Out of the box

AT least one New York Times article called the boxes of secrets seized from former US president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort “bathroom reading”. The columnist, Maureen Dowd, was referring to the fact that some of the classified documents that Trump refused to hand over were quite literally kept in the bathroom of a room known as the ‘Lake Room’. Trump has been indicted on 37 counts, over his handling of classified material. His indictment tells a story of an unhinged president holding on to precious state secrets.

It is ironic indeed to read where such important stuff was kept, not least because the US itself is incredibly nosy about other countries’ state secrets. Pakistani officials particularly those that helped during the US-led war on terror would be familiar with American zeal on this.

Many international capitals would tend to agree with this observation. If countries like Pakistan see the indictment as duplicitous because American officials have a great penchant for grilling lesser democracies, the more industrialised democracies that share their intelligence would be perturbed for the opposite reasons. Which one of their secrets, they would naturally wonder, were in the bathroom of the Lake Room at Mar-a-Lago within a few steps of everyone — from cooks and janitors to random wedding guests along with the actual members of the Trump clan.

Indeed, the indictment makes for highly recommended reading for just this reason — boxes of secrets just piled up against the wall of a room almost anyone could get into and at any time. Indeed, it is an open question as to how many people got into the room; after all, it was widely reported that at least one alleged Chinese spy had ‘visited’ Mar-a-Lago during Trump’s presidency. As the indictment prepared by the US justice department’s special counsel Jack Smith said: “The classified documents Trump stored in his boxes included information regarding defence and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programmes; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.”

It is ironic indeed to read where Trump kept such important state papers, not least because the US itself is incredibly nosy about other countries’ official secrets.

The trick was this: Trump’s valet Walt Nauta, who is named as co-conspirator, was allegedly ordered by Trump to move 64 boxes that had been flown from the White House to Mar-a-Lago to his residence. (As background information, it is useful to know that some of these highly classified documents were obtained by Trump during private presidential briefings in which such material is presented to the head of state. While there are special protocols that dictate whether the printed material can even be taken out of the room it was noted that Trump was fond of flaunting these rules and taking various highly classified papers to the residence.)

In any case, when the Trump attorney assigned to the case came to inquire about the boxes and comply with the government’s request that the former president turn over classified materials; he saw only some that had remained and thought that they were all that there were.

These are some of the reported details of what the former president faces. The political morass is yet another story. It is an open question whether Trump’s legal troubles will impact him politically. Indeed, he remains the frontrunner in the Republican field for president 2024, despite the various indictments raining down on him. As Pakistanis know well, the arrests of political leaders ahead of elections can be a double-edged sword. The rhetoric among diehard Trump supporters shows that many among their number want a ‘civil war’ in which they see Trump as the white-supremacist hero. The night before Trump appeared in court in Miami for his arraignment, a news channel was reporting that internet chatter among supporters of the former president was more violent than it had been, even though their numbers now appeared to be fewer than just before the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The diehard groups are one part of the story; more problematic in terms of electoral politics are the armchair Trump supporters who believe that any and all charges against Trump, be they related to the classified material or worse ones expected to be linked to his inciting the violence that led to the events of Jan 6 are fake. Whether it be the US or Pakistan, the issue of wrongdoing by politicians remains a tricky one. A pessimistic appraisal would suggest that when institutions act in ways that undermine electoral politics, they set in motion a crisis of legitimacy that calls the foundational principles of democratic institutions into question.

After all, even actors acting on behalf of institutions — for example, the special counsel Jack Smith acting on behalf of the US justice department — have private political affiliations. Even though this is not supposed to impact their actions as officials of the state, in the eyes of Trump’s supports their actions taint them irreparably.

These sorts of allegations in which no one is ever pure enough to do anything against a populist political figure are extremely dangerous for democratic institutions. When there are enough of them over a short period of time, it becomes exceedingly difficult for these democratic institutions to maintain their credibility in the eyes of the citizens whom they are supposed to serve and represent. Now, this test is going to play out in the US, which until very recently was in the business of building democracy at home. It seems that this exercise has not turned out as expected; it remains to be seen how this new test posed by a proto-fascist populist Donald Trump will pan out.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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