April 26 is the deadline for full disclosure of all of the government’s JFK files, according to this written order of President Trump. Or maybe it isn’t.
The April date was set by Trump last October 26 when the statutory deadline, set by Congress in the 1992 JFK Records Act, arrived with great media fanfare. As news organizations worldwide clamored to know what might be in the last of the government’s JFK files, Trump acceded to pressure from the CIA and delayed full implementation of the law for six months.
According to the Mary Ferrell Foundation, 21,890 JFK files remain wholly or partially secret, thanks to Trump’s agreement. These include key files on CIA and FBI officers who participated in the pre-assassination surveillance of Oswald.
As the JFK deadline approaches for the second time, the question arises: will President Trump deliver on his promise of full disclosure?
Trump’s behavior is difficult to predict but a look at all of his JFK tweets illuminates a subterranean struggle with the CIA that will come to head later this month.
The Illusion of Full Disclosure
Trump favors full disclosure, at least rhetorically. The JFK story is public memory that evokes popular suspicions of hidden power which Trump professes to challenge. With his first tweet on the subject last October, he gave the impression that he had ordered all of the JFK files to be released.
Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 21, 2017
Four days later, Trump tweeted out another drum roll.
The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow. So interesting
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2017
Alas, the long-anticipated release mostly did not take place.
On October 26, 2017, the National Archives made public some 2,800 JFK files–about 10 percent of the records that were, by law, supposed to be made public, NBC News reported, incorrectly, that Trump released “most but not all of the JFK files.” In fact, 90 percent of the files remained secret.
Although many more were released to the National Archives by year’s end, thousands more remain out of public view.
In contemporary lingo, one might say the president cut a deal with the “deep state.” Less dramatically, one could say the president compromised with his intelligence service.
Either way, the bargain was recorded in Trump’s presidential order of October 26, 2017. Trump explained that certain unnamed
executive departments and agencies (agencies) have proposed to me that certain information should continue to be redacted because of national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns. I have no choice –today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our Nation’s security.”
He was referring to the CIA and FBI, which control about 85 percent of the still-secret JFK files. The secret agencies, he said, had thwarted his desire for full disclosure, at least in the moment. In his next tweet, Trump explained the delay.
JFK Files are being carefully released. In the end there will be great transparency. It is my hope to get just about everything to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 20
Trump’s qualifiers were novel and noteworthy. The man who smeared Ted Cruz’s father with a bogus conspiracy theory was suddenly seized by a previously undetected desire to handle JFK information “carefully.”
Trump was no longer promising full disclosure, merely “hoping” for “great transparency.”
He wasn’t promising to deliver everything in the JFK files, only “just about everything.” And, he warned, it was going to take a while.
The Making of a Deal
Trump had indeed received “further information” after October 21. It came from the CIA, which asserted it was not ready to comply with the law.
According to one official who spoke to Reuters about the JFK discussions in the White House, Trump only acceded to the CIA “with deep insistence that this stuff is going to be reviewed and released in the next six months.”
Roger Stone, a Trump confidante and not always reliable source, told the Washington Post that “a very good White House source — not the President — told me that the Central Intelligence Agency, specifically CIA director Mike Pompeo, has been lobbying the President furiously not to release these documents.”
The next day, the president’s Twitter feed disgorged an embedded graphic that described the compromise. The message was not typed by Trump, and it didn’t much sound like Trump.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2017
Later same day Trump then tweeted his version of the understanding that had been reached.
After strict consultation with General Kelly, the CIA and other Agencies, I will be releasing ALL #JFKFiles other than the names and…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2017T
Such were terms of the bargain that Trump struck with the CIA.
The president got a commitment to full disclosure, minus the names of living persons. And he reserved the right to make public JFK files that he could use to belittle his alleged “deep state” enemies.
The CIA obtained Trump’s endorsement of the notion that the coming release of the files will qualify as “full disclosure,” and secured White House support for the mission of putting “any and all conspiracy theories to rest.”
What Will Trump Do?
Suffice it say, what Trump does will be determined by his instincts and his political needs in the moment.
He will likely get the same advice this month that he got last October: that full JFK disclosure poses some kind of threat to national security. Mike Pompeo has moved on to the State Department. His appointed successor, Gina Haspel, is a career CIA officer who will likely be just as adamant about keeping JFK secrets.
So while Trump seems to favor full JFK disclosure for populist political reasons, his closest national security advisers almost certainly do not. Thanks to his own deadline, Trump is going to have to choose. I, for one, truly don’t know what to expect.
I sounded out Larry Sabato, a JFK historian and scholar of the American presidency, about Trump’s dilemma, and he replied.
My bet is Trump will do whatever his new BFF Pompeo recommends. That means CIA will be protected
In short, Trump’s bargain on the JFK files is a work in progress, not a done deal.