Former President Donald Trump’s comments Wednesday night about his handling of classified documents appeared to contradict statements by his lawyers, and provide potentially important evidence for federal prosecutors investigating whether to charge him with a crime, legal experts say.
Trump’s lawyers told Congress last month that the classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago compound got there by accident. But when questioned about the issue at a CNN town hall, Trump said he had “every right” to take them from the White House.
“I didn’t make a secret of it,” he said. “You know, the boxes were stationed outside the White House, people were taking pictures of it.”
He said he didn’t recall having shown secret material to others, which is a key question prosecutors would want to answer. Disclosing classified material to people not authorized to receive it is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Asked if he showed classified documents to others, he answered, “Not really…I would have the right to,” later adding, “not that I can think of.”
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“Trump’s comments hurt him, and what he said is significant,” said John Fishwick, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia who was appointed during the Obama administration.
“Not only do they contradict his legal position, he admits to possession and knowledge of classified documents that he is taking from the White House. Jack Smith will make good use of last night’s town hall and it will help him button up his case.”
Smith, a special counsel, is running investigations into the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and into Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Another special counsel, Robert Hur, is investigating the circumstances around the classified documents found at President Joe Biden’s home and office.
Andrew Weissmann, a former FBI general counsel and NBC News contributor who worked for special counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, said Trump’s unwillingness to rule out showing classified documents to others "is like red meat to a prosecutor.”
In their letter last month to the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Trump’s lawyers suggested that classified documents were sent to Mar-a-Lago unintentionally, mixed in by accident with other records.
“When President Trump left office, there was little time to prepare for the outgoing transition from the presidency,” said the letter from attorneys Tim Parlatore, John Rowley, James Trusty and Lindsay Halligan. “Unlike his three predecessors, each of whom had over four years to prepare for their departure upon completion of their second term, President Trump had a much shorter time to wind up his administration. White House staffers and General Service Administration (“GSA”) employees quickly packed everything into boxes and shipped them to Florida.”
The lawyers suggested later in the letter that Trump initially was not aware of the presence of classified material.
"Trump asked his staff to retrieve 15 boxes that had been moved to Mar-a-Lago so he could see what was in them before they were sent to NARA in Washington, D.C.," they wrote, referring to the National Archives and Records Administration. "However, due to other demands on his time, President Trump subsequently directed his staff to ship the boxes to NARA without any review by him or his staff."
They added that the discovery of classified documents at the homes of Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence should dispel “any doubts that the presence of marked documents in the boxes was the result of White House institutional processes, rather than intentional decisions by President Trump.”
Trump seemed to undermine that account Wednesday night, saying, “I was there and I took what I took and it gets declassified,” which is not true.
One of Trump's lawyers pushed back against the idea that such comments are problematic.
"It’s completely consistent with what was in our letter," Parlatore said in an email. "He was allowed to take these documents with him, because the customs that have been followed…for past presidents were not followed for President Trump. This is one of the reasons why we have asked Congress to take a look at this to fix it for future administrations."
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton told NBC News last year that Trump had a habit of keeping highly classified documents given to him an intelligence briefings. He said aides began blowing up maps and charts to poster size so Trump could not pocket them.