A good rule of thumb in any scandal involving Donald Trump is that no matter how bad it seems—and that is often very bad—it will get worse.
If you thought it was bad that the former president hoarded classified presidential records at Mar-a-Lago, it got worse when we learned Trump had shown off military plans to writers interviewing him. It got worse again when Special Counsel Jack Smith produced photographs showing that Trump had stored them haphazardly on a ballroom stage, documented a lengthy alleged scheme to lie to the government about the documents, and suggested his lawyers hide them.
Now it’s worse still: According to new reports yesterday, Trump in April 2021 shared national secrets about U.S. nuclear submarines with an Australian billionaire who is a member at Mar-a-Lago. The magnate, Anthony Pratt, has reportedly told federal investigators that Trump told him the “supposed exact number of nuclear warheads they routinely carry, and exactly how close they supposedly can get to a Russian submarine without being detected,” per ABC News.
Few things are more sensitive and more closely held than nuclear secrets. Trump has defended himself in the classified-documents case by claiming (without proof, and against other evidence) that he declassified the material before leaving office, using a power of declassification granted to presidents. But as my colleague Graeme Wood reported last year, nuclear secrets are considered so sensitive that not even the president can declassify them.
As if sharing these secrets with a foreign national was not bad enough, events after show that Pratt was even looser-lipped than Trump. “In emails and conversations after meeting with Trump, Pratt described Trump’s remarks to at least 45 others, including six journalists, 11 of his company’s employees, 10 Australian officials, and three former Australian prime ministers,” ABC News reported.
Does anyone think this is the only time that Trump shared extremely sensitive secrets? Get your wagers to the betting window now, or whenever; there will always be another chance.
This development risks being lost in the shuffle of a presidential campaign and an imploded House GOP majority and a long list of legal troubles for Trump. If Barack Obama or George W. Bush was sharing secrets like this it would have been a massive scandal, yet for Trump willy-nilly sharing of classified material is old hat. But the report of Trump’s disclosures to Pratt is important not merely because it involves national security. It also points to a fundamental flaw in Trump’s conception of the presidency, the office that he is now working to reclaim.
Politicians are not held in especially high esteem these days, often for good reason, but most of them still understand that in theory their role is to administer the government on behalf of the American people. We call them public servants, after all. Yet although Trump speaks the language of populism fluently, he has no real regard for the public’s interest and feels no responsibility to uphold it.
Many observers, including me, have argued that he takes his theory of governance from Louis XIV: “L’etat, c’est moi.” But that’s not quite right. His approach is all moi and no etat. Trump ran for president because he seemed to think it would be fun to get the adulation of the office and to be able to know all the secrets that the president knows. Once elected, he loved to talk about military parades but manifestly hated the actual governing parts of the job.
Trump imported this approach from his business career. The Trump Organization is a privately held company, which makes sense, as he could never fulfill any requirement to act as a fiduciary on behalf of shareholders. The company was his to run as he saw fit—or to run into the ground, as he nearly did a few times. So was any property that came to him. When he purchased the landmark Bonwit Teller building in New York, he promised to preserve artwork before demolishing it. Then he promptly destroyed the art. It was his, right?
This is boorish and dishonest and says a great deal about Trump’s character, but was basically his legal right. Government cannot and does not work that way, but Trump never grasped that, even once he became president. He continued to act like the CEO of a privately held company. If he wanted to share classified material with foreign officials visiting his office, who cares? If he wanted to use the power of the U.S. government to extort political aid from Ukraine, who was to stop him? What was the point of knowing secrets if you couldn’t share them? How dare co-equal branches of government stymie him?
Since grudgingly leaving office, Trump has continued to acting this way. Perhaps that’s because he believes that he really won the election (though he has privately acknowledged limitations on his powers post-presidency), or perhaps it’s because he feels that once things are his, whether presidential records or classified secrets, they’re his to keep or share forever.
At the heart of the American project is the idea that politicians hold the government in trust for the American people, then turn it over to other elected representatives. Trump has shown yet again that he is unworthy of that trust.