Audio Undercuts Trump’s Assertion He Did Not Have Classified Document
An audio recording of former President Donald J. 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 Mr. Trump were cited by federal prosecutors in the indictment of Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows. In it, Mr. Trump discussed what he described as a “secret” plan regarding Iran drawn up by Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department. Mr. Trump was citing the document in rebutting an account that General Milley feared having to keep him from manufacturing a crisis with Iran in the period after Mr. Trump lost his re-election bid in late 2020.
The audio, which is likely to feature as evidence in Mr. Trump’s trial in the documents case, was played for the first time in public on Monday by CNN and was also obtained by The New York Times.
Listen to the Tape of Trump Discussing a Sensitive Document
Last week, in an interview with the Fox News host Bret Baier, Mr. Trump insisted that he was not presenting classified material in the meeting, which was recorded at Mr. Trump’s golf club at Bedminster, N.J. Mr. 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 Mr. Trump was referring not to secondhand accounts, but instead to a specific piece of paper, or papers, in front of him.
Joining Mr. Trump at the meeting at Bedminster were those working on an autobiography of Mr. Meadows as well as at least two of Mr. Trump’s own aides. Mr. 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 General Milley’s concern that Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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?” Mr. 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?” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump says, eventually calling out for someone to bring in Coca-Cola to drink.
In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. 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 Mr. Trump made during the meeting about former Representative Anthony D. 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,” Mr. Cheung said, adding that Mr. Trump was “speaking rhetorically and also quite humorously about” Mr. Weiner, and accusing “the media and the Trump-haters” of taking “the bait.”
Some of Mr. 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 the special counsel Jack Smith subpoenaed her copy of the tape after that appearance.
The full clip undercuts arguments made by some of Mr. Trump’s allies that he was simply blustering and exaggerating or mischaracterizing the material he described in the recording.
The indictment charges Mr. 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.
Mr. Nauta is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges in Federal District Court in Miami on Tuesday. As part of the conditions of Mr. Trump’s release from his own arraignment, he was ordered not to speak about the case to Mr. Nauta or to a list of 84 witnesses who took part in the special counsel investigation.
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT
Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence. He joined The Times in 1999. @alanfeuer
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