Former President Donald Trump's attorney Jim Trusty insisted to CNN's Kaitlan Collins late Wednesday night that his client had "absolute authority" to take whatever sensitive materials that he wanted out of the White House at the end of his term.
The interview occurred hours after CNN published an exclusive blockbuster report that United States Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith and his team of prosecutors possess a recording of Trump from 2021 in which he admits to keeping a top-secret document related to a potential military strike on Iran. According to CNN's sources, Trump can be heard acknowledging that he did not have the post-presidency power to declassify and share its content despite his desire to do so.
Scores of legal experts quickly noted that the tape is "a hugely significant piece of evidence" indicating that Trump illegally disseminated information and that he is likely to be indicted under the Espionage Act.
READ MORE: Prosecutors obtain recording of Donald Trump boasting about classified documents in 2021: report
Recall, though, that ever since the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at Trump's Mar-a-Lago compound in Palm Beach, Florida last August, Trump and his defenders have maintained that the Presidential Records Act provided Trump the authority to remove and retain government property with impunity.
CNN explained in March, however, that "Trump's claims are false. The Presidential Records Act says that, the moment a president leaves office, NARA gets custody and control of all presidential records from his administration. Nothing in the act says there should be prolonged 'talk' or a negotiated 'agreement' between a former president and NARA over a former president's return of presidential documents – much less that there should have been a months-long battle after NARA first contacted Trump's team in 2021 to try to get some of the records that had not been handed over at the end of his presidency."
CNN further pointed out that "the key sentence from the Presidential Records Act is unequivocal" pertaining to Trump's situation: 'Upon the conclusion of a President's term of office, or if a President serves consecutive terms upon the conclusion of the last term, the Archivist of the United States shall assume responsibility for the custody, control, and preservation of, and access to, the Presidential records of that President."
In April, The Washington Postalso quashed Trump's assertions, writing that "Trump cooks up a deceiving stew of half-truths in a misleading effort to suggest that the PRA protects him from prosecution and gives him the right to haggle over whether he can retain presidential documents at his home. NARA is able to enlist the help of the Justice Department to demand return of the documents under another law — and, in any case, the possible criminal case against Trump does not hinge on the PRA at all. That law gives a president leeway to determine whether documents are presidential in nature before he leaves office — but not when he no longer is president. As is often the case with Trump, he's venturing where no recent occupant of the White House has tried to go. The sparse judicial review of the PRA gives him an opening to suggest he has a stronger case than many legal experts believe. But don't be fooled — in sum, this is a Four Pinocchio claim."
READ MORE: 'Absolutely blockbuster evidence': Stunned experts say docs recording is game over for Donald Trump
Nonetheless, Trusty doubled down on Trump's excuses in his interview with Collins — who broke the recording story along with correspondents Katelyn Polantz and Paula Reid.
"You referenced the fact that Trump was still president when he left office. He left Washington. I think he had about an hour left in his presidency. Are you saying that it was in that hour that he declassified the documents that were taken with him?" Collins asked Trusty.
"No. Your, your timing is a little bit off that he, he landed in Mar-a-Lago and was at his residence while still president. It was a little bit after that that Biden was sworn in. So he, he had the absolute authority to take every one of those documents. Any document he wants with him when he left the White House. What happens throughout history, through modern history is that if you take documents and Archives thinks they're entitled to it, they start negotiating and that's what he did. He was telling 'em things like, 'Hey, just ask if you want anything more.' He gave them fifteen boxes in January of 2022," Trusty said.
"Well after some back and forth," Collins interjected. "But just to be clear, you are making the argument right now that by the time he was on the ground in Florida after he left Washington, that that is when he declassified all of these documents that he took with him?" she pressed.
"No, no, no. I'm saying that documents he brought with him are effectively declassified and personalized under the Presidential Record Act. We're talking about constitutional authority under the Constitution to declassify. If he wants to take stuff with him and say anything I take with him is declassified, if he wants to take stuff and say, anything I read at night is declassified, that was absolutely his right as president. And the personal, the Presidential Records Act makes it clear that we don't even care about classified information. It is a statutory scheme that deals with presidential or personal only," Trusty replied.
"But if this was deal classified, Jim, if this was declassified, then why are we told that he's on this tape basically telling the people in the room that he can't share it with them?" Collins wondered.
"You are told by DOJ or FBI or whoever filtered that to you anything they can think of to justify a persecution," Trusty declared.
"No, but Jim, that's..." Collins responded.
"Kaitlan," Trusty interrupted, "I'm telling you, this is, they, they had rumors out yesterday. There's gonna be one every day. They had rumors out yesterday."
Watch below or at this link.
READ MORE: The audio is all special counsel needs on Trump: Former DOJ official
CNN's March fact check is available here. The Washington Post's analysis is here (subscription required).
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