week, the Justice Department released a damning court filing in its case over Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents. Although the entire filing is a clear refutation of the excuses Trump and his team have offered for the former president’s failure to turn over all requested classified materials, the final page is “prosecutors’ cunningest maneuver yet,” David wrote. On this site, a now-viral photo shows documents laid out on the floor of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, many of them adorned with the words “Top Secret //SCI” in bold red. Below, David and I talk about the DOJ’s latest filing, the Photo, and how the administration outwits Trump at every turn.

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

David A Graham: I don’t think the substance of the photo is new, but it sets it all in dramatic relief. It’s one thing to hear that Trump had top secret or classified documents and it’s another thing to see those folders with those big red letters that say “Top Secret//SCI.” Trump has teased whether he had anything sensitive in his possession, but you have the exact picture.

Isabel: Let’s talk a little bit about the aesthetic of the photo and the strategy behind it. They wrote that the photo was “prosecutors’ cunningest maneuver yet” — and even a hijacking of Trump’s own methods. As?

David: Trump has such a great flair for the visual. You can see that this harks back to his real estate career, the lavish spreads you get from his Trump Tower penthouse, the aesthetic of his campaign speech in 2015 as he came down the golden escalator. All of these things are a testament to how he understands that saying things is one thing and another see a certain way.

The photo is the last page of the Justice Department’s file – they put it in at the end, but I think they must have understood that it would draw attention. That’s why it’s there, and it’s the only photo there. It’s not all exhibits that they present in court; it’s just one showing some of the documents. I think they understand that it’s one thing to put these things in writing, but when you can show people a picture, it really applies in a different way.

Isabel: And did the DOJ stage this photo, with all the documents arranged as they are? It’s a really effective way of presenting evidence.

David: You’re right, the staging is really fascinating. Trump complained that they made it appear as if he had scattered those documents on the floor and insisted No, the DOJ deleted them, which seems to be true. It is common for them to take photos like this to get evidence and show what they found. But it also reminded me, in a weird way, that the sheriff’s office or the local police or even the DEA would do a drug bust and give out a list of all the things that were seized: contraband, packages of drugs and guns and bullets. There’s the same kind of dramatic flair in this image. So it’s both protocol and a bit of drama.

If you look closely at the image, there is a ruler they put in these photos so they can show how big things are –

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

David: Yes, exactly. I think the carpet is one of them. If you were in any doubt, the fact that there is an over-the-top Baroque carpet really shows that this is in Mar-a-Lago.

Isabel: In this case, do you think the DOJ has been more successful than government agencies in holding Trump accountable for alleged past criminal conduct?

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

I also think it’s a little easier to understand a scandal and a little easier for prosecutors to move forward than some of these more complicated cases. Think of some classic Trump scandals: Russiagate is everywhere. There’s all this miasma of confusion about where Trump is involved. Or January 6th: There is an ongoing debate as to whether Trump himself instigated the riot or what his role was. But this is very simple: either you made records or you didn’t. Either they are top secret or they are not. And either you flipped them or you didn’t. And what we see here is: He took the documents; they are top secret; he didn’t turn her over.

Isabel: What is 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 wise to charge a crime. We now know these documents exist and they were taken, and the DOJ says they reviewed them. So you can have a lot of the substance here. But they must decide whether to charge Trump with a crime: whether there are legal advantages or political disadvantages, and whether they believe they can secure a conviction.

We won’t know anytime soon because the Justice Department is trying to avoid politically charged announcements and prosecutions for some time after the election. If they don’t indict him within the next week, which seems highly unlikely given the current state of affairs, we probably won’t know what their next step is until after the November elections. A federal judge said today she is open to granting Trump’s request to appoint an independent arbitrator to review the files, so that could also slow anything the DOJ is doing.


Today’s News
  1. California lawmakers last night passed a series of new climate laws that include a record $54 billion in climate spending.
  2. Today was the first day of school for Ukrainian students. In the last six months of the war, 2,400 schools across the country were damaged, but 51 percent of schools in Ukraine are now reopening to face-to-face classes.
  3. A new national report comparing student performance just before the pandemic hit two years later found that test scores in math and reading in elementary school have fallen to levels not seen in decades.


Evening reading
The 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 briefly united the world in a common understanding: “It’s corn!”

The child, whose first name is Tariq and last name is unknown but is also known as “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 where all the guests are kids.) Tariq is missing a front tooth, so he’s about the age when that usually happens. He’s in a park in Brooklyn eating corn on the cob. “Ever since I was told corn was real, it’s tasted good,” he explains. His grandmother is laughing in the background. “I can’t think of anything nicer,” he says of corn.

Read the full article.

More of The Atlantic

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(Illustration by Robert Beatty)

Read. Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from the Bronze Age to the Silver Screen reminds us that TMZ is part of a long tradition.

Watch. Neptune Frost (available to stream on multiple platforms) is an afro-futuristic musical of indescribable magic.

Play our daily crossword puzzle.

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