But there is growing evidence that Trump’s pride in his correspondence with Kim could cost him legally, experts say.
Not only were Trump’s letters with Kim apparently so valuable that he chose to show them and take them with him when he left the White House – among other highly sensitive government documents – but now the Washington Post reports that Trump in late 2019 and early 2020 seemed to acknowledge that these letters were indeed highly sensitive government documents.
Ashley Parker reports on the new Trump interview tapes that Bob Woodward of the Post is releasing as an audiobook:
In December 2019, after President Donald Trump shared with journalist Bob Woodward the flattering letters that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had written to him, the US leader seemed to acknowledge that he shouldn’t show them.
After urging Woodward to “treat them with respect,” Trump warns in an interview, “and don’t say I gave them to you, okay? »
“But I’ll let you see them,” Trump adds. “I don’t want you to have them all.”
A month later, in January 2020, Woodward pressed Trump in a phone call to also allow him to see the letters Trump wrote to Kim. “Oh, it’s so top secret,” Trump says, according to notes of the call taken by Woodward and highlighted in a new audiobook: “The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Trump.”
As Parker notes, it is Trump who acknowledges the sensitivity of the documents in his own words. But what could this really mean for the burgeoning investigation into the Mar-a-Lago documents and Trump’s potential legal liability?
There has been evidence that Trump may have been well aware of what he had in his possession, even though he resisted returning the documents when the National Archives and Justice Department came calling. The Washington Post reported that when Trump returned some but almost all of the documents in January, Trump personally oversaw the packing of the boxes “and did so in complete secrecy, refusing to show certain items even to senior aides.” “. The documents had also been requested several months before, which meant that there was ample opportunity to take stock.
What the new interview tapes add is that Trump says, in his own words, that these kinds of documents were “so top secret.” It’s not just saying Trump must have knew what he had; he’s the one talking about specific documents and their sensitivity – before taking them anyway.
From there, it’s worth going over the details and timeline.
The first thing to note is that these conversations took place during Trump’s tenure as president. Trump claimed (at least publicly) that he had declassified the documents. The implication is that while the documents were classified when he spoke with Woodward, they were unclassified when he took them. (There remains no evidence that Trump actually declassified these or any other documents, of course, and his attorneys have conspicuously avoided echoing their client’s public claims.)
Former federal prosecutor Brandon Van Grack said the timing of the conversations means the new evidence is not definitive.
“I think most pre-inauguration conversations will have a limit to their value,” he said, “because it doesn’t answer the question of whether the document has been declassified.”
David Priess, a former CIA officer and classified documents expert who once delivered the president’s daily diary, said Trump could also claim he was using “top secret” in a colloquial rather than a technical sense.
“But that’s weak compared to the growing circumstantial evidence that he knew exactly what he had,” Priess added.
But it’s also less relevant to crimes the government says it investigates, which typically involve obstructing justice and keeping sensitive – but not necessarily classified – documents. And that’s where experts say this new development could be troublesome for Trump.
The subpoena issued by the government in May for the documents requested not only classified documents, but all documents with “classification marks”. So if the documents have been declassified, it’s a bit of a red herring.
“This appears to be further confirmation that there was material at Mar-a-Lago that was highly sensitive,” Van Grack said. “And whether or not there was a declassification order doesn’t change the fact that the information was very sensitive.”
Ashley Deeks, a former deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council who now teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, said Woodward’s revelation “clearly seems to help the government” when it comes to a specific crime. This crime: “willingly” keeping information that could harm national security and not “handing it over to the officer or employee of the United States authorized to receive it”.
“By law, the government must prove that the person possessing national defense information has ‘reason to believe’ that the information ‘could be used to harm the United States or benefit any nation. foreign,” Deeks said.
Deeks added, “The government, I suspect, will have to prove the connection between knowing that the information should not be widely disclosed and knowing that the information could be used to harm the United States or help another government.”
Besides the fact that Trump apparently knew about the sensitivity of the information he took, there is the question of when he made those specific documents he knew were so sensitive.
We recently learned, thanks to another new Trump interview tape, that Trump suggested to Maggie Haberman of The New York Times in September 2021 that he had in fact not taken Kim’s letters when he left. the White House.
“No, I think it has the…I think it’s in the archives, but most of it is in the archives,” Trump said. He added that he had taken “nothing very urgent, no”.
Yet in May 2021, the government specifically cited Kim’s letters among the documents that had not been returned. The National Archives told Trump’s legal team that it was “critical that these original documents be transferred to NARA as soon as possible.” In June 2021, the Archives asked a Trump adviser handling the case to return the letters for FedEx overnight shipping, CNN reported.
Trump returned the letters in January 2021, when the Archives recovered 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago. This is the first known case of documents being returned to the government, and it predates the apparent involvement of the Department of Justice. But it also came eight months after the National Archives specifically requested those documents in May 2021 — a reflection of Trump’s resistance to comply.
Thus, the timeline would seem to indicate that Trump would have been aware that he had these specific documents, in addition to being aware that they were very sensitive, by his own recently revealed admission.
Deeks added, of the law she cited: “It defies belief to think that a person can recognize that certain information is top secret and yet not realize that the information, if revealed, could be used to harm the United States”.