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Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of the campaign of Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio.
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally for Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, in Vandalia, Ohio, on Monday.Michael Conroy / AP

Reports on Trump’s behind-the-scenes tape complicate his defense

"As president, I could have declassified," Donald Trump reportedly said on tape about sensitive national security information, "but now I can’t."


For the most part, congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates are rallying behind Donald Trump in response to his federal criminal indictment, without having all of the facts. Reading this CNN report this morning, it seemed obvious that the party probably ought to exercise a bit more caution.

Former President Donald Trump acknowledged on tape in a 2021 meeting that he had retained “secret” military information that he had not declassified, according to a transcript of the audio recording obtained by CNN. “As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t,” Trump says, according to the transcript.

It’s as if satire writers came up with a way to make Trump appear even more guilty.

For those just joining us, let’s briefly revisit our earlier coverage and review how we arrived at this point.

In 2021, Trump was recorded referencing a planning document related to Iran, which the former president took with him after leaving office. The Republican had apparently learned of an article in The New Yorker that referenced Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having played a role in preventing Trump from launching a military offensive against Iran.

This apparently annoyed Trump, who said that he’d held onto a secret war plan related to Iran, which had been prepared by Milley and his team, and which the former president wished he could show to help bolster his point pushing back against the general’s comments.

What’s new are the direct quotes from the recording. (CNN’s report has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, though The New York Times and The Washington Post ran effectively identical accounts.)

“Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this,” Trump reportedly at one point, according to the transcript. “This was done by the military and given to me.”

“Well, with Milley — uh, let me see that, I’ll show you an example. He said that I wanted to attack Iran. Isn’t that amazing? I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up. Look. This was him,” Trump added. “They presented me this — this is off the record, but — they presented me this. This was him. This was the Defense Department and him. We looked at some. This was him. This wasn’t done by me, this was him.”

The former president reportedly went on to say, “All sorts of stuff — pages long, look. Wait a minute, let’s see here. I just found, isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.”

But it’s these 10 words that I keep staring at: “As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t.”

In other words, if this reporting is accurate, Trump (a) acknowledged he’d kept sensitive documents related to national security; (b) recognized the security concerns; (c) shared “highly confidential” information anyway; and (d) undermined his own absurd “declassification” defense with explicit rhetoric about the limits on what he could do as a former president.

The former president was already facing a serious legal dilemma. It now appears even worse.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.