Ever since we learned that highly classified documents were found in President Biden’s former office and at his Delaware home, many in the media have been bending over backward to point out the ways in which former president Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents differs from Biden’s.
How do we know this? Thanks to my Post colleague Bob Woodward and his new audiobook: “The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Trump.”
Woodward reveals that in December 2019, while Trump was still president, he shared the letters that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had written to him, urging Woodward to “treat them with respect, and don’t say I gave them to you, okay?” A month later, when Woodward asked Trump to also share the letters that Trump wrote to Kim, Trump declined. “Oh, those are so top secret,” he said.
Aha!, his critics said, this is proof that Trump knew the letters from Kim, which were apparently found at Mar-a-Lago, were classified. No, quite the opposite. It is proof that Trump declassified them.
Legal experts confirm that not only does the president possess ultimate declassification authority, he is that authority. As one former National Security Council lawyer I spoke with explained, all power to classify or declassify information exercised by his subordinates derives from the president and is delegated downward. By definition, the president cannot mishandle classified information, because he created the rules for handling it — and he can make whatever exceptions to those rules he wants. He can choose to make most classified information public at any time, without going through any formal process, under his constitutional authority as commander in chief. When he does so, it is declassified. Period.
counterpointThe Trump and Biden cases are similar, but they are not the same
I was a firsthand beneficiary of the president’s declassification authority in July 2020, when Trump acknowledged to me in an Oval Office interview that he had authorized a secret cyberattack against Russia in 2018, targeting the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that lead Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and did the same in the 2018 midterms. This was a highly classified covert operation. I had asked numerous government officials about it, and all either declined to confirm it or denied it had taken place. But when I asked the president whether he had launched the attack, he replied, “Correct,” adding that unlike President Barack Obama, who “knew before the election that Russia was playing around,” he had acted on the intelligence he was given about Russia’s interference by striking its cyber capabilities. “Look, we stopped it,” Trump told me.
At that moment, when he shared that information with a Washington Post columnist, the fact that he had launched a cyberattack on Russia was no longer classified. He did not leak it to me. In telling me, he declassified it. The story of the attack had previously been reported. The people who shared that information with The Post and other publications were leaking it. Trump was not. He was exercising his constitutional authority as commander in chief to decide which information he wanted to share publicly.
The same happened when he showed the Kim letters to Woodward. In sharing them with a Post reporter, Trump declassified them. He was still the president of the United States at the time, exercising his constitutional authority as commander in chief to decide what information to share with a reporter, and under what terms. He gave Kim’s letters to Woodward while specifically choosing not to share his replies, so those remain classified — unless there is evidence that he declassified them at another time during his tenure in office.
This does not absolve Trump from all wrongdoing. He lost his declassification authority when he left the presidency. And hundreds of documents with classified markings were found at Mar-a-Lago. Trump claims he declassified them all. But unlike with Woodward’s account, there is no evidence that he did so while still president. And if he did declassify some of the documents, including those marked “HCS” — a control system designed to protect intelligence derived from clandestine human sources — that would be an even bigger scandal. For the president to declassify top secret intelligence that could risk the lives of human sources to protect himself from prosecution, or simply to keep them as trophies, would be an outrageous abuse of office.
However, in contrast to Trump’s case, there is no evidence that any of the documents found at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement offices or at Biden’s Delaware home had been declassified. These documents reportedly include intelligence marked “Top Secret/SCI” (sensitive compartmented information) — the highest level of classification. Those trying to downplay Biden’s conduct by comparing it favorably to Trump’s or obscuring it in a broader argument about overclassification are glossing over the seriousness of the president’s behavior. Top secret/SCI intelligence is not overclassified, and its mishandling is no joke.
The fact is, both the current and the former president acted irresponsibly in keeping our nation’s most sensitive secrets in unsecured conditions. And both might be found to have committed crimes in mishandling classified documents. But Trump’s handling of Kim’s letters is not one of them.