Trump Suggests He Knowingly Took Documents From White House

Former President Donald J. Trump admitted more directly than before on Wednesday that he knowingly removed government records from the White House and claimed that he was allowed to take anything he wanted with him as personal records, appearing to misstate the law and undercut some assertions by his own lawyers.

The remarks by Mr. Trump at a televised CNN town hall event in New Hampshire were the most extensive he has made in recent weeks about his handling of classified material after he left office. Jack Smith, a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, has for months been investigating whether Mr. Trump illegally kept national defense documents at his properties — including Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida — and whether he obstructed the government’s repeated efforts over more than 18 months to get the materials back.

Answering questions from the CNN host Kaitlan Collins, Mr. Trump appeared at times to be kicking up sand as he offered an array of excuses for — and distractions from — the key issue of whether he improperly held on to sensitive government records after he left the White House.

“I took the documents; I’m allowed to,” he told Ms. Collins at one point, asserting that he had “the absolute right” to do so under the Presidential Records Act. The law, enacted in 1978 after the Watergate scandal, gave control of presidential records to the government itself — not to individual presidents.

Legal experts have called Mr. Trump’s interpretation of the act “muddled” and “confused.” Last year, in a court fight with Mr. Trump’s lawyers over records that were ultimately seized from Mar-a-Lago by the F.B.I., the Justice Department also dismissed the claims, saying that such a broad reading of the law “would nullify the statute’s entire purpose.”

At another point, Mr. Trump described for Ms. Collins how he had apparently taken materials from the White House not only on purpose, but in plain view of the public.

“When we left Washington, we had the boxes lined up on the sidewalk outside for everybody,” he said. “People are taking pictures of them. Everybody knew we were taking those boxes.”

These accounts were at odds in some ways with those that his lawyers gave to Congress in a letter last month, providing their account of how government records ended up at Mar-a-Lago.

In the letter — which requested that the documents investigation be removed from the hands of prosecutors and placed in those of the intelligence community — the lawyers said that during Mr. Trump’s chaotic departure from the White House, “staffers and General Service Administration employees quickly packed everything into boxes and shipped them to Florida.”

The lawyers argued that “White House institutional processes,” not “intentional decisions by President Trump,” were responsible for sensitive material being hauled away.

“Every president who leaves the White House is allowed to take their papers and belongings with them,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, an assertion at odds with the language of the Presidential Records Act. “President Trump followed this longstanding tradition. Because it was totally appropriate, the move happened in the light of day and was broadly reported.”

For months before the Justice Department even opened its investigation of Mr. Trump, some of his advisers and lawyers were urging him to return any records he had taken from the White House to the National Archives, saying he could suffer serious consequences if he neglected to do so.

At the same time, however, Mr. Trump was getting advice from outside allies like Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, the conservative activist group, that the Presidential Records Act allowed him to hold on to the materials as personal records. Mr. Fitton has been subpoenaed by the special counsel’s office as part of the documents investigation.

During his CNN appearance, Mr. Trump claimed, without providing evidence, that he had “automatically” declassified all of the classified materials he took with him, effectively rendering them harmless. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have avoided making similar claims in a courtroom, where they would be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

Mr. Trump also sought to shift attention to President Biden, saying that classified materials had been found in his possession too, but failing to acknowledge that Mr. Biden had proactively alerted the government about the material and has since worked closely with the Justice Department in returning them.

At one point, Mr. Trump seemed to step delicately around an issue that was likely to interest prosecutors working under Mr. Smith.

When Ms. Collins asked Mr. Trump if he had ever shown classified documents to anyone after leaving the White House, he said, “Not really.”

When she pressed him on what he meant, Mr. Trump gave an equivocating answer: “Not — not that I can think of.”

In recent months, investigators have grilled several witnesses about whether Mr. Trump showed people any documents in his possession. They have focused in particular on a classified map that had sensitive intelligence on it, according to several people familiar with the events.

They are also seeking to determine whether Mr. Trump may have shown material to Republican donors or shown the map to someone on an airplane.

Mr. Trump’s attempts to play down or explain away his handling of the documents came at a moment when Mr. Smith’s office was increasingly homing in on the key question of whether the former president sought to hide some of the documents in his possession after the Justice Department issued a subpoena last May demanding their return.

In recent weeks, prosecutors have obtained grand jury testimony from numerous witnesses as they seek to develop a fuller picture of how Mr. Trump and some of his aides handled the documents. Among the issues the prosecutors are seeking to understand are the ways in which documents were stored at Mar-a-Lago, who had access to them, how the security camera system at the property worked, and what Mr. Trump may have told aides and lawyers about the materials he had and where they were.

Source: Read Full Article