About the Mar-a-Lago documents: why so much paper?

I admit it, I’m having a weird moment right now regarding classified documents. Including the ones that former president Trump stored in an insecure location in his Mar-a-Lago resort.

I work on documents for a living. I write them, edit them, post them, promote them. Some of what I work on ends up in printed books, but most of it lives electronically.

I read on a screen. I write on a screen. I edit on a screen. I review edits on a screen.

Recently, a client returned edits on a document that he’d printed out and read on paper — a few last comments on a long document. This was unusual — probably the first time in five years that I had a client who wasn’t responding on a screen — but he wasn’t a barbarian. He didn’t send me a sheaf of papers. He sent me mobile phone photos of the affected pages that he’d written on. Even though his method used paper, his communication was electronic, and I relatively easily transferred his edits into the document.

Everything about Trump’s documents feels weird

Certainly, nearly everything that ended up in that Mar-a-Lago storage room was created electronically.

My main question is: why was it printed out at all? Why not put it on some secure tablet that can’t be hacked, and on which only the documents that the human reader is allowed to view at that moment are available? You could design the tablet system so that you can’t move anything off of it and it bricks itself when the data on it is no longer supposed to be available.

This has nothing to do with Trump — it has to do with readers and documents with restricted access, whether those readers are some low-level intelligence analyst, a cabinet secretary, or the current president, whoever it is.

It seems as if such a system would also make it easier for the reader to comment and take notes.

Compare this to paper. Paper documents are easy to lose. They’re hard to file. They get separated from their “top secret” folders easily. Trump famously tore documents in half or flushed them down the toilet when he was done with them, causing fits for the presidential archive folks. You can’t do that with electronic documents.

Paper has other problems. It’s easy to photograph and share (which is admittedly also a problem with any sort of screen). Everyone is asking “What if somebody removed the documents from those “top secret” folders and gave them to a foreign agent? That seems dumb. Wouldn’t it be easier to just take a mobile phone photo of the documents and share that?

A paper fetish

Apparently Trump has a paper fetish. His former press secretary Stephanie Grisham discussed it in the quotes in this article.

Grisham noted that Trump simply has a thing for paper — heaps of it, the more jumbled, the better. He even hauled boxes of assorted materials with him when he traveled on Air Force One. “There was no rhyme or reason — it was classified documents on top of newspapers on top of papers people printed out of things they wanted him to read. The boxes were never organized,” Grisham told The Post. “He’d want to get work done on long trips so he’d just rummage through the boxes. That was our filing system.”

Anyone who has flown in Trump’s company can confirm Grisham’s account. When I interviewed candidate Trump in early 2016 aboard his private 757, the pile of disorganized paper on his desk made a striking contrast to the pristine white leather seats and gold-colored hardware. An even larger mess rode in the seat next to him — thousands of pages in all.

It was lunchtime when we took off from a little airport in Virginia to fly to his next rally. Many candidates relieve the monotony of the campaign trail by arranging deliveries of distinctive local fare to their chartered airplanes. But Trump is a picky eater who hates surprises, so he caters exclusively from well-known fast food chains. He was chewing on a lukewarm Chick-fil-A sandwich; a box of waffle fries balanced atop the paper mountain in front of him.

As the plane lifted its nose into the air, gravity pulled at the paper, and — as Trump muttered an expletive and tried in vain to stop it — the heap spilled fries-first into his lap. Though the scene was worthy of Buster Keaton, I managed to stifle a laugh, . . .

When he had managed to reconstruct the mountain and dispose of the waffle fries, Trump blamed the chaos on a disembodied group of tormentors he referred to as “they.” “They want me to look at documents,” he explained. But that made no sense. The world’s fastest reader could not plow through Trump’s mess in the time he would spend on his plane that day, nor would any half-competent “they” believe that the way to bring attention to a document is to bury it among reams of unrelated flotsam. . . .

But if the mass of material was not to be read, what purpose did it serve?

It was a prop, as much a part of the never-ending Trump Show as the make-believe coat-of-arms he had embossed on each leather seat. The mountain of paper showed how very busy and important its owner was.

While everyone is chasing their tails about how the documents got to Mar-a-Lago, who saw them, who moved them, where they were stored, and who might have seen them, I keep wondering why they even exist.

I don’t know what Biden’s paper habits are, but they can’t be as bad as this.

And I am hopeful that we will soon get presidential candidates who are more comfortable with screens than paper — as nearly anyone who does knowledge work these days must be.

I like books. I like paper. But when you have to move documents around, comment on them, secure them, and track them, paper is a liability. I hope this is an area in which the government is moving into the modern era. Because when it comes to secure documents, paper in folders really seems like it ought to be obsolete.

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One Comment

  1. In order to electronically store and transmit classified documents,you have to have hardware, software, communications networks, and facilities that meet rigorous security requirements. For example, typically, electronic devices attached to classified systems don’t even have external drives — you can’t put the documents on electronic media like thumb drives. You need facilities without any windows, and other sufficient physical and operational security measures in place. Be GLAD that these classified documents were NOT available to this man. God only knows how much more damage he could have done. It’s bad enough that he had HUMINT documents, with info about our intelligence agents and informants that could, at a minimum, compromise operations and, at worst, put their lives (and those of their families) at risk. It will be a miracle and just dumb luck if this info didn’t fall into the hands of those who would use it to the detriment of the US and our allies (whose trust will be difficult to regain).