Half the GOP doesn’t think Trump had sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago

In early June, the federal government made public a 49-page indictment targeting former president Donald Trump. Trump and his staffer Waltine “Walt” Nauta face dozens of charges related to Trump’s possession of material he took to his home at Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House, including a number of documents marked as classified.

While certainly not proof of Trump’s guilt of criminal conduct, the indictment nonetheless contained multiple photos and detailed conversations suggesting that Trump had documents and intended to keep them. Previously, of course, the Justice Department had released a photo of documents marked as classified arrayed on the distinctive carpet of the Mar-a-Lago Club.

And yet new polling from Marquette Law School indicates that half of Republicans don’t believe he had any such documents at his home.

As soon as you read those words, you are likely to experience a cascade of assumptions. Among the first is that this is probably to some extent insincere. Many Republicans probably believe that Trump had those documents at his house but also understand that the formal position of Trump and his allies is that this is all contrived, so their response to the poll reflects that rhetorical position more than their actual beliefs.

But, of course, there’s also the impulse to accept Trump’s explanation for what was found: that, as president, he had the power to declassify any material and that he’d done so.

This is a belief that is undermined significantly in three ways. First, that Trump himself was recorded talking about how he was in possession of a document that was still classified. Second, his varying invocations of this idea of a blanket declassification were neither memorialized with the government nor consistent across his presentations. And, third, some of the documents the government said it recovered at Mar-a-Lago dealt with nuclear arms and were therefore not ones he had the sole authority to declassify.

Again, though, this doesn’t really matter. Trump’s been effective at casting himself as the never-ending victim of partisan and deceitful law-enforcement apparatus and he’s therefore granted the benefit of the doubt in disputes with special counsel Jack Smith or the Justice Department. It’s a he-said, he-said, in which one side has a lengthy reputation of deceit and the other is simply trying to do what it is supposed to do. Which of those descriptors applies to which of the sides depends on your political leaning.

All of that meta-analysis aside, note that the question presented in the poll didn’t actually deal only with classified documents. Instead, it asked whether respondents believed that Trump “had top secret and other classified material or national security documents at his home in Mar-a-Lago.” There is an abundance of evidence that he did — but half of Republicans don’t buy it.

You’ll note that the percentage who say he did has ticked up since November. By January — before the indictment — the percentage of Republicans saying he was in possession of such documents was about where it is now.

The inextricability of partisanship here is visible in another pair of questions offered by Marquette. Respondents were asked whether they viewed Trump’s and President Biden’s handling of classified materials as criminal, careless or (essentially) insignificant. You’ll recall that this comparison is a favorite of Trump’s; that Biden’s attorneys found a handful of documents with classification markings at his home and in an old office has been equated to the dozens Trump appears to have willfully hidden from the government.

Democrats think that Biden was careless. Republicans think that Trump was. Democrats think that Trump violated the law. Republicans think that Biden did.

There’s a rubric for that latter belief, too. Biden, as a senator or vice president, had no power to declassify documents, the argument goes. Ergo, unlike Trump’s (unproven) blanket declassification, Biden was necessarily in possession of documents illegally. Except that Biden did have the power to declassify — and except that the charges Trump faces are not dependent upon classification status.

All of this explication of the situations and their differences is admittedly beside the point revealed in the poll. That some guy from The Washington Post is trying to offer a nuanced explanation of the accusations against Trump and what’s alleged in regards to Biden is simply folded into the broader framework Trump has constructed, his rhetorical Trump Tower: My opponents will say anything to take me down.

He says it because — politically, at least — it works.

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