• What Three Things Matter Most in the Trump Mar-a-Lago Case? Intent, Intent, Intent

    September 4, 2022 // 8 Comments »

    The three things which matter most in the Trump Mar-a-Lago case are intent, intent, and intent. Trump’s intent — not so much what he did with classified and/or national security documents but what he intended to happen based on his actions — will decide his innocence or guilt if the case ever comes to court. The documents themselves matter much less, and are almost a red herring.

    Wholly separate from January 6 and any other legal action against Trump, the Mar-a-Lago search warrant specifies three sections of law as justification, meaning any prosecution that comes out of the documents found in the search will likely be under one or more of these, a roadmap to the possible prosecution. On the face it seems Trump is pretty close to guilty, assuming at least some of the documents found were marked as classified and his arguments that as president he declassified them are not accepted. You can see an example of the hathotic glee over this here.

    But there is one more step, often overlooked in Twitteranalysis, to prove, and that is intent. The concept of intent is planted throughout American law and says in many cases (to include incitement, most tax evasion, and sedition) that you not only need to have committed some act like stirring up a crowd to violence, you had to have done it with a specific goal in mind, such as stirring them up to violence. It is intent which separates the what from the why. It’s the difference between a mistake, error, misstatement, and an actual crime. The action itself is often easy to prove, while the thought pattern, what was in someone’s head, the mental objective behind an action, much less so. Based on the laws cited on the search warrant, it is what matters most in Mar-a-Lago.

    The three laws mentioned in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant all specifically require proving intent — Trump’s mental objective in taking the classified document  — or its equivalent:

    18 U.S.C. §§ 793, “Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information” says (emphasis added) “Whoever, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation…” Intent is mentioned repeatedly throughout the law, sometimes restated as purpose, reason,  and the like. This law is part of the infamous Espionage Act of 1917. Parts of the Espionage Act also includes a gross negligence standard, meaning a prosecutor does not have to prove specific intent in all cases.

    18 U.S.C. §§ 2071, “Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally of an record…” says that the act must be (emphasis added) “willful and unlawful,” a standard likely of general intent. This statute also states anyone who violates it should be disqualified from holding public office, but while the issue would likely get litigated in court, legal scholars broadly believe it couldn’t be used to stop Trump from running for president again in 2024. Only Article II of the Constitution can prescribe the requirements to run for president.

    18 U.S.C. §§ 1519, The “anti-shredding provision” imposes criminal penalties on anyone who (emphasis added) “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation.”

    Intent as we’re (and Trump) is concerned about almost always means specific intent, as opposed to general intent. General intent means the prosecution must prove only that the accused meant to do an act prohibited by law. Whether the defendant intended the act’s result is irrelevant. Specific intent means the accused intentionally committed an act and intended to cause a particular result, a wrongful purpose, when committing that act (U.S. v. Blair.) Merely knowing a result is likely isn’t the same as specifically intending to bring it about. (Thornton v. State.) Note that none of the laws mentioned as possible violations require the documents in question to be classified, though it would be hard to imagine prosecutors could prove something not classified could rise to the level of “injuring the United States.”

    In Trump’s case, based on what we know publicly, intent might play out as follows. On the first charge, the Espionage Act, prosecutors would need to show he kept classified and/or other national security information at Mar-a-Lago with the intent to cause injury to the United States. Similar for the third charge, where prosecutors would need to show he kept classified information and/or other national security info at Mar-a-Lago with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation. The second charge seems more geared toward general intent, that Trump kept classified and/or other national security info at Mar-a-Lago knowing it was wrong without prescribing an outcome (actus reus), such as injury to the U.S. or obstructing an investigation. All easy to say, but hard to prove in court.

    Much of this is over-looked by the Twitteranalysists, who are like Southern Baptists and Satan, assuming the worst always about Trump’s intent to the point where they need not comment. For example, one Blue Check wrote “Will Donald Trump finally face something approximating justice for his five decades or more of apparent and aggressive lawlessness, culminating in a criminal presidency and an attempted coup, with the possibility of treason and criminal espionage? Will the American people finally be rid of this meddlesome would be tyrant-king with millions of followers, leader of a neofascist movement that is literally threatening to uproot and destroy American democracy?”

    Hyperbole aside, the critical question returns to whether or not prosecutors could prove specific intent on Trump’s part for the more serious charges, one and three above. Proving a state of guilty mind — mens rea — would be the crux of any actual prosecution based on the Mar-a-Lago documents. What was Trump thinking at the time, in other words, did he have specific intent to injure the United States (charge one) or to obstruct some investigation (charge three)? Without knowing the exact nature of the documents this is a tough task but even with the documents on display in front of us proving to a court’s satisfaction what Trump wanted to do by keeping the documents would require coworkers and colleagues to testify to what Trump himself had said at the time, and that is unlikely to happen. It is thus unlikely based on what we know at present that Trump would go to jail for any of this.

    Take for example the charges of tax evasion now levied again the Trump Organization (i.e., not Trump personally and not part of the Mar-a-Lago case.) Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg as part of a plea deal will agree to testify against the Organization but not Trump himself as to why the Organization paid certain compensation in the form of things like school tuitions, cars, and the like, all outside the tax system. It will be a bad day for the Organization but loyal to the end, Weisselberg will not testify as to his boss’ mens rea. It is equally unclear who would be both competent and willing to do so against President of the United States Trump. Blue Check enthusiasm aside, he won’t go to jail over this.

    The final questions are probably the most important: DOJ knows what the law says. If knowing the chances of a serious conviction are slight, why would the Justice Department take the Mar-a-Lago case to court? If knowing the chances for a serious conviction are slight, why would the FBI execute a high-profile search warrant in the first place? To gather evidence unlikely ever to be used? No one is above the law, but that includes politics not trumping clean jurisprudence as well. The justice system cannot replace the electoral system in choosing the next president.

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