Unanswered in Indictment’s Details on Trump’s Hoarding of Documents: Why?

For all the detailed evidence laid out in the 38-count indictment accusing former President Donald J. Trump of holding onto hundreds of classified documents and then obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them, one mystery remains: Why did he take them and fight so hard to keep them?

Mr. Trump’s motive for having thousands of presidential records — including more than 300 classified documents — at Mar-a-Lago, his combination residence and members-only club in Palm Beach, Fla., was not addressed directly in the 49-page indictment filed on Thursday in Miami. The charging document did not establish that Mr. Trump had a broader goal beyond simply possessing the material.

While finding a motive could certainly be useful for prosecutors should Mr. Trump end up at trial, it may not be necessary in proving the legal elements of the case against him. Nonetheless, why Mr. Trump held onto an extensive collection of highly confidential documents and then, prosecutors say, schemed to avoid returning them remains an unanswered question — even after nearly 15 months of investigation by the Justice Department.

The indictment did offer some hints.

It described how Mr. Trump, who often focuses on payback against perceived enemies, brandished a classified “plan of attack” against Iran at a meeting in July 2021 at Bedminster, his golf club in New Jersey, as a way to rebut what he perceived to be criticism from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a recording of the meeting, Mr. Trump can be heard rustling paper and telling those around him that the document in question proved that he was right in his dispute with General Milley.

“This totally wins my case, you know,” he said.

In other instances in the indictment, an aide to Mr. Trump describes the materials he was carting around with him in the boxes as “his papers,” something he did while he was president, suggesting he was not ready to let go of the perks of holding the highest office in the country.

In a similar fashion, the indictment depicts Mr. Trump as trying to stop a lawyer he hired to help him search Mar-a-Lago for any classified material still in his possession from actually going through the records he kept at the property.

“I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes,” Mr. Trump is quoted as saying, expressing a kind of personal ownership over the material. “I really don’t.”

His sense of personal ownership was so pervasive that his aides, in text messages included in the indictment, were plainly anxious about moving them too far away from him.

Several former aides and advisers to Mr. Trump have long made the argument that he simply kept the sensitive records because he saw them as “mine,” and because he likes acquiring trophies that he can show off, whatever form those trophies may take.

When he was a businessman showing off as a playboy in Manhattan, Mr. Trump tried to be seen with attractive women. He bought the Plaza Hotel and called it a “toy” for his wife at the time, Ivana.

He collected high-end trinkets to brandish for visitors to his 26th-floor office, like the basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s giant sneaker, which lay with a pile of other items.

He treated the nation’s secrets similarly while in office. Mr. Trump shared highly classified intelligence during an Oval Office meeting in 2017 with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. He posted a classified photo on Twitter in 2019 of a failed Iranian rocket launch, telling senior aides who wanted to remove the classification markings that that was the “sexy part.”

During their investigation of the case, prosecutors working for the special counsel Jack Smith took steps that indicated they were hunting for a motive.

For instance, they subpoenaed information about business dealings that Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, had with seven foreign countries from the time his presidency began in 2017, appearing to try to determine whether any of the documents could have been used to aid his ventures abroad. But there was no reference in the indictment to Mr. Trump using the documents for business deals.

Late last year, as public reports made clear that prosecutors believed Mr. Trump still had classified material in his possession, one of Mr. Trump’s friends-turned-adversaries, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, offered a simple explanation.

“I think it’s much more likely they’re a trophy that he walks around and says, look, I’ve got this,” Mr. Christie, who is now campaigning for president against Mr. Trump in the Republican primary, told ABC News. “I’ve got this classified document or that, because remember something: He can’t believe he’s not president.”

Mr. Christie went on, “He can’t believe he still doesn’t get these documents, and he needs to display to everybody down at Mar-a-Lago or up in Bedminster during the summer he still has some of those trappings.”

He suggested it was why Mr. Trump had a reproduction of the Oval Office Resolute Desk put into his office at Mar-a-Lago.

“All the rest of those things are things that are assuaging, you know, his disappointment and his disbelief that he’s not the president anymore,” he said.

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT

Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence. He joined The Times in 1999. @alanfeuer

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