5 theories for why Trump kept boxes of secret documents

He could have avoided prosecution if he had turned over the government's documents. So why didn't he?

Trump documents at Mar-a-Lago
Trump's lawyers reportedly urged him to quietly return the documents
(Image credit: U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images)

From the moment in early 2021 when the National Archives asked former President Donald Trump to return the boxes of documents he improperly sent to Mar-a-Lago from the White House, some of his lawyers urged him to quietly hand them back, The Washington Post reported.

Instead, Trump "misled his own advisers, telling them the boxes contained only newspaper clippings and clothes," and "repeatedly refused to give the documents back, even when some of his longest-serving advisers warned of peril and some flew to Mar-a-Lago to beg him to return them," the Post said.

Trump was arraigned on 37 felony counts of willfully retaining government secrets and obstructing the government's repeated efforts to get them back. None of the charges concern the documents Trump returned voluntarily in the first half of 2022. "This is a situation entirely of his own making," former Attorney General William Barr wrote in The Free Press. "Trump would not have been indicted just for taking the documents in the first place. Nor would he have been indicted even if he delayed returning them for a period while arguing about it."

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"On any given day for the past 18 months — doubtless up to and including the day before the indictment was returned — the former president could have avoided and prevented this prosecution," conservative former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig agreed on Twitter. "But for whatever reason, he decided that he would rather be indicted and prosecuted."

So, why didn't Trump just return the documents? There are several plausible theories.

Trump followed bad advice

As Trump rejected the advice from his lawyers and advisers again and again, he "instead took the advice of Tom Fitton, the head of the conservative group Judicial Watch," who convinced Trump "he could legally keep the documents and should fight the Justice Department," the Post reported. Fitton repeatedly brought up the "Clinton socks case," a "reference to tapes Bill Clinton stored in his sock drawer of his secret interviews with historian Taylor Branch."

"I think what is lacking is the lawyers saying, 'I took this to be obstruction,'" Fitton told the Post. "Where is the conspiracy? I don't understand any of it. I think this is a trap. They had no business asking for the records."

Trump had at least nine attorneys in the classified documents case, Lisa Needham wrote at Public Notice, and "he probably could have avoided in an indictment altogether if he'd listened to their advice. Fitton isn't a lawyer, after all, but "a combative conservative who has carved a path for himself as a nuisance litigant with an insatiable appetite for suing Democrats," and in this case he's "perhaps even more willing than Trump is to ignore obvious facts and to believe his expertise is far more valuable than it is."

He considered the documents his 'papers'

Trump started collecting cardboard boxes of documents and clippings from the Oval Office early in his presidency, and "his aides began to refer to the boxes full of papers and odds and ends he carted around with him almost everywhere as the 'beautiful mind' material," a reference to schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, The New York Times reported. The "blizzard of newspapers and official documents" were disorganized, but "Trump would notice if somebody had riffled through them or they were not arranged in a particular way."

Trump called the boxes of official documents "my papers" and told aides he did not want to give the collection back to the National Archive because "it's mine," the Post reported.

He thought he would get away with it

After he had turned over some of the classified materials to the National Archives and the FBI, "Trump had kept at least 64 boxes of documents," the Post reported, citing two advisers. "Trump never believed that his home would be searched and thought that he would be able to keep the documents, two advisers said.

"I really don't want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don't, I don't want you looking through my boxes," Trump told his lawyer Evan Corcoran, the indictment recounts. He also said, according to Corcoran's subpoenaed notes, that it would "be better if we just told [federal investigators] we don't have anything there," and asked "what happens if we just don't respond at all or don't play ball with them?"


Trump just needed more time

Trump told Fox News anchor Bret Baier that his boxes from the White House "were interspersed with all sorts of things," like "golf shirts, clothing, pants, shoes," and before he sent the documents back to the National Archives, "I want to go through the boxes and get all my personal things out." Trump suggested he did not sort out his personal stuff before the FBI seized the documents because he "was very busy, as you've sort of seen."

He craved the 'ego boost'

"Why would Trump risk the safety of the American people by hanging on to these documents in the face of the government's lawful demands for their return?" Barr mused at The Free Press. "Knowing him, it was an act of self-assertion merely to gratify his ego."

Trump is like a "defiant 9-year-old kid, who's always pushing the glass toward the edge of the table, defying his parents to stop him from doing it," Barr elaborated on CBS's Face the Nation. "It's a means of self-assertion and exerting his dominance over other people. And he's a very petty individual who will always put his interests ahead of the country's, his personal gratification of his ego, but our country can't be a therapy session for a troubled man like this."

Trump is the only one to blame for this "calamity," Karl Rove argued at The Wall Street Journal. Any staffer caught keeping sensitive documents illegally "would go to prison for breaking the laws protecting the nation's secrets." Now, no matter what happens at Trump's easily avoidable trial, "America will pay a high price for the former president's reckless petulance. So will he."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.