WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is caught in a push-pull on new details of John F. Kennedy‘s assassination, jammed between students of the killing who want every scrap of information and intelligence agencies that are said to be counselling restraint. How that plays out should be known Thursday, when long-secret files are expected to be released.
On one side is an alliance of sleuths and scholars pushing for Trump to mind the 1992 law that requires the release this week of all 3,150 still-secret files on Kennedy’s killing on Nov. 22, 1963. For them, Trump has tweeted his intent to “allow the release of the long blocked and classified JFK FILES.”
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But U.S. intelligence agencies are apparently citing the same law to urge him to keep some files out of public sight on national security grounds. For this group, Trump’s tweet offered a caveat that he intends to disclose the materials “subject to the receipt of further information.”
Students of the assassination say the CIA is pushing Trump to keep some of the materials secret. The spy agency isn’t denying that.
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“Clearly there are documents, plural, files, plural, being appealed to him,” said University of Virginia historian Larry Sabato, an authority on Kennedy. Of the pressure on Trump, Sabato said, “I’m told reliably that it continues and that it has intensified.” The historian said documents generated in the 1990s that could contain the names of people who are still alive are of particular concern to those who want files held back.
Whatever details are released, they’re not expected to answer the major – and for many, still-lingering – question of whether anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald was involved in the assassination, including the government. The Warren Commission in 1964 reported that Oswald had been the lone gunman, and another congressional probe in 1979 found no evidence to support the theory that the CIA had been involved. But other interpretations, some more creative than others, have persisted.
For example, Roger Stone, a close Trump ally, advanced the unsubstantiated and widely disdained theory that Lyndon Johnson, who became president upon Kennedy’s death, was involved in it.
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Stone is not sure key documents will see the light of day. He said that 440 documents related to the assassination, released by the National Archives in July, were so heavily redacted “on the basis of ‘national security’ that they are useless.” Stone said he’s lobbied Trump personally to release all remaining materials and believes the CIA is pushing the president to keep some secret.
In 1992, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which directed the National Archives to collect all information related to the assassination and release it within 25 years, barring exceptions designated by the president. The deadline is Thursday.
The gunshots that the Warren Commission said killed Kennedy almost immediately inspired theories about whether Oswald had been the lone gunman who, with extraordinary luck by any measure, had hit his target.
As the nation mourned in disbelief, Oswald was shot and killed in police custody by Jack Ruby – forcing Americans to consider whether their government was hiding what it knew of the assassination. The event remains in the nation’s living memory for a significant slice of the country. Forty-nine million Americans, or 15 per cent of the country, are age 65 and over, according to the Census Bureau. They were around age 11 or older at the time.
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The Warren Commission did little to settle the matter. Theories abounded that Oswald’s murder was a coverup for a conspiracy or government ineptitude. The deadly aim of a lonely, alienated gunman seemed hard to fathom.
“A gnat simply does not kill a lion,” is how Saul Pett of The Associated Press described what was fueling the search for answers. He wrote the introduction to the Warren Report.
Trump has seen fit to peddle conspiracies when they suit him as part of a broader appeal to supporters who don’t trust the government.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly quoted a tabloid story that claimed the father of GOP rival Ted Cruz had been photographed with Oswald before the shooting. That’s never been confirmed – Trump later said he was only quoting what he’d read. But the release of JFK files this week could provide new details.
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Trump also trafficked for years in the baseless theory that President Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. He also falsely accused Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of starting that rumour. The president also, without evidence, accused Obama of wiretapping his office in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community also has been fraught. One of Trump’s first stops as president was at the CIA’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, where he made a speech that focused more on falsely accusing the media of lying about how many people attended his inauguration than on the CIA’s work protecting the United States.
Intelligence officials in Trump’s administration, however, say that the president meets regularly – if not daily – with the nation’s top spy chiefs and has become a voracious consumer of intelligence.
Whatever Trump decides to release, historians expect to comb it for an array of details, particularly on six days Oswald spent in Mexico City just before the assassination. Oswald said he was visiting the Cuban and Soviet Union embassies there to get visas, but much about his time there remains unknown.
They will also look for any mention – or absence – of Cruz’s father.
Of key interest are any new details about Oswald, including any government ineptitude or coverup. The 1992 law allows the president to withhold details that could compromise the government’s sources and methods – but not embarrassments.
“In any release of this size, there always are embarrassing details,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University.