Why it's in Trump’s best interests to release all of the JFK assassination files now

  • Trump's self-imposed deadline for the release of several thousand classified documents expires this Thursday.
  • Trump had delayed the release last October, citing security concerns raised by the CIA and FBI.
  • The latest batch of documents to be released presents an opportunity for Trump to score political points and change the news cycle.
President John Kennedy
Arnold Sachs | Archive Photos | Getty Images
President John Kennedy

Americans love a good conspiracy theory, and none more than the mysteries surrounding the assassination of former Pres. John F. Kennedy. Although the event happened over 50 years ago, global interest in the event has only grown stronger with the passage of time.

As recently as 2013, 61 percent of Americans surveyed by CBS News still believed that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of President Kennedy, countering the government's official narrative of events. The public's appetite for books, investigative journalism, and even feature films regarding this topic has proved nearly insatiable over the years.

Thursday will potentially mark another major milestone in the JFK assassination saga. Donald Trump has promised to release the final batch of classified government documents relating to the incident – and it would be a smart political move for him to do so.

For too long the government has attempted to deal with the American public's perception that there was (or is) some sort of a cover-up in piecemeal fashion - stoking rather than quieting Americans' suspicions that something in the JFK story is awry. Trump has the opportunity to enable all the remaining sealed documents regarding this historically significant event to see light of day and it would behoove him to do so.

Conspiracy theories abound

In 1992, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. Before the law was passed, the files were actually scheduled to be kept under seal until 2029. But Oliver Stone's hit 1991 film, JFK, which posited an alternative explanation of events, caused a public uproar, with Americans reaching out to their elected officials en masse, calling for the case to reexamined.

The outcry forced Congress to move the scheduled release dates of sensitive JFK-era documents; lawmakers hoped that the Act would quiet some of the more fervorous conspiracy theories that tried to weave in the mob, Fidel Castro, the Russians and even the CIA into the plot to kill Kennedy.

As a result, millions of pages were made public during the mid-1990s. Several thousand other documents, initially held back because of national security concerns, were supposed to have been released last October, on the 25th anniversary of the law's passage; yet Trump, yielding to some last-minute objections from the CIA and FBI, decided to withhold several thousand of these files for an additional six months. That six-month extension ends this Thursday.

John R. Tunheim, the current Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota was appointed by President Clinton to chair the Assassination Records Review Board and has seen all the classified documents that have yet to be released.

"Don't hold your breath – the public shouldn't expect any bombshells or dramatic revelations in the documents that the President has yet to release," Judge Tunheim told me. "When people hear that the CIA is against releasing some these documents, they erroneously assume that they are trying to protect deep state secrets; but I can assure you that's not the case – they are just trying to protect names and methods and, in some cases, personal privacy issues of people who still may be alive."

Trump can claim transparency

Pres. Trump has been under siege in recent weeks juggling the Mueller inquiry into potential Russian meddling in the US elections, the mounting legal problems of his personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, the Stormy Daniels affair, and the general maelstrom of personnel issues revolving around his White House and cabinet. Politically, it would serve Trump well to release all remaining sealed documents to the public.

The President could take a victory lap and claim that only under his administration has the government finally come clean about everything it knows regarding the JFK assassination. Despite the ongoing questions about his own transparency in his personal business dealings, he could raise the flag of transparent government over the JFK issue.

But Trump, could even go one step further. According to the Mary Ferrell Foundation, a research foundation, there are an additional 21,890 documents still being withheld in full or in part that are not part of this batch of documents that Trump is scheduled to potentially release on Thursday.

Judge Tunheim confirmed to me that there are in fact up to 30,000 additional JFK-related documents in the National Archives that his Commission received towards the end of his mandate and which were determined to not be directly relevant to the JFK assassination inquiry.

"These additional documents never went through the traditional declassification process, because they were not determined to be directly relevant to the JFK case at that time," said Judge Tunheim. "In a few cases of which I'm aware, new evidence or facts have come to light in recent years that would make some of these documents perhaps tangentially relevant to the JFK case. I think it would be a smart move for the President - in an effort for complete transparency - to call for all of these documents housed in the National Archives to be released to the public as well."

If Trump were to not only declassify the remaining documents that he promised to put into the public realm last fall, but also announce that he was going to unseal the tens of thousands of files still in the National Archives, it would be a news story there would receive widespread media attention - changing, albeit for perhaps only a few new cycles - the wall-to-wall coverage of the scandals brewing in the Trump White House.

If there's one thing that Pres. Trump is really good at, it's manipulating the media – and the intense public interest surrounding all things related to the assassination of Pres. Kennedy provides the perfect ingredients for our Entertainer-in-Chief to massage and control the next few new cycles, deflecting journalists' attention away with a shiny new object.

Commentary by Arick Wierson, a six-time Emmy Award-winning television executive and former deputy commissioner under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Currently, Wierson works as a political and branding consultant to clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. He is currently advising candidates in U.S. House races in Southern California, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as several state gubernatorial candidates in Brazil. You can follow him on twitter @ArickWierson.

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