Katlyn Marie Carter—
According to recent reports, a woodworker, maid, and plumber may be among those called to testify against former U.S. President Donald Trump as he stands trial for his alleged mishandling of presidential records, specifically classified material.
After leaving the White House, Trump took boxes of documents—including more than a hundred classified items—to his residence at Mar-a-Lago. There, he stored them around the property and refused to return the papers to the National Archives despite repeated requests and a subpoena issued by the Department of Justice in the spring of 2022.
Before the FBI seized them in August 2022, the files were reportedly sighted by at least some of the 150 workers employed at the resort and residence. They may be called upon to describe in court what they glimpsed and where the documents were kept. Prosecutors allege that Trump willfully held onto the sensitive files, storing them without proper security and even showing some of them to resort visitors on at least two occasions.
Trump, meanwhile, denies that he did anything wrong. Claiming at various points either that he declassified the documents just by thinking about it or that it remained his prerogative to hang on to the papers, the former president appears largely unconcerned with confidentiality.
The incident of the hoarded classified material has sparked speculation as to why Trump took the files, what he may have done or planned to do with them, and what content they contain. The public doesn’t yet know the full answers to many of these questions. Only those with sufficient security clearance can handle a review of the material in secret since the government has deemed the documents to be sensitive—a fact that has led to delays of the trial.
Suspicion abounds and questions of access pervade the whole debacle, which will culminate in a trial in Florida, currently scheduled to take place in the spring of 2024.
An unexpected historical parallel can be found in 1792, across the Atlantic, in Paris. There, one fall day, a lowly blacksmith led the minister of the interior to a safe hidden in the wall of the royal residence at the Tuileries Palace. Arriving shortly afterward on the floor of the National Convention (France’s legislature), the minister reported that he had discovered a stash of hidden papers kept secret by the disgraced king, Louis XVI.
Deputies immediately suspected the minister himself of having tampered with the material and set to meticulously cataloguing it, while the public imagination was ignited with rumors about what the king had to hide.
Though there was ultimately not much contained in the safe that was not already widely known or suspected, the very fact that the deposed king hid the records served as a powerful indictment of his intentions. The existence of the safe was prominently discussed in the lead up to the trial that ended in Louis XVI’s beheading.
The 1792 document discovery is by no means a direct antecedent of the recent raid of Mar-a-Lago. In the case of Louis XVI, the documents kept in the safe were primarily his personal papers and he was certainly concerned with keeping them safe, if not hidden. Trump, by contrast, had taken the government papers from the White House after leaving office and was apparently not bothered with keeping them confidential so much as keeping them as his own (by hiding them from government officials).
Nonetheless, we can find echoes of the present case in the revolutionary Parisian past, and they stand to tell us something important about representative government. The question of who can and should see what in a government run by and for the people has haunted us since the founding of the first modern representative republics in the late eighteenth century.
What constitutes a government record as opposed to a private paper, and who should decide? What can be justifiably withheld from the public and when is there over-classification? Who can legitimately keep secrets and what can they do with them? These quandaries cut to core of how we think about the role of government officials and the relationship between citizens and the state.
There is also something striking about the role of everyday artisans and workers in testifying to the presence of suspicious papers in both of these cases. Though taking place hundreds of years apart and an ocean away from one another, both incidents speak to the materiality of state secrecy.
There is something tangible about secrets. Often, the revelation that a politician harbors secrets can itself do political damage. For Louis XVI, the damage was dire. We have yet to see what happens in Trump’s trial.
Katlyn Marie Carter is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Her book Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions is part of the Yale University Press Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. She lives in South Bend, IN.