Rubio Blasted Clinton for Her Emails. Now He Says Trump’s Theft of Top-Secret Records Is No Biggie

The Republican Senator and intelligence committee member says it’s just a “storage” issue. Uh huh.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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As the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is one of the US officials who shares the mission of safeguarding the nation’s most important secrets. The committee is responsible for oversight of the intelligence community, and that duty includes the task of ensuring sensitive information is handled appropriately and kept secured. Yet in the aftermath of the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago to seize government records, including classified documents, that Donald Trump had improperly (and perhaps illegally) taken from the White House, Rubio has been one of the loudest voices denouncing the bureau and amplifying the MAGA message that Trump has been unfairly victimized by Democrats and the Deep State. And that’s quite a different position than the one Rubio took regarding Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails at the State Department. 

A few days ago, Rubio pooh-poohed the raid and the entire controversy during an interview with a local Miami news anchor: “This is really at its core a storage argument that they’re making. They’re arguing that there are documents there. They don’t deny that he should have access to those documents. They deny they were not properly stored. I don’t think a fight over storage of documents is worthy of what they’ve done”

Rubio was spinning. The main issue is that Trump, as an ex-president, did not legitimately have the authority to possess these papers. It’s not a question of access. The documents belong to the US government. This is far more than a “fight over storage.” As a senator who chaired the intelligence committee when the Republicans controlled the Senate, Rubio certainly is aware of this. No president or CIA director or FBI chief or any US government official can walk out with top-secret documents when he or she leaves the position. Yet weeks earlier, appearing on Mark Levin’s radio show, Rubio charged that the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump’s possession of government papers was not a justified inquiry. And Rubio, as one of the few members of Congress with regular access to intelligence secrets at the highest level, has direct experience handling such documents and knows that Trump was not adequately protecting these secrets.

Rubio’s stance on the FBI raid is an odd one for an official critically involved with top-secret matters. Yet as he runs for reelection against Rep. Val Demmings (D-Fla.), Rubio has tried to exploit right-wing outrage over the FBI action to bulk up his campaign warchest. He recently zapped out a fundraising email that characterized the bureau’s search of Mar-a-Lago as part of the “radical left’s witch hunt.” (Reality check: the head of the FBI is a Republican who was appointed by Trump.) This letter equated the raid with the practices of a communist tyranny: “I’ll say it plain and simple, using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from Marxist dictatorships, but now, we’re seeing it from the Biden administration.”

Rubio’s plea for donations declared that the FBI visit to Trump’s Florida residence was proof “the Left” is “abusing their power to stop political opponents.” And in demagogic fashion, Rubio attempted to scare contributions out of his marks: “After [the] raid on Mar-a-Lago, how do you think the left plans to use those 87,000 new IRS agents they just voted for? You could be next.” This 87,000 figure is a lie that has been debunked. Rubio was recklessly fueling right-wing paranoia. 

A few years ago, Rubio adopted a much more aggressive approach to the mishandling of government records when Clinton’s emails were the issue. He blasted her as “irresponsible” for using a personal email server for Department of State correspondence and voiced concern that she had made classified information vulnerable to foreign spy services. When FBI director James Comey publicly recommended Clinton not be prosecuted, Rubio proclaimed Clinton’s conduct was “disgraceful” and complained she had left “sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies.” He added, “Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk.”

Rubio lambasted Clinton for setting a poor example for the handling of sensitive and classified information:

Hillary Clinton’s actions have sent the worst message to the millions of hard-working federal employees who hold security clearances and are expected to go to great lengths to secure sensitive government information and abide by the rules. They don’t take their oaths lightly, and we shouldn’t expect any less of their leaders.

Months later, when he was campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, Rubio, noting that Clinton’s private email server had held classified documents, insisted that she was “disqualified to be commander in chief.” He slammed her for believing she was “above the law” and pointed out that if anyone on his staff had mishandled sensitive information they would be fired and prosecuted. (By the way, two little-noticed investigations conducted by Trump’s State Department found that Clinton was not responsible for the mishandling of classified information.)

Now that Trump stands credibly accused of running off with top-secret government records, handling them in an insecure fashion, and refusing to return them, Rubio blows it off as a minor tussle over storage—even though the Justice Department’s court filings indicate these documents contained highly classified information. This week, the Washington Post reported that one of these documents described a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities and that some of the seized records “detail top-secret U.S. operations so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are kept in the dark about them. Only the president, some members of his Cabinet or a near-Cabinet-level official could authorize other government officials to know details of these special-access programs.”

Rubio is an elected watchdog of the intelligence community and a member of the so-called Gang of Eight (the two ranking members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, the House speaker and minority leader, and the Senate majority and minority leaders), which is briefed on the most top-secret subjects. He is supposed to care about the treatment of sensitive material. Yet the politician who once derided Trump for his small hands (and suggested that this condition indicated another anatomical smallness) now seems more devoted to Trump than to fundamental national security interests.

This is reminiscent of an episode that occurred when Rubio chaired the intelligence committee. The panel in August of 2020 released a 966-page-long report on Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 election. It noted there was a “direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services” and was full of revelations and findings that showed Trump and his campaign aided and abetted Moscow’s assault on American democracy and sought to exploit it. The report was explosive; it disclosed that Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign’s chief executive, had been in direct contact with a Russian intelligence officer. Though Rubio had okayed the release of the report, he downplayed the Trump-Russia connections it confirmed and tried to apply a pro-Trump spin to the report, insisting the committee “found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election.” He ignored the panel’s own findings linking Manafort to Russian intelligence. Rubio placed politics over national security concerns. 

He appears to be doing that again. Should the Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections, Rubio might well become chair of the intelligence committee once more and, presumably, not care deeply about the possible threat Trump’s heist of top-secret records has posed to US national security. With his cavalier attitude toward the protection of secret material, Rubio might himself pose a national security risk. 

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Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

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