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Politics

'Top Secret' documents are recovered from Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Last month, the National Archives, the government agency that manages presidential records, noticed that documents were missing from the Trump presidential archives. They found 15 boxes of documents at the former president's Mar-a-Lago home. According to The Washington Post, some of them were clearly marked as classified, including some that were top secret. So should the Department of Justice be investigating? Let's ask.

Former federal prosecutor Brandon Van Grack is here with us. Good morning.

BRANDON VAN GRACK: Good morning.

FADEL: So the National Archives has apparently asked the DOJ to investigate. You served as a senior national security official at the DOJ. Do you think this is the right move?

VAN GRACK: Absolutely. There's no question there should be an investigation into what happened if nothing else than to determine whether any sources or methods had been compromised and to sort of understand the implications of that.

FADEL: And now, it's being reported, as I mentioned - is that some of the documents were marked top secret. Given that, what are the possible legal ramifications here? Could this lead to a criminal case?

VAN GRACK: So it could, based on the facts. By it being marked top secret, that means some official, some expert has determined that the disclosure of that information could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. So it's a very serious issue when information like this is mishandled. And there's actually a specific statute, a law on the books that makes it unlawful to knowingly remove and retain classified information without authorization. So there's certainly potential criminal ramifications from this conduct if what's reported is accurate.

FADEL: Are there loopholes to that law? Could President Trump declassify the documents, for instance?

VAN GRACK: I probably wouldn't refer to it as a loophole. But it's more there are...

FADEL: OK.

VAN GRACK: ...Limitations to it. And so...

FADEL: I see.

VAN GRACK: ...One of the core limitations is it has to be unauthorized removal and unauthorized retention. And the president of the United States has complete authority to classify and declassify information and also to determine how it can be handled and transferred. So he could have authorized the removal and retention of that information.

FADEL: Now, it's been reported that some of the records turned over to the National Archives were torn and then taped back together. And I think it's pretty safe to assume that's not standard practice. How problematic is this?

VAN GRACK: The tearing up of documents - that would really be under potentially separate laws that deal with the retention of information in government records. But in terms of the issues, in terms of it being classified, it's potentially related. But I think it's really part of - demonstrates that there's a lot we don't know about what happened here. And there are a lot of questions that really the FBI, and ultimately the Department of Justice, needs to ask in order to determine ultimately what happened.

FADEL: As a former federal prosecutor, you've investigated the mishandling of classified information. Based on what's being reported, do you believe these documents were improperly handled?

VAN GRACK: So on its face, that - it would certainly seem to be the case. Top-secret information is marked in a particular way. There's a - on the top and bottom of a document, it's supposed to be stamped. There's a cover sheet. When it's transferred, it's supposed to be double wrapped. It's in a bag that has a lock on it. It's supposed to be stored in a secured facility. So on its face, if these were top-secret documents and they were not declassified, then they were not - they were mishandled. And it certainly could trigger a violation of the law that I just mentioned.

FADEL: A lot that we still don't know here - former federal prosecutor Brandon Van Grack - thank you so much.

VAN GRACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.