Trump’s Misleading Defenses in the Classified Documents Case

Hours after pleading not guilty in a federal court in Miami to charges related to his handling of classified documents, former President Donald J. Trump defended his conduct on Tuesday with a string of familiar falsehoods.

Appearing at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Mr. Trump drew misleading comparisons to other political figures, misconstrued the classification process and leveled inaccurate attacks at officials.

Here’s a fact check of claims Mr. Trump made related to the inquiry.

What Mr. Trump Said

“Threatening me with 400 years in prison for possessing my own presidential papers, which just about every other president has done, is one of the most outrageous and vicious legal theories ever put forward in an American court of law.”

False. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 governs the preservation and retention of official records of former presidents, and gives the National Archives and Records Administration complete ownership and control of presidential records. The law makes a distinction between official records and personal documents, and has applied to every president since Ronald Reagan.

The agency has said that “it assumed physical and legal custody of the presidential records from the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, when those presidents left office.”

Separately, after Mr. Trump repeatedly and misleadingly compared his handling of records to that of his immediate predecessor, the National Archives said in a statement that former President Barack Obama turned over his documents, classified and unclassified, as required by law. The agency has also said it is not aware of any missing boxes of presidential records from the Obama administration.

What Mr. Trump Said

“The decision to segregate personal materials from presidential records is made by the president during the president’s term and in the president’s sole discretion.”

False. The Presidential Records Act defines what constitutes personal materials — such as diaries or political campaign documents — from official records. It does not give the president “sole discretion” in determining what is and is not a personal record. Under the law, a departing president is required to separate personal documents from official records before leaving office.

F.B.I. agents searched Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in August, more than a year after the general counsel of the National Archives requested the recovery of the materials and after months of repeated inquiries from officials at the agency and at the Justice Department.

What Mr. Trump Said

“I was supposed to negotiate with NARA, which is exactly what I was doing until Mar-a-Lago was raided by gun-toting F.B.I. agents.”

False. The Presidential Records Act does not establish a process of negotiation between the president and the archives. The court-approved search of Mr. Trump’s Florida residence unfolded after he repeatedly resisted the government’s requests that he return the material, even after being subpoenaed.

What Mr. Trump Said

“Biden sent 1,850 boxes to the University of Delaware, making the search very, very difficult for anybody. And he refuses to give them up and he refuses to let people even look at them, and then they say how he’s behaving so nicely.”

This is misleading. Joseph R. Biden Jr. donated 1,850 boxes of documents to the University of Delaware in 2012 from his tenure as a senator representing the state from 1973 to 2009. Unlike presidential documents, which must be released to the archives once a president leaves office, documents from members of Congress are not covered by the Presidential Records Act. It is not uncommon for senators and representatives to give such items to colleges, research institutions or historical facilities.

The University of Delaware agreed not to give the public access to Mr. Biden’s documents from his time as senator until two years after he retired from public life. But the F.B.I. did search the collection in February as part of a separate special counsel investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of government documents and in cooperation with his legal team. The New York Times reported at the time that the material was still being analyzed but did not appear to contain any classified documents.

What Mr. Trump Said

“When caught, Hillary then deleted and acid-washed. Nobody does that because of the expense, but it’s pretty conclusive. Thirty-three thousand emails in defiance of a congressional subpoena already launched. The subpoena was there and she decided to delete, acid-wash and then smash and destroy her cellphones with a hammer. And then they say I participated in obstruction.”

This is misleading. There are several key differences between Mr. Trump’s case and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state — which Mr. Trump also described inaccurately.

Crucially, several official investigations have concluded that Mrs. Clinton did not systematically or deliberately mishandle classified material, and a 2018 inspector general report supported the F.B.I.’s decision not to charge Mrs. Clinton.

In contrast, Mr. Trump is accused of mishandling classified documents and obstructing the government’s repeated efforts to recover them and making false statements to officials. The indictment unsealed last week featured photographs of documents stored in sometimes haphazard ways, including boxes stacked in a shower and others piled on the stage of a ballroom that guests frequented.

