Heather Cox Richardson
CNN reporters today pulled together evidence from a number of sources to explain how “a binder containing highly classified information related to Russian election interference went missing at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.” The missing collection of documents was ten inches thick and contained 2,700 pages of information from U.S. intelligence and that of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies about Russian efforts to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
The binder went missing in the last days of the Trump presidency and has not been recovered. Its disappearance has raised “alarms among intelligence officials that some of the most closely guarded national security secrets from the US and its allies could be exposed.”
Reporters Jeremy Herb, Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand, Evan Perez, and Zachary Cohen have pieced together the story of how in his last days in office, Trump tried to declassify most of the information in the binder in order to distribute copies to Republican members of Congress and right-wing media outlets. According to an affidavit by reporter John Solomon, who was shown a copy of the binder, the plan was to begin releasing information from it on the morning of January 20, 2021, so that it would hit the news after President Joe Biden had been sworn in.
But late on January 19, while Solomon was copying the documents, White House lawyers recalled the copies to black out, or redact, sensitive information, worrying that while most of the facts in the binder were apparently already public, the methods of collection and persons involved were not. At some point in that process, an unredacted copy of the binder disappeared.
A former aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, Cassidy Hutchinson, told the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol last year that she thought Meadows took the unredacted binder with him.
Today, in statements that seemed very carefully worded, Meadows’s lawyer, George Terwilliger, told CNN: “Mr. Meadows was keenly aware of and adhered to requirements for the proper handling of classified material, any such material that he handled or was in his possession has been treated accordingly and any suggestion that he is responsible for any missing binder or other classified information is flat wrong.” Terwilliger told the New York Times: “Mark never took any copy of that binder home at any time.”
The missing binder was not among the material the Federal Bureau of Investigation recovered from Mar-a-Lago last year, and intelligence officials briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee about the missing information (the CNN story does not say that the House Intelligence Committee has been briefed). In April 2021, Trump allegedly offered to let the author of a book about him see the binder, saying “I would let you look at them if you wanted…. It’s a treasure trove…it would be sort of a cool book for you to look at.”
The story of yet more missing classified information highlights that Judge Aileen Cannon, who was confirmed to her position after Trump lost the 2020 election, has permitted Trump to slow down United States of America v. Donald J. Trump, Waltine Nauta, and Carlos De Oliveira, the pending criminal case in which he and two aides are accused of mishandling classified documents under the Espionage Act as well as making false statements and engaging in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Perhaps even more strongly, at a time when House Republicans have declined to fund Ukraine’s war against Russia’s 2022 invasion, the story serves as a reminder of the role Russia played in Trump’s 2016 election and how, during Trump’s time in office, he continued to cultivate a relationship with Russia’s authoritarian president Vladimir Putin and to turn his back on America’s traditional democratic allies, including those in NATO. (At one point, he told National Security Advisor John Bolton, “I don’t give a sh*t about NATO.”)
Indeed, Trump has suggested he would take the U.S. out of NATO if he returns to office, breaking the coalition that held first the Soviet Union and then Russia at bay since World War II. Such a betrayal would weaken all of the security alliances of the United States, according to Eastern European specialist Anne Applebaum, exposing the U.S. as an unreliable ally. As democracies ceased to work together, they would have to work with authoritarian governments, and after American political influence declined, so would the economic influence that has protected our economy. Authoritarian leaders like Putin would be the winners.
News about the missing binder also highlights just how hard Trump worked to convince his loyalists that that connection was a hoax. Although all U.S. intelligence services and the Republican-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee assessed that, in fact, Russia did intervene in the election to get Trump into the White House, many Trump loyalists continue to believe Trump’s lie that such interference did not happen.
Trump’s determination to convince his followers that “Russia, Russia, Russia” was a hoax was in part an attempt to get out from under the legal implications of working with a foreign country to win an election but also, perhaps more profoundly, an attempt to make his followers believe his lies over reality. If he could make them believe him, rather than the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community and the Senate, they would be his to command.
Russia, Russia, Russia was an important precursor to the Big Lie that Trump, rather than Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. The Big Lie has failed at every test of evidence, and yet Trump loyalists still say they believe it.
Today, former Trump ally Rudy Giuliani continued to defend the idea that the 2020 election had been stolen, even after a jury of eight Americans said he must pay the eye-popping sum of $148,169,000 to Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman for defaming them by saying they had participated in election fraud—he made that up—and for emotional distress. Freeman and Moss had asked for $24 million each.
Of that verdict, $75,000,000 was for punitive damages, illustrating that spreading Trump’s lies so that they hurt individuals comes at a whopper of a cost. Giuliani had refused to cooperate in the case, although he admitted to the truth of the underlying facts, and he had continued to attack Moss and Freeman to reporters during the trial.
Trump’s election lies that hurt companies are also costly, as the Fox News Corporation found when it settled with Dominion Voting Systems for $787 million over the media company’s lies about the 2020 election.
Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) tried to address Trump’s attack on our democracy when this week they inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act a provision saying that no president can withdraw from NATO without approval from the Senate or from Congress as a whole.
“NATO has held strong in response to Putin’s war in Ukraine and rising challenges around the world,” Kaine said. He added that the legislation “to prevent any U.S. President from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO reaffirms U.S. support for this crucial alliance that is foundational for our national security. It also sends a strong message to authoritarians around the world that the free world remains united.”
Rubio added, “The Senate should maintain oversight on whether or not our nation withdraws from NATO. We must ensure we are protecting our national interests and protecting the security of our democratic allies.”