Audio undercuts Trump’s assertion he did not have classified document
Former President Donald J. Trump faces 31 counts of willfully retaining national defense secrets.
By MAGGIE HABERMAN and ALAN FEUER
An audio recording of former President Donald Trump in 2021 discussing what he called a “highly confidential” document about Iran that he acknowledged he could not declassify because he was out of office appears to contradict his recent assertion that the material he was referring to was simply news clippings.
Portions of a transcript of the two-minute recording of Trump were cited by federal prosecutors in the indictment of Trump on charges that he had put national security secrets at risk by mishandling classified documents after leaving office and then obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them.
The recording captured his conversation in July 2021 with a publisher and writer working on a memoir by Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows. In it, Trump discussed what he described as a “secret” plan regarding Iran drawn up by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department. Trump was citing the document in rebutting an account that Milley feared having to keep him from manufacturing a crisis with Iran in the period after Trump lost his reelection bid in late 2020.
The audio, which is likely to feature as evidence in Trump’s trial in the documents case, was played for the first time in public Monday by CNN and was also obtained by The New York Times.
Last week, in an interview with Fox News host Bret Baier, Trump insisted that he was not presenting classified material in the meeting, which was recorded at Trump’s golf club at Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump said he was not referring to any “secret” or “highly confidential” documents, but was rather talking about “newspaper stories, magazine stories and articles.”
But the audio recording of the full encounter suggests that Trump was referring not to secondhand accounts, but instead to a specific piece of paper, or papers, in front of him.
Joining Trump at the meeting at Bedminster were those working on an autobiography of Meadows as well as at least two of Trump’s own aides. Trump, in his own narration, seems to brandish or point to what he described to his visitors as a document — described in the indictment as a “plan of attack” — apparently to rebut a story published a week earlier in The New Yorker that described Milley’s concern that Trump could launch a strike against Iranian interests that he could use to help create a justification to remain in office.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Trump says as he shuffles through what he calls “a big pile of papers,” which he can be heard handling on the recording.
“This thing just came up,” Trump says, adding: “This was him. This was the Defense Department and him.”
“Wow,” a woman in the room can be heard saying, followed by a rustling of papers.
“Let’s see here,” Trump says, adding, “Look.” There is a brief pause, during which he appears to show people in the room something, and they start to laugh.
“This totally wins my case, you know,” he says, adding that the papers were “highly confidential, secret. This is secret information.”
“Isn’t that incredible?” Trump says later, adding, “This was done by the military and given to me.”
Then he appears to lean into a suggestion for the book writers. “I think we can probably, right?” Trump says. A woman responds, “I don’t know, we’ll have to see, you know, we’ll have to try to figure out a —”
“Declassify it,” Trump says. “See, as president I could have declassified it, but now I can’t.”
“Now we have a problem,” the woman says, laughing.
“It’s so cool,” Trump says, eventually calling out for someone to bring in Coca-Cola to drink.
In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, avoided commenting on the bulk of the recording’s content related to the candidate’s discussion of sensitive material and instead focused on a quip Trump made during the meeting about former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s role in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
“The audio tape provides context proving, once again, that President Trump did nothing wrong at all,” Cheung said, adding that Trump was “speaking rhetorically and also quite humorously about” Weiner, and accusing “the media and the Trump-haters” of taking “the bait.”
Some of Trump’s lawyers have been aware of the recording since March, when one of the aides who attended the meeting, Margo Martin, was asked about it during an appearance before the grand jury, according to a person familiar with the events. Investigators working under special counsel Jack Smith subpoenaed her copy of the tape after that appearance.
The full clip undercuts arguments made by some of Trump’s allies that he was simply blustering and exaggerating or mischaracterizing the material he described in the recording.
The indictment charges Trump with illegally holding on to 31 individual national security documents and with conspiring with one of his personal aides, Walt Nauta, to obstruct the government’s repeated efforts to reclaim the records.
Nauta is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges in U.S. District Court in Miami on Tuesday. As part of the conditions of Trump’s release from his own arraignment, he was ordered not to speak about the case to Nauta or to a list of 84 witnesses who took part in the special counsel investigation.