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Trump's obsession with the FBI's 'deceiving' photo hints at much deeper insecurities

The former president's fixation on the "sloppily thrown" documents as set-dressing is both predictable and revealing.
Documents seized at Mar-a-Lago recently.
Documents seized at Mar-a-Lago recently.U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, West Palm Beach Division

Donald Trump’s reaction to the FBI’s display of top-secret documents collected from Mar-a-Lago was, characteristically, incredible. He accused the agents of staging the scene, denying that he was the one who “sloppily” threw the documents on the floor. “Wrong! … They dropped them, not me,” he wrote, a not-very-tacit confession that goes against his lawyer’s declaration back in June that all classified documents had been properly returned.

Complaining about the presentation of documents you claimed to have already turned over feels counterproductive.

Complaining about the presentation of documents you claimed to have already turned over feels counterproductive. His lawyer’s latest gambit is similarly self-defeating. Team Trump now says that obviously the raid uncovered classified documents. That’s just the nature of presidential ephemera. “This ‘discovery’ was to be fully anticipated given the very nature of presidential records,” they wrote to the Justice Department last week. “Simply put, the notion that presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.”

Trump’s fillip on this argument is a confused iteration on the “but I declassified them first!” defense. After once again bristling at the aesthetics of the evidence photo, “Terrible the way the FBI, during … threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!”), he takes the agency to task for posting the photo at all: “Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!” Unluckily for the former president, the current classification level of the documents isn’t the issue. What the Justice Department is investigating is whether he knew he had the documents they were asking for. And if he’s certain he declassified them, then he presumably knew he had them. 

The technical term for these sorts of legal own goals is “pulling a Nicholson,” a maneuver in which the witness’s ego is larger than the desire to stick to the script. Did Trump order the code red? Damn right, he ordered the code red

Like most of Trump’s outbursts, his fixation on the photos as set-dressing is both predictable and revealing. Predictable, in that of course he cares more about how the documents looked than what they actually contained. In his mind, not only does appearance matter more than substance but appearance is substance. I mean, his failing social network is called “Truth Social,” a nonsense phrase that could break an AI brain. But in Trumpworld, it’s just another free-floating assertion you’re not supposed to examine too closely.

His temper tantrum at the evidence photo is also revealing in a way that kind of goes against the Nicholson-ness of it all: Pulling a true, full Nicholson would mean taking proud responsibility for (allegedly) spiriting away national security assets. Instead, he seems primarily concerned that people might think he’s messy. And he is, but mostly in the Urban Dictionary sense.

For me, the biggest mystery of Trump’s document hoarding is his motive. Selling state secrets? Working against the government himself? While I fully believe that Trump would try to sell anything to anyone, both of those theories imagine a man  together enough to understand what he has and with enough hustle to complete the deal. The fact that clothes and knickknacks were found among the documents retrieved by the agents suggests he wasn’t exactly prepping them for sale, or even looking too closely at them. 

Here’s my theory: What if Trump still doesn’t quite believe that his presidency actually happened? On some level, I could get that: The years 2016-2020 were a fever dream of daily scandals and baffling choices whose ridiculousness was outweighed only by their cruelty. Those of us who lost loved ones to Covid or who had our bodily autonomy taken away by a Trumpian Supreme Court (just to name two ways the Trump presidency was very real) certainly will never confuse that nightmare with an actual dream. But for someone as isolated, as stubbornly ignorant and as cosseted as Trump, the whole White House era may feel oddly distant. 

Did he really put his son-in-law in charge of peace in the Middle East? Did he really try to wrestle with a Secret Service agent? Could he have possibly suggested that people ingest bleach? Those things are hard to believe! Maybe being able to mindlessly page through files with fancy “SECRET” stamps on them provides a modicum of comfort.

So maybe he’s less Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” and more “Sunset Boulevard’s” Norma Desmond.

I mean, we know he had no intention of actually reading any of them. Some of those files were empty.

So maybe he’s less Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” and more Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard," swanning about in a semi-fugue state while lackeys work to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed. He can’t conceive of his holding onto top secret files as a true transgression because they aren’t as important as he is. In his preferred version of reality, he’s still big; it’s the alleged crimes that got small.  

Trump in 2022 appears obsessed with documenting his Oval Office shenanigans, obsessed with how they are perceived, obsessed with reliving them as fully as he can. In that sense, the confidential documents may function as a sort of cosplay. They’re not valuable to him because of anything that they contain; they were evidence. Of course, now they’re evidence of a different kind.

As a writer who grew up when magazines were things you held in your hand, I am sympathetic to the impulse to hold onto paper ephemera. But most people who tuck away ticket stubs or cut out articles have at least a passing interest in what the words on the paper say. I sincerely believe Trump does not. 

Keen eyes quickly pointed out that at least one of the framed magazine covers you can see in the FBI photo isn’t exactly a flattering one: It’s a photo illustration of all the 2020 Democratic candidates eagerly gazing into the Oval Office, with the headline, “Knock, knock…” He’s not even pictured.

I can see a humbler politician hanging that in plain view as a reminder that no elected position is ever truly secure. Maybe Trump just wants proof that his election actually happened.