CNN  — 

Republican defenders of Donald Trump won’t or can’t answer the questions that are at the root of the intrigue over why classified documents were at Mar-a-Lago and the troubling question of whether national security was put at risk.

The fact that top Senate Republicans are continuing to downplay Trump even having the documents, in favor of casting doubt on the conduct of the Justice Department and FBI, speaks to his enduring clout in the party, regardless of the depth of his legal issues and the potential national security implications for the country.

At one end of the scale is Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a firm Trump backer who is often mentioned as a future presidential candidate once the ex-President finally exits the political stage. Hawley promoted Trump’s line that the key issue was the FBI search of an ex-President’s home, not what he might have kept there.

“I don’t know what he has or doesn’t have, but what I have a lot of concerns about is the FBI raiding the home of the likely presidential nominee in 2024, the former President of the United States, and particularly as we learn more and more about what’s going on with the FBI,” Hawley told CNN’s Manu Raju on Wednesday.

The senator dodged when asked whether it was ever acceptable for a former president to keep classified material at a private residence.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” the Missouri Republican said. “Some of it depends on if you declassified them or not, the procedures are, what’s in the documents. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I think this is totally pretextual.”

Hawley also claimed that the late Sandy Berger, who served as national security adviser in the Clinton administration, had taken classified material home and nothing was done to him. In fact, Berger was fined $50,000 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service after admitting to illegally removing classified documents from the National Archives.

The Mar-a-Lago drama placed Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in a delicate spot between his fall reelection and his position as the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In an interview with NBC 6, a Miami TV station, he downplayed the entire affair by diminishing the seriousness of the Department of Justice’s investigation.

“This is really, at its core, a storage argument that they are making,” said Rubio, adding, “I don’t think a fight over storage of documents is worthy of what they have done, which is a full scale raid.”

According to a recently unsealed search inventory, Trump had classified documents mixed in with personal items and other materials in boxes and in his office. Previously unsealed documents showed that FBI agents took away 11 sets of classified documents from the former President’s Palm Beach residence and resort, including some marked as “top secret/SCI” – one of the highest levels of classification. The government has recovered at least 325 unique classified documents from Mar-a-Lago, according to court filings describing Trump’s turnover of materials in January, the subpoenaed documents he returned to the Justice Department in June and the seized material from August’s FBI search.

And The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that among items taken from Mar-a-Lago by the FBI was a document outlining a foreign power’s nuclear weapons program.

An uncomfortable political spot for Trump’s GOP enablers

Trump and his legal team have been unable to effectively answer questions that have caused alarm among former intelligence professionals and officials who understand the serious penalties they would face if they break the rules about classified materials.

And these are not hypothetical questions. Even the possibility that vital intelligence has been compromised could cause severe disruption to the country’s clandestine capabilities. It could force officials to potentially shut down or even remove foreign assets from dangerous situations. The subsequent loss of vital intelligence could be disastrous. If intelligence related to foreign friends of the US were exposed, it could hamper vital sharing of secret information in the future.

Trump and his allies have filled the vacuum for answers with a smokescreen of unproven claims, including that Trump declassified the material or that it might have been planted by the FBI in order to persecute him. His legal team’s latest gambit was to argue, preposterously, that of course he would have classified documents since he is an ex-president.

Ex-Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly questioned publicly what his former boss was doing with classified material. There has been speculation that Trump might want such material as keepsakes or as some kind of leverage in a future business deal. But none of this is informed given the secrecy sounding the DOJ’s investigation.

US Attorney General William Barr, left, meets with members of the St. Louis Police Department, October 15, 2020, in St. Louis, Missouri. - The officers are among several in the department who have been shot in the line of duty this year. (Photo by Jeff Roberson / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JEFF ROBERSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Bill Barr shares thoughts on a potential Trump indictment
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In response to Trump’s actions, Republican senators have danced around his behavior – or simply thrown in their lot with the ex-President in the knowledge that their future political aspirations depend on his supporters.

Rubio, for example, appeared far less relaxed about “storage” issues for classified material in 2016 when he rebuked then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over State Department emails found on her private email server by the FBI.

“Hillary Clinton’s conduct as Secretary of State and her mishandling of classified information was disgraceful and unbecoming of someone who aspires to the presidency,” Rubio said in a statement in July 2016.

“There is simply no excuse for Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up a home-cooked email system which left sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies. Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk.”

There were indeed serious issues raised by the practice of Clinton and her aides viewing sensitive material outside official State Department email accounts. But equally, one great concern about the classified material found at Mar-a-Lago is that it may have been vulnerable to outside exploitation by foreign intelligence agencies or could be seen by Americans without proper security clearances.

The FBI said in 2016 that of 30,000 emails Clinton provided to the State Department from her server, 110 contained classified information at the time they were sent or received. Of those, eight of the email chains contained information classified as “top secret” at the time they were sent or received and 36 chains contained “secret” information. Then-FBI Director James Comey criticized Clinton for carelessness but concluded that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against her on the basis of evidence found and applicable laws.

Even if Trump did have material to which he was entitled as an ex-president, the apparently haphazard way in which he kept it would contravene every accepted standard for storing such information. Many such documents are only available to those with requisite government security clearances in secure facilities known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or a SCIF.

Trump’s legal exposure

Trump, who has not been charged with a crime, has repeatedly said Clinton should be locked up for her handling of classified material.

The FBI search warrant of his home revealed the investigation is related to at least three potential crimes – violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records.

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Trump's contentious history with the FBI
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Some of Trump’s allies have argued that he would be a victim of a double standard if he were charged while Clinton was not. It will not be possible to make a genuine comparison of the two cases, however, until more information about Trump’s conduct is revealed – and much of it remains under seal as the investigation goes on.

Another Republican, South Dakota’s John Thune, who’s the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, took a more neutral line on the Trump question, though he called for more transparency from the DOJ. He told reporters that the rules for handling classified information “are pretty clear.”

But he also called the FBI search of Trump’s luxury resort an “extreme measure” and “unprecedented,” adding that “there’s got to be a really good justification, which at some point maybe they will share with us.”

The comments from senators like Thune, Rubio and Hawley are essentially holding positions, seemingly designed to spare them the maximum political embarrassment and vulnerability. If the darkest interpretations of Trump’s conduct are confirmed when more information is revealed, they may not be sustainable for long.