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‘Now I can’t’ declassify secret Iran papers, Donald Trump reportedly said on tape in 2021

Former president Donald Trump.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

The evidence leading to the historic indictment of former president Donald Trump includes an audio recording from 2021 in which he talks about an apparently secret document and says, “As president, I could have declassified it, but now I can’t,” a person familiar with a transcript of the remarks said Friday.

In recent days, it has become clear that Trump's own words are some of the most powerful evidence against him, leading to the filing of a seven-count indictment accusing him of willful retention of national defense secrets, conspiracy, obstruction and false statements, according to people familiar with the case. The charges against the former president have yet to be unsealed, but one of his lawyers confirmed them last night to CNN, which first reported the comments caught on tape.

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Trump said Thursday night that his lawyers have been notified he has been indicted in Miami and must appear in court there Tuesday afternoon. He has denied wrongdoing and accused the government of pursuing him for partisan reasons while he runs again for president. The charges mark the first time that a former president has been charged with crimes by the Justice Department that once reported to him.

The recording was made in the summer of 2021, as Trump spoke to researchers for a book being written by his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to people familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe elements of the case.

While there is a host of paper, video and witness evidence against Trump for alleged mishandling of classified information and obstruction of justice, the recording is significant because it undercuts a central claim that Trump has put forward since the investigation was opened last year - that he had somehow, at some time, declassified the hundreds of classified documents later found at his Mar-a-Lago home and private club.

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Prosecutors obtained the recording and played it for at least one witness who appeared earlier this year before a grand jury in Washington. In it, Trump complains about Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Well, with Milley - uh, let me see that, I’ll show you an example. He said that I wanted to attack Iran. Isn’t that amazing? I have a big pile of papers; this thing just came up,” Trump said, according to the person familiar with the transcript. “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. . . . This wasn’t done by me, this was him. All sorts of stuff - pages long, look. Wait a minute, let’s see here. I just found, isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this. . . . This was done by the military and given to me.”