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CLARENCE PAGE: ‘Process?’ No problem, just let Trump ‘think’ about it

Is there no end to the mighty powers of former President Donald Trump?

We were suitably impressed or, at least, astonished when he famously told us in his 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

We were similarly surprised when he claimed to have drawn “1.5 million people” to his swearing-in ceremony despite aerial photos that showed Barack Obama’s crowd to be at least twice as large.

“Throughout my life,” he immodestly tweeted in 2018, “my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”

Right. Yet, those alleged assets pale in comparison to the superpower he revealed in what was expected to be a typical softball interview last week with his conservative pal and Fox News host Sean Hannity.

On the delicate subject of the more than 300 classified documents that the former president took with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, now the subject of an extensive Justice Department investigation, Trump said, no problem, he had declassified the documents.

Oh? Pressing gently as to what sort of declassification process had occurred, Trump shrugged. “There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it,” he said. “You’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.”

Even by thinking about it?

“In other words,” Trump said, “when I left the White House, they were declassified.”

Right. “Process?” What process? To paraphrase a classic line from the film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Trump don’t need no stinkin’ “process.”

But the FBI and the National Archives do. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, as almost everyone who cares knows by now, all outgoing presidents, including Trump, must turn their papers over to the National Archives. Yet Trump has held onto the documents in question, classified and otherwise, like a spoiled child who refuses to share his toys, simply because “They’re mine!”

No, they’re Uncle Sam’s, federal officials insist.

Even as Trump and Hannity taped their interview, Trump’s lawyers were dealt a serious rebuke from a federal judge who has been given the task of sifting through the seized documents to sort out files subject to national security matters or attorney-client privilege.

The so-called special master, Judge Raymond Dearie, challenged the Trump lawyers’ assertion that it could not produce evidence of a declassification for fear that doing so could harm them in future court settings. That reasoning didn’t wash with Dearie, who declared memorably: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that Trump “has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents. … Nor has he established that the current administration has waived that requirement for these documents.”

The panel also said the debate over classification was a “red herring” because declassifying an official document would not change its content or render it personal without addressing “why (Trump) has a personal interest in” those documents.

In other words, “They’re mine” is not enough.

That’s a relief. Dearie was named special master by Florida-based Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, who the Justice Department argued had hamstrung its investigation.

But after the appeals court decision, Cannon modified her decision to exclude documents marked as classified.

Put simply, Trump’s declassification thoughts were not worth the paper they were not printed on.

Presidential actions should not require the Amazing Kreskin, a mind-reading stage musician some of us remember from his television fame in the 1970s, to be the interpreter for today’s presidential actions.

The fact that Trump thinks this comical pseudo-legalistic bait-and-switch would persuade anyone, including his own most loyal — or gullible — supporters, shows his poor regard for the intelligence of his own backers.

Amid other unfolding scandals regarding the last election and the next, that’s really something to think about.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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