According to the F.B.I.’s inquiry into the matter, Mrs. Clinton’s lawyers provided about 30,000 work-related emails to the State Department in 2014 and instructed an employee to remove all personal emails older than 60 days. In 2015, after The Times reported Mrs. Clinton’s use of a personal email account, a Republican-led House committee investigating the 2012 attacks on American outposts in Benghazi, Libya, sent a subpoena requesting all emails she had in that account related to Libya.

That same month, an employee working for the company that managed Mrs. Clinton’s server realized he did not actually delete the personal emails as instructed in 2014. He then used a free software program called BleachBit — not actual acid or chemical compounds — to delete about 30,000 personal emails.

The F.B.I. found thousands of additional work-related emails that Mrs. Clinton did not turn over to the State Department, but the director of the bureau at the time, James B. Comey, said it found “no evidence that any of the additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them.”

Mrs. Clinton would almost certainly disagree with Mr. Trump’s assertion that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department “protected” her, and has said that Mr. Comey’s actions as well as Russian interference cost her the 2016 election.

What Mr. Trump Said

“He totally exonerated Mike Pence. I’m happy about that. Mike did nothing wrong, but he happened to have classified documents in his house. But they exonerated him. And Biden is a different story.”

This is misleading. Classified documents were found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home in Indiana in January and President Biden’s former office at a Washington think tank in November and his Delaware residence in January. The Justice Department declined to pursue charges against Mr. Pence, and the investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of materials is continuing.

But those cases differ in several significant ways from Mr. Trump’s, particularly in the volume of documents found and in Mr. Pence’s and Mr. Biden’s response.

About a dozen documents with classified markings were found at Mr. Pence’s home. The F.B.I. searched his home in February with his agreement and found one additional classified document. It is unclear how many classified documents were found in Mr. Biden’s possession, but his lawyers have said “a small number” were discovered at his former office and about a half-dozen at his Delaware home.

In contrast, Mr. Trump stored “hundreds” of classified documents, according to the Justice Department’s indictment, which said some records included information about the country’s nuclear programs as well as “potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack.” In total, the government has retrieved more than 300 files with classified markings from his Florida home and private club.

Representatives for Mr. Pence and Mr. Biden have said that they inadvertently kept those documents and quickly alerted the National Archives once they were discovered. Both men also cooperated with government officials in turning over the documents and appeared to have voluntarily complied with searches of their properties.

In contrast, Mr. Trump repeatedly defied requests to return materials for months and, according to the indictment, played an active role in concealing classified documents from investigators. The archives alerted Mr. Trump in May 2021 that presidential documents were missing. Officials retrieved 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago in January 2022 but suspected that other records remained missing. Seven months later, F.B.I. agents searched the Florida property and recovered additional documents.

What Mr. Trump Said

“Unlike me, who had absolute declassification authority as president, Joe Biden as vice president had no authority to declassify and no right to possess the documents. He had no right.”

This is misleading. Vice presidents do have the power to declassify certain material, though the scope of their declassification powers has not been explicitly tested in courts.

Mr. Trump has previously insisted that he had the power to declassify material without needing to inform anyone. There are formal procedures for declassifying information, but whether presidents must abide by them is an unsettled legal issue, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the American Bar Association. A federal appeals court ruled in 2020 that “declassification, even by the president, must follow established procedures.” But the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the matter.

It is worth noting, though, that Mr. Trump followed these procedures for certain documents, like issuing a memorandum on the day before leaving office declassifying information related to the F.B.I. investigation into his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia.

Separately, legal experts have noted that the classification of information related to nuclear weapons or “restricted data” is governed by a separate legal framework entirely, the Atomic Energy Act. That law does not explicitly give the president the authority to declassify nuclear secrets unilaterally and establishes a strict process for declassification that involves several agencies. It is unclear whether documents stored at Mar-a-Lago included “restricted data.”

Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

Linda Qiu is a fact-check reporter, based in Washington. She came to The Times in 2017 from the fact-checking service PolitiFact. @ylindaqiu

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