Former President Donald J. Trump told a Fox News anchor in an interview on Monday that he did not carry a classified document with him in a meeting with a book publisher, although he referred to information during that meeting” secret » in his possession.
The July 2021 meeting — at Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, NJ — was recorded by at least two people present, and a transcript describes the former president pointing to a stack of papers and then saying of General Mark A. Milley, who had criticized: “Look. This was him. I was presented with this — this is unofficial, but — I was presented with this. This was him. This was the Department of Defense and him.
In the recording, according to two people familiar with its contents, Mr. Trump can be heard leafing through papers as he talks to an editor and writer working on a book by his latest White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Mr. Trump and people present at the meeting do not explicitly say what document the former president is holding.
According to the transcript, Trump describes the document, which he says shows General Milley’s desire to attack Iran, as « secret » and « like, highly confidential. » He also declares that « as president, I could have declassified him, » adding, « I can’t now, you know, but this is still a secret. »
But in Monday’s interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Trump denied he was referring to an actual document and said he was simply referring to news clippings and magazine pieces.
« There was no document, » Trump insisted. “It was a huge amount of papers and everything else talking about Iran and other things. And it may or may not have been withheld, but that was not a document. I did not have a document itself. There was nothing to declassify. It was newspaper articles, magazine articles and articles.”
Apparently downplaying the information from the recording, he added, « I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Milley doc. »
The audio recording is key evidence in an indictment accusing Trump of illegally withholding 31 sensitive government documents, some of which were highly classified and included information about US nuclear and military capabilities. The indictment was filed this month by Jack Smith, a Justice Department-appointed special counsel, in federal district court in Miami. The prosecution also accused Mr. Trump of conspiring with one of his aides, Walt Nauta, to evade a grand jury subpoena issued last May for all classified material in his possession.
A typed document description of General Milley appears in Mr. Meadows’ book, unattributed and stated as fact.
Criminal defendants usually avoid speaking publicly about the details of any allegations in their case, for fear that their remarks will be used against them. The interview was broadcast on the same day that a federal magistrate judge in Mr. Trump’s case issued a protective order directing him not to disclose any evidence that was turned over to his legal team as part of the discovery process.
While the interview doesn’t appear to violate that order, his remarks represent some of his most effusive comments about the nearly two years federal officials have spent trying to recover material from his presidency that belongs to the government. The comments were also the latest in a series of changing stories he and his allies have offered since it became public that National Archives and Records Administration officials recovered 15 boxes of material from Mr. Trump in January 2022.
At the beginning of the interview with Mr. Baier, Mr. Trump appeared to admit that even after the Justice Department issued a subpoena last year for all confidential documents in its possession, it delayed complying with it until order to separate any personal documents that might have been between them.
« Before I send boxes, I have to take out all my stuff, » Trump said. « These boxes were interspersed with all sorts of things. »
Mr Trump also acknowledged that he had not immediately complied with an earlier request to return government documents to the archives, telling Mr Baier that he had given the archives « some » and claiming: « I was very busy, as you have kind of a view. »
A Trump spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In February 2022, after the public learned that Mr. Trump had returned classified materials to the archives, the former president ordered aides to issue a statement saying they had returned everything to the government. The final statement released by the Trump team did not make that claim.
But the draft of that statement became a focal point of prosecutors who were entering evidence and hearing testimony before a grand jury in Florida, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and his allies have offered evolving explanations for his possession of classified material and repeated refusals to return it. He insisted that the documents all belonged to him as personal documents. He also claimed to have declassified everything he removed before he left the White House, through a so-called standing order that the material be declassified when he left the Oval Office for the White House residence. Former senior White House officials said there was no such order.
And last month, Trump’s lawyers wrote a letter to Congress saying his staff « quickly packed everything into boxes and shipped them to Florida, » giving the impression that Trump himself hadn’t reviewed the material and hadn’t knew what was in the boxes when they were packed.
The prosecution contradicted that claim, with prosecutors saying that Mr. Trump was « personally involved in this process » and « had his boxes, containing hundreds of classified documents, flown from the White House to the Mar- a-Lago ».
In his interview with Mr. Baier, the former president indicated that he sorted some boxes after they were sent from Washington to Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida.
At one point, Mr. Baier asked Mr. Trump why he didn’t just hand over the materials.
“I want to go through the boxes and get all my personal stuff out,” Trump said. « I still don’t want to hand it over to NARA. »