Federal prosecutors investigating former President Donald J. Trump’s handling of classified material have a 2021 recording of Mr. Trump discussing a sensitive military document he kept after leaving the White House, two people said informed on the matter.
In the recording, Trump hinted that he knew the document was classified and had not declassified it, said a person familiar with the matter.
The existence of the recording could undermine Trump’s repeated claim that he had already declassified material left in his possession after he left office. Prosecutors are examining whether Mr. Trump obstructed federal officials’ efforts to recover documents he took with him after leaving office and whether he violated laws governing the handling of classified material.
The existence of the recording was previously reported from CNN.
The recording was made during a meeting Trump held in July 2021 with people who helped his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, write a memoir of his 10 months in the White House, according to people briefed on the matter. . The meeting was held at Mr. Trump’s club in Bedminster, NJ, where he spends the summers.
Until now, the focus of the investigation into the documents has largely been on material Trump kept with him at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida, rather than New Jersey.
Mr. Meadows did not attend the meeting, but at least two of Mr. Trump’s aides did. One, Margo Martin, regularly recorded the interviews she gave for the books written about him that year.
During the recording, Mr. Trump began ranting against his handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, who was described in media reports at the time as having guarded against Trump’s attack against Iran in the final days of the presidency, according to people briefed on the matter.
Mr. Trump then began referring to a document he was carrying, saying it was compiled by General Milley and was related to the attack on Iran, people briefed on the matter said. Among other comments, he mentioned his classification skills during the discussion, said a person knowledgeable on the matter. Mr. Trump can be heard handling the paper on the tape, although it is unclear if it was the document in question.
The Justice Department has obtained the record in recent months, a potentially key piece in a mountain of evidence prosecutors have amassed under Special Counsel, Jack Smith, since he was appointed in November to oversee the federal Trump investigation .
Ms. Martin was asked about the tape during a grand jury appearance, according to two of the people briefed on the matter.
In an interview on CNN Wednesday night, James Trusty, a lawyer representing Mr. Trump in the case, indicated that the former president was taking the position that he had declassified materials he brought with him after leaving office.
« When he set out for Mar-a-Lago with boxes of documents that other people packed for him and which he brought, he was the commander in chief, » said Mr. Trusty. « There is no question that he has the constitutional authority as commander in chief to declassify. »
Mr Trusty said officials could prove Mr Trump had declassified the material. But when asked if Mr Trump had declassified the document in question at the Bedminster meeting, Mr Trusty declined to say so.
In total, the government has recovered more than 300 classified documents marked by Trump since he left office. They include a first batch of documents returned in January of last year to the National Archives, another set supplied by Trump aides to the Justice Department in June, material seized by the FBI during its Mar-a-Lago search in August, and a handful found in further research late last year.
One set of documents found by the FBI during the search had the highest level of classification, compartmentalized top secret/sensitive information.
Mr. Trump has long touted what he claimed was his ability to automatically declassify materials and even claimed he could do it with his mind.
His allies insisted he had a standing order to declassify the material when he brought it from the Oval Office to the White House residence, a claim several former senior administration officials have suggested was nonsense. Members of his legal team have warned his assistants not to lean too heavily on that argument as a defense in the documents case.
That claim was brought up most openly by Kash Patel, a close adviser to Mr. Trump who testified before a grand jury under an immunity deal forced upon him by prosecutors.
The tape obtained by the office of the special counsel could help prosecutors disprove any arguments by Mr. Trump that documents he took from the White House after he left office were declassified. It could also help them demonstrate that Mr. Trump was aware that his ability to possess — and display — confidential materials was limited.
Additionally, one of the laws cited by the Justice Department to require the warrant used to search Mar-a-Lago last year, known as the Espionage Act, was enacted by Congress during World War I, decades before President Harry S Truman issued an executive order creating the modern classification system for the executive branch.
Consequently, the Espionage Act makes no reference to whether a document was considered classified. Instead, it criminalizes the unauthorized retention of national defense documents that could be used to harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary.
Investigators asked for witnesses about General Milley in various interviews over several weeks, though they generally didn’t leave it clear what they were looking for.
Investigators have several, if not all, of the book interview tapes that Mr. Trump gave, according to two of the people familiar with the events.
In an interview, Mr. Trump said he didn’t take « anything very urgent » when asked if he had anything in his possession.
Mr. Trump was equivocal when asked if he ever showed people confidential documents after leaving the White House. At a CNN town hall event in May, he said, “Not really. I would have the right. By the way, they were declassified after that.
Mr. Meadows, in his book, seemed to echo Mr. Trump’s statement about General Milley.
« The president recalls a four-page report written by Mark Milley himself, » the book said. “It contained the general’s plan to attack Iran by deploying huge numbers of troops, something he has urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency. President Trump has always denied those requests.”
However, according to a person familiar with the document in question, the report was not written by General Milley and appears to date from an earlier time in the Trump administration, when General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Jim Mattis was the secretary of defense.
General Milley was interviewed by investigators on the matter, according to a person familiar with the discussion.