According to a report from CNN, the National Archives is preparing to hand over 16 records to the Justice Department, challenging former President Donald Trump’s assertion that the documents he took to Mar-a-Lago were automatically declassified. Trump has consistently maintained that he possessed the authority to declassify any documents, even suggesting that he could do so with his thoughts alone. During a recent CNN town hall, he claimed that the documents became automatically declassified upon his possession of them.
Shortly after the town hall, the acting Archivist, Debra Steidel Wall, sent a letter to Trump, notifying him of the agency’s intention to provide records pertaining to the question of whether, why, and how he should declassify specific classified records. Trump attempted to impede special counsel Jack Smith’s access to these records, citing a privilege claim that was ultimately rejected by Wall. In her letter, Wall highlighted that Smith was ready to present compelling arguments to the court, explaining why it is probable that the 16 records contain evidence crucial to the grand jury’s investigation.
CNN reported that these records could potentially yield vital evidence regarding the former president’s awareness of the declassification process. Additionally, they may shed light on Trump’s intentions and whether he willfully disregarded established protocols that were clearly defined. Jim Trusty, an attorney representing Trump, stated in an interview with CNN that Trump relied on his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to effectively declassify and personalize the documents he took home.
Trump also alleged the existence of a “standing order” that authorized him to declassify the documents he possessed. However, 18 former high-ranking officials from the Trump administration, speaking to CNN, claimed to be unaware of any such order and dismissed the assertion as ludicrous, ridiculous, and entirely fictional.
Noah Bookbinder, a former federal prosecutor and president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, cautioned that although it has never been a credible legal argument that Trump could unilaterally declassify documents without due process, the reports suggesting that prosecutors obtained records revealing Trump and his advisors’ familiarity with the actual process could have significant consequences.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, took to Twitter, suggesting that Jack Smith’s investigation directly challenges Trump’s defense of “declassification by mere thought.” He noted that presenting the jury with the authentic process makes it more challenging for Trump to rely on such a defense.
The National Archives letter specified that the documents would be handed over by May 24, unless a court order intervenes. Elie Honig, a legal analyst for CNN, predicted that Trump would likely contest this move in court. However, Honig emphasized that Trump’s track record in attempting to block testimonies and document transfers in court, using dubious privilege claims, has been consistently unsuccessful. Honig stated that Trump has had zero victories in executive privilege cases and would likely face another defeat if he challenges this particular matter.
Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance explained that Trump’s understanding of declassification is fundamentally flawed. Vance suggested that if a trial ensues, individuals with experience in the intelligence community will effectively educate the jury about the nature of declassification, dispelling Trump’s perception that it is a privilege to make his life easier. Vance emphasized the critical importance of preserving national security and the trust placed in the commander-in-chief, particularly when it comes to safeguarding highly classified information.
Vance concluded by warning that Trump’s cavalier treatment of this matter could backfire dramatically in a trial setting.