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CNN released an exclusive audio recording of former President Donald Trump disclosing national security information in 2021.
02:23 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

If you haven’t heard the tape of former President Donald Trump’s 2021 conversation about classified documents yet, I encourage you to listen to it. In a bombshell piece of reporting, CNN published the audio of Trump disclosing the possession of classified national security information to people lacking the appropriate security clearances to receive it, and noting that the documents are classified as he does it.

Jill Filipovic

“These are the papers,” he says, seemingly in an effort to demonstrate to his listening audience that, contra reporting in The New Yorker, it wasn’t his idea to attack Iran, but rather the Defense Department’s. The documents, he says, are “highly confidential” and “as president I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

In other words: The former president knew that the documents in his possession were classified and secret. He knew that, as a former president, he was not allowed to declassify them or show them to other people.

He seems to have shown them to others anyway – that’s certainly what the audio suggests. Or at the very least, he disclosed some of their contents, and had them in his possession – potentially illegally.

On the conservative social media platform Truth Social, Trump wrote Monday night that special counsel Jack Smith, the Justice Department and the FBI “illegally leaked and ‘spun’” the tape that, he added, “is actually an exoneration” while repeating the probe is a “witch hunt.” And, on Tuesday, when asked about the tape in an interview with Fox News, he said he did “nothing wrong.” In an interview with Semafor and ABC News later Tuesday, Trump said he was referring on the tape to “building plans” and plans for golf courses.

Trump is currently facing a federal 37-count indictment related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents and his storing of those documents in his Mar-a-Lago club. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges and called them “fake and fabricated.” Among the charges is one that seems substantiated by the audio CNN published: that Trump removed classified material from the White House and brought it to Florida, then ordered some of those boxes be brought to his summer residence in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he was caught on tape telling a writer, a publisher, and two staffers that he possessed classified documents, only to later tell the FBI that he had no such thing.

This is the basic timeline, according to the indictment: In January 2021, Trump left office and brought with him a slew of boxes that contained hundreds of classified documents. He stored these boxes in Mar-a-Lago, which was not an authorized storage facility, and the documents were not secure. When he relocated to his Bedminster residence for the summer, he ordered that some of the boxes be brought with him. He showed some of those classified documents to people without the security clearances to see them at least twice – one of those times was in July 2021 and seems to be what was captured by the audio.

In that instance, Trump seemed to be angry about a New Yorker article suggesting that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley was opposed to attacking Iran, and was concerned that then-President Trump would authorize an attack. Trump seemed to want to prove that it actually was Milley who wanted to launch an attack, and said he had evidence to back that up. “These are the papers,” he told his listening audience, demonstrating that he knew he was in possession of classified material.

In March 2022, the FBI opened its criminal investigation into the question of whether Trump had improperly removed classified documents from the White House and stored them at Mar-a-Lago, and in April 2022, a federal grand jury began its investigation. According to the indictment, Trump took multiple steps to conceal many of the classified documents he had, encouraged his lawyer to destroy some of them, and essentially lied to the FBI and the grand jury about which documents he had produced.

The CNN audio captures the former president on tape confirming part of the federal case against him – and, what’s more, seriously breaching national security. This is the same former president who went on Fox News just last week and seems to have lied to both interviewer Bret Baier and the American people.

“There was no document. That was a massive amount of papers and everything else talking about Iran and other things,” Trump said on Fox News. “And it may have been held up or may not, but that was not a document. I didn’t have a document, per se. There was nothing to declassify. These were newspaper stories, magazine stories and articles.”

It is hard to believe that “there was no document” when the tape has Trump talking about Gen. Milley and saying, “Lemme see that, I’ll show you an example,” followed by paper rustling and then, saying of Milley, “Look, this was him, they presented me this – this is off the record – but they presented me this. This was him. This was the defense department and him.” He continued, as papers rustled: “Isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is, like, highly confidential, secret, secret information.”

It simply doesn’t make sense for Trump to have been holding up newspaper or magazine stories when he said “these are the papers” that Milley and the Department of Defense presented to him, that are also “highly confidential” and that he could have declassified as president. Published newspaper and magazine stories are not confidential nor do they need declassifying, as they are not created by government agencies and they’re already public. On the tape, Trump said that the existence of these papers “totally wins my case” that it was Milley, not him, who wanted to strike Iran, but implied he couldn’t make that case in public because the papers are “high confidential.”

This audio recording makes the crux of the case clear: It seems that not only did the former president bring classified material with him to Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House, and later transported some of that material to Bedminster, but he knew he had it even after he was told to return it. He also used that material in a typically Trumpian way – to bolster his own image and ego, boast to others and prove he was right all along.

The tape is a damning piece of evidence and directly in line with some of the claims in the criminal indictment: that Trump knowingly retained national defense information. The question, though, is whether it will sour any hardcore Trump fans, or the Republican Party, on the former president. And the answer to that, scarily, may be no.

In any other context, this tape and the crimes Trump has been indicted for would send Republicans – a group typically concerned with national security and keeping the enemies of the US from knowing the inner workings of our national defense – into a tizzy. According to the indictment, among the classified documents there are some pertaining to the “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country,” the “military capabilities of a foreign country,” “military attacks by a foreign country,” “military operations against United States forces,” “nuclear weaponry of the United States” and more than two dozen others.

This is a man who seems more concerned with proving himself right than with protecting the interests of the nation. Since 2016, when Trump was running for president, some liberals (myself included) have accused the GOP of putting party over country. But even that wasn’t quite right. The party is showing it’s willing to put a single egomaniacal man over the interests of the country. That’s not just power-hungry behavior; that’s cult-like behavior.

Perhaps the Republican Party will prove us wrong. Perhaps some of the other Republicans running for president will campaign on Trump’s alleged crimes. Perhaps a critical mass of Republican voters will decide that a man who is on tape risking the security of the country in order, it seems, to massage his own ego and reinforce his own persecution complex is not a man fit to be president. But there is good reason for doubt. The Trump base, after all, is made up, at least in part, of people who also seem willing to risk the security of the country to massage their own egos and reinforce their own persecution complexes – that’s the story of the January 6 insurrectionists.

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The question is whether Trump will go the way of former President Richard Nixon – enjoying significant support well after his crimes were public and undeniable, but then going down in history as a conniving criminal, with support for him largely memory-holed and few continuing to broadcast their loyalty to him after he was out of office – or whether Republican base fealty to Trump is so solid that he could win, and see his party simply rewrite history.

That second option would be a novel and a truly dark turn of events for the nation. It’s partly up to the Republican Party – Republican party leaders, Republican politicians and Republican voters – to keep the US from being a nation that again puts a self-interested alleged criminal and compromiser of American national security in the highest office in the land. So far, unfortunately, they have done nothing to indicate that they are up for even this most basic task.