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Trump says presidents can declassify docs ‘even by thinking about it’

Donald Trump claimed in a Fox News appearance that documents taken to Mar-a-Lago were declassified while he was in office

Former president Donald Trump addresses a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former president Donald Trump’s legal team claimed Trump issued a “standing order” while in office to declassify documents. That claim was made by Trump’s office. The article has been corrected.

In his first TV appearance since a court-authorized search of his Florida home last month, Donald Trump reasserted Wednesday that any documents taken from the White House to Mar-a-Lago were declassified while he was in office, adding that a president can carry that out “even by thinking about it.”

The warrant authorizing the search of former president Donald Trump’s home said agents were seeking documents possessed in violation of the Espionage Act. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity. Prosecutors have said that about 100 of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago were marked classified, including some labeled top secret.

“If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified,” the former president added.

“You’re the president — you make that decision.”

Appeals court: Justice Dept. can use Mar-a-Lago documents in criminal probe

Trump’s comments were made ahead of a Wednesday appeals court decision that the FBI can use the seized documents in its criminal investigation. His appearance also followed an announcement earlier in the day that New York Attorney General Letitia James was filing a lawsuit accusing him and his three children of manipulating property values to deceive lenders, insurance brokers and tax officials.

On Hannity’s program, Trump called the lawsuit part of a politically motivated “witch hunt” that has been brewing since he first ran for office. He asserted that if there were discrepancies about his property values, the banks should have done more diligence, adding that his company provided a disclaimer on financial documents saying as much.

With regard to the FBI’s investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents, Trump said he “declassified everything.” He also said he personally did not pack any boxes as he left the White House. The task was mostly performed by General Services Administration employees, he said, referring to the office that plays a prominent role in presidential transitions.

A GSA spokesperson disputed that, saying while the office assisted with shipping boxes to Florida, it did not pack any. “GSA did not examine the contents of the boxes and, accordingly, had no knowledge of the contents prior to shipping,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Trump’s legal team has so far not produced evidence that the documents at Mar-a-Lago had been declassified, the three-judge panel of the appeals court noted in the Wednesday ruling. His lawyers have resisted doing so in front of special master Raymond Dearie, the U.S. district judge who pressed the team this week to provide such evidence, the panel wrote.

“For our part, we cannot discern why [Trump] would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings,” the court wrote.

Presidents do have the authority to declassify information — though typically there’s a process for doing so, which can include coordinating with the agencies or Cabinet members from which the information originated to prevent possible national-security risks.

The status of key investigations involving Donald Trump

Following the court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, the former president’s office said in a statement that Trump issued a “standing order” while in office that documents taken to his residence would instantly be declassified. But Trump’s lawyers have avoided making a similar claim in court or in their legal filings, saying on Tuesday that to address the issue would mean revealing a potential defense that could be used if the criminal probe results in an indictment.

In an interview with CNN in August, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, called the assertion from the former president’s office about the standing order to declassify documents “complete fiction.”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.