The Trump classified documents case has turned into an espionage case

The New York Times’ new examination of the ties between the now-indicted Donald Trump and Australian multibillionaire Anthony Pratt, the man Trump is alleged to have divulged U.S. nuclear submarine secrets to, is full of more curiosities than it’s possible to sort out.

The most consequential revelation, however, is that prosecutors working for special counsel Jack Smith who have been questioning witnesses about Trump’s revelation of classified information to Pratt may now have significant evidence that Trump offered the disclosure as part of a larger pattern of favor-trading between the two men. And that may turn what began as an investigation into retention of classified documents to a full-blown espionage case.

The original reports of Trump quasi-confidentially telling Pratt of two highly classified U.S. national security secrets—the number of nuclear weapons U.S. submarines normally carry and how close those submarines can get to Russian subs without detection—were baffling. Trump is alleged to have told Pratt during a casual conversation at Mar-a-Lago. Pratt, for his part, allegedly went on to relay the information to “at least 45” other people, including “six journalists, 11 of his company’s employees, 10 Australian officials, and three former Australian prime ministers.”

Pratt’s industries center around packaging materials. Not only was he an unlikely confidant when discussing top U.S. defense secrets, but also the reasons Pratt would then widely share the secrets with so many others are even less explicable. The newest Times piece, however, clarifies the Pratt-Trump relationship as a transactional one.

Pratt joined Mar-a-Lago only after Trump won the presidency, and was soon plying Trump with millions in order to maintain and boost his apparently plentiful access to the man. Pratt’s wife donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration; Pratt at one point took out a full page Wall Street Journal ad praising Trump; and a witness told prosecutors of an instance in which Pratt allegedly paid $1 million for a tickets to a Mar-a-Lago New Year’s Eve gala—an amount vastly in excess to the normal actual ticket prices, which were “$50,000 or less.”

That $1 million was not a Trump campaign donation or similar electoral favor. It allegedly went to Trump’s business and Trump’s business alone. The Times also reports that Pratt boasted of paying indicted Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani roughly $1 million to attend his birthday party. “Rudy is someone that I hope will be useful one day,” Pratt is recorded as saying.

For these and other donations to Trump’s businesses and allies, Pratt received a seat in a presidential motorcade, appearances alongside Trump, influence with Trump Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, and favorable tax policies that enormously boosted Pratt’s own wealth.

In a context in which Pratt was regularly shoveling money into Mar-a-Lago and was receiving special treatment from Trump in exchange, Trump’s revelation of nuclear submarine capabilities just three months after losing the presidency now looks different. It may have been a transaction itself, part of Trump’s efforts to prove to Pratt that he still could offer Pratt things of value.

When Pratt went on to widely brag of receiving the defense secrets both to his business contacts and to Australian government officials, it suggests that Pratt did believe Trump’s information could be used to boost his own credibility and apparent access.

Smith’s prosecutors are known to have taken conspicuous interest in Trump’s conversation with Pratt and in Pratt’s own dissemination of the secrets, and it’s now clear why. Was Trump truly an incompetent, bragging about some of the most closely guarded military secrets the nation has because the man could not, in his mind, grasp that these were not topics for idle conversations with Mar-a-Lago members? Or was Trump offering classified military information in exchange for something?

There’s now already a pretty good case to be made that the relationship was a transactional one—so says Pratt himself in conversations and documents—and that Trump did indeed offer the secrets up for his own monetary gain.

And that exchange fits squarely into the Espionage Act.

Prosecutors are no doubt probing to determine whether Pratt did any particular favor for Trump in return—but they may not necessarily have to. Not all espionage cases rely on a specific tit-for-tat of specific secrets for specific cash; espionage also describes transactions in which a mole or informant offers information broadly in exchange for favors or stipends. Any corrupt politician worth their salt knows that you do not publicly link the gold bars you have received from a benefactor to any particular favor provided on your part.

Trump was not, in this relationship, blurting out military secrets for the sake of conversation. It was an obvious signal: I still know things. Your time here at Mar-a-Lago can still be of great value to you—assuming, of course, the gifts continue.

Whether Smith’s prosecutors will bring such charges against Trump is anybody’s guess. It would be a more difficult case to prove than the discovery of arrays of classified documents scattered throughout Mar-a-Lago in bathrooms, utility closets, and desk drawers. The felony charges already leveled against Trump may not even be consequently enhanced by adding actual espionage to the indictment. It likely depends entirely on whether prosecutors find a second example of this secrets-for-favors relationship. If they do, it would become difficult to rationalize not adding espionage to Trump’s list of alleged crimes.

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