Federal prosecutors have obtained an audio recording of a summer 2021 meeting in which former President Donald Trump acknowledges he held onto a classified Pentagon document about a potential attack on Iran, multiple sources told CNN, undercutting his argument that he declassified everything.
The recording indicates Trump understood he retained classified material after leaving the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation. On the recording, Trump’s comments suggest he would like to share the information but he’s aware of limitations on his ability post-presidency to declassify records, two of the sources said.
CNN has not listened to the recording, but multiple sources described it. One source said the relevant portion on the Iran document is about two minutes long, and another source said the discussion is a small part of a much longer meeting.
Special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the Justice Department investigation into Trump, has focused on the meeting as part of the criminal investigation into Trump’s handling of national security secrets. Sources describe the recording as an “important” piece of evidence in a possible case against Trump, who has repeatedly asserted he could retain presidential records and “automatically” declassify documents.
Prosecutors have asked witnesses about the recording and the document before a federal grand jury. The episode has generated enough interest for investigators to have questioned Gen. Mark Milley, one of the highest-ranking Trump-era national security officials, about the incident.
The July 2021 meeting was held at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, with two people working on the autobiography of Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows as well as aides employed by the former president, including communications specialist Margo Martin. The attendees, sources said, did not have security clearances that would allow them access to classified information. Meadows didn’t attend the meeting, sources said.
Meadows’ autobiography includes an account of what appears to be the same meeting, during which Trump “recalls a four-page report typed up by (Trump’s former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Mark Milley himself. It contained the general’s own plan to attack Iran, deploying massive numbers of troops, something he urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency.”
The tape was made during a meeting Mr. Trump held in July 2021 with people helping his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, write a memoir of his 10 months in the White House, according to the people briefed on the matter. The meeting was held at Mr. Trump’s club at Bedminster, N.J., where he spends summers.
Until now, the focus of the documents investigation has been largely on material Mr. Trump kept with him at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida, rather than in New Jersey.
Mr. Meadows did not attend the meeting, but at least two of Mr. Trump’s aides did. One, Margo Martin, routinely taped the interviews he gave for books being written about him that year.
On the recording, Mr. Trump began railing about his handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was described in media accounts at the time as having guarded against Mr. Trump’s striking Iran in the final days of the presidency, according to the people briefed on the matter.
Mr. Trump then began referencing a document that he had with him, saying that it had been compiled by General Milley and was related to attacking Iran, the people briefed on the matter said. Among other comments, he mentioned his classification abilities during the discussion, one person briefed on the matter said. Mr. Trump can be heard handling paper on the tape, though it is not clear whether it was the document in question.
The Justice Department obtained the recording in recent months, a potentially key piece in a mountain of evidence that prosecutors have amassed under the special counsel, Jack Smith, since he was appointed in November to oversee the federal investigations into Mr. Trump.
Ms. Martin was asked about the recording during a grand jury appearance, according to two of the people briefed on the matter.