In two of the four indictments looming over Donald Trump, the political considerations are hopelessly intertwined with the legal ones. Charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith in Florida and Washington are federal ones, meaning that Trump has two avenues for defusing them: either being acquitted by a jury or earning a pardon from the president of the United States.
Trump would be justified in thinking that the latter path is the more tenable one; after all, he’s on the brink of becoming the Republican nominee for president and is tied in general election polling with President Biden. At noon on Jan. 20, 2025, the president of the United States might be one Donald Trump, a federal defendant. At 12:01 p.m., he could be the first recipient of a presidential self-pardon (triggering a separate legal fight).
He could still be acquitted, of course, or his legal team might somehow be able to get the charges reduced or tossed. The point is simply that there are two paths forward.
Each of those paths faces significant new obstacles after a report from ABC News on Monday.
Reporters Katherine Faulders, Mike Levine and Alexander Mallin offered new details related to Molly Michael, an aide to Trump who served with him first in the White House and then at his Florida home/office/event space, Mar-a-Lago.
There were two remarkable revelations. First, that Michael had been sent work-related messages by Trump, like to-do lists, that were written on the back of notecards that contained classified briefing material from his time as president. Second, that Trump had told Michael that she “[didn’t] know anything about the boxes.”
Michael is understood to be the “Trump Employee 2” identified in the Florida indictment. That would put her at the center of the effort to the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) attempts to get Trump to return material he’d removed from the White House — material stored at Mar-a-Lago in dozens of bankers’ boxes.
In May 2021, a NARA representative contacted Trump’s attorneys seeking information about material that was unaccounted for, including Trump’s communications with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That same month, according to the indictment, Trump asked that boxes he’d removed from the White House be stored in a room down a hallway from the pool at the resort.
In the latter months of 2021, Trump Employee 2 and Walt Nauta, Trump’s aide and co-defendant in the Florida charges, allegedly exchanged messages centered around Trump’s review of the material with an eye toward turning boxes over to NARA. It was Trump Employee 2 — Michael — who passed along the initial count of boxes to be turned over and who helped Nauta load the material for shipment back to D.C. in January 2022. The indictment alleges that Nauta at one point came into a storage room to find papers from the boxes spilled on the floor; he took a photograph and sent it to Michael.
One of the charges Nauta faces centers on his making false statements about his familiarity with the boxes. This, it seems, is what Trump was hoping Michael might do.
“Michael noted that when the FBI first contacted her for an interview as part of their investigation last year, she notified Trump about the request,” ABC’s reporters write, citing sources familiar with Michael’s statements to investigators. “In response, he told her, ‘You don’t know anything about the boxes.’”
Contrast that with what the indictment quotes Nauta telling FBI investigators.
“So to the best of your knowledge, you’re saying that those boxes that you brought onto the truck, first time you ever laid eyes on them was just the day of when [Trump Employee 2] needed you to-,” an FBI interviewer asked Nauta in May 2022.
“Correct,” Nauta jumped in.
“-to take them,” the interviewer responds. “Okay.”
That is the sort of response, it seems, that Trump was hoping Michael might offer.
There are other examples of Trump allegedly telling his allies to obscure the scale of what was in his possession — or even hiding that scale from those employees. For example, Nauta is alleged to have moved boxes out of the storage room before an attorney arrived to search the boxes for material in early June 2022 that would be responsive to a federal subpoena, including any material with classification markings. The search turned up fewer than 40 such documents, which a Trump attorney certified — falsely — was the entirety of the responsive material. The FBI search in August 2022 turned up more than 100 more, including dozens in Trump’s personal office.
But you see the significance of Michael’s alleged testimony. If she is willing to testify that Trump suggested she feign ignorance about the boxes, despite her role in helping manage the sorting process, it speaks to Trump’s efforts to mislead the investigation. To obstruct it.
Then there’s the political side. Trump has so far been able to convince many of his supporters that the indictments he faces are solely political and unrelated to his actions. Polling shows that Republicans broadly accept this argument, and there is little reason to think it will be substantially undermined.
To some extent, this belief depends on the assumption that Trump wouldn’t do the things he’s accused of — that he wouldn’t, say, bandy around a classified document at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., in front of visiting writers (as he is credibly accused of doing). But here we have Michael reportedly offering up notecards with secrets on one side and notes from Trump on the other. After the FBI search in August, she was cleaning up her office and found the cards under an organizer. She turned them over to the bureau, meaning that this example of Trump’s indifference to classified material could be presented as evidence in a public trial.
What isn’t publicly known is whether those notes from Trump were written before or after he left office. It would make sense that they predate his departure from Washington, that he had briefing cards on his desk and jotted notes for Michael in the moment. If, however, the notes were written after he left office, the situation changes substantially.
Either way, one effect is the same: Trump is perhaps not the conscientious protector of the nation’s secrets that he would like his base to assume.
One should not assume that this will result in a substantial softening of Trump’s support, of course. His ability to conjure a surreality sufficiently acceptable to his base is one of his core political strengths. The ABC report simply makes both of Trump’s paths to safety trickier, however slightly. It becomes that much harder to assume that he didn’t intend to hide his possession of documents from the government, should one be inclined to make such an assumption. And it becomes that much harder to accept — again, should one for some reason be so disposed — that his attention to classification rules was unwavering.