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In Donald Trump’s America, facts are fungible

“Truth is incontrovertible,” Winston Churchill once pointed out. “Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.”

In American politics these days, facts have become fungible. They often are supplanted by conspiracy-laden, hyper-partisan narratives that feature self-righteous responses to perceived — or invented — corruption, deceit, and victimization.

In the midterms, the vast majority of candidates for governor, secretary of state, and the U.S. Senate in battleground states who made baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged,” were defeated. Often, however, just barely. And Donald Trump is still betting he can ride obfuscations, exaggerations and outright lies back to the White House.

A large majority of Americans agree that widespread agreement about basic facts provides the oxygen that sustains democracies. Nonetheless, Trump’s claims about the government documents he took to Mar-a-Lago — many of them marked “Top Secret” and “Classified” — and tacit or explicit endorsement of those claims by ideologically siloed media outlets, should remind us that the danger to American democracy has not passed.

The Presidential Records Act stipulates that presidential records are the property of the United States government. Several statutes make it a crime to remove government records and store them at unauthorized locations.

In May 2021, after identifying many missing documents, National Archives and Records Administration officials asked Trump to return them, as required by law. More than six months later, the former president returned 15 boxes, which contained (among other things) 184 classified documents — 67 marked “confidential,” 92 “secret,” and 25 “top secret.” Trump insisted the “papers were given easily and without conflict.” Trump’s Save America Political Action Committee maintained NARA “did not find anything.”

In May 2022, the Department of Justice issued a subpoena for additional records. In June 2022, FBI agents and a DOJ official visited Mar-a-Lago and removed 38 classified documents — five marked “confidential,” 16 “secret,” and 17 “top secret.” One of Trump lawyers signed a statement that after “a diligent search,” to the best of her knowledge no more such documents remained at the residence.

In August, a judge determined there was “probable cause” that records had been concealed and then removed from the storage room in Mar-a-Lago to “obstruct the government’s investigation” and approved a warrant to search the premises. FBI agents discovered another large cache of documents marked “classified” — more than 100. Some of the material reportedly concerned Iran’s missile program, assessments of China, and the nuclear capability of a foreign nation. Access to these and other documents was supposed to be restricted to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Donald Trump has repeatedly called for lengthy jail sentences for anyone who mishandles classified information. “In my administration,” he promised in 2016, “I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protections of classified information. No one will be above the law.” In 2018, President Trump signed legislation increasing the penalty for individuals who knowingly remove classified materials with the intent of retaining them at unauthorized locations to a felony, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Trump insists these laws do not apply to him.

The National Archives, he says, “lose documents, they plant documents.” Without specifying when or to whom, Trump maintains he issued “a standing order” that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to his residence were to be de-classified the moment he took them. “If you’re the president of the United States,” he insists, “you can declassify just by saying ‘It’s declassified.’ Even by thinking about it … I declassified everything.”

The former president’s lawyers, it’s worth noting, have never made these claims in court. Nor has Trump addressed the potential risks to national security, surveillance methods, and agents working undercover in, say, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, if top secret documents stored in unsecured locations fell into the wrong hands. Or the implications of declassifying such documents without informing — let alone consulting — anyone in the U.S. government, including the incoming president.

In a by-now-familiar tactic, Trump has tried to redirect criticism of his reckless behavior to his predecessors. According to Trump, Jimmy Carter “sent the nuclear codes to his dry cleaner.”  Bill Clinton “left the White House with recordings in his socks.” George W. Bush transferred millions of documents “to a former bowling alley pieced together with what was then an old and broken Chinese restaurant… with a broken front door and broken windows.” Barack Obama stored 30 million records in an abandoned Chicago furniture warehouse.

It’s all bull.

 “Here you are after all these years,” Rex Harrison once said to Robert Morley, his fellow English actor, “with the same house… and, if I may say so, the same performance.”

Donald Trump’s performance relies on lies about all things great and small. Among the dozens of false and easy-to-fact-check claims in his announcement this month of a 2024 presidential run was this doozy: Despite predictions that he would be a warmonger president, Trump bragged, “I’ve gone decades, decades without a war. The first president to do it for that long a period.”

And, alas, far too many Americans still seem willing to buy what he is selling.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Alternative facts American democracy classified documents Donald Trump Facts Mar-a-Lago affidavit Mar-a-Lago documents probe Mar-a-Lago search National Archives National Archives and Records Administration Presidential Records Act top secret documents Trump 2024 trump lies Trump subpoena Winston Churchill

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