Presidents can declassify documents “even by thinking about it,” former President Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that aired Wednesday night.
The ex-president has insisted the scores of documents with classification markers the FBI discovered at Mar-a-Lago were actually declassified. But Trump’s attorneys have resisted a request for information from special master Raymond Dearie, the independent arbiter tasked with inspecting the seized documents, about whether those records were in fact declassified by the former president. Trump’s lawyers argued in a letter to Dearie Monday that such a disclosure went beyond District Judge Aileen Cannon’s order and could be part of Trump’s defense, if he is indicted in the future.
But Dearie said that if Trump’s lawyers won’t affirm the records have been declassified, and the Justice Department makes a legitimate case that they remain classified, then “as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it.” And on Wednesday night, Trump’s team was dealt another blow when a federal appeals court granted a request from the Justice Department to allow investigators to regain access to the roughly 100 documents with classification marks that were seized by the FBI.
In Trump’s interview on “Hannity,” recorded before the appeals court ruling, Trump claimed he had “declassified everything,” and presidents can do so just by “thinking about it.”
“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it,” Trump told Hannity. “You know, there’s different people say different things, but as I understand, there doesn’t have to be — if you’re the President of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it. Because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago or to wherever you’re sending it. And there doesn’t have to be a process. There can be a process, but there doesn’t have to be. You’re the president – you make that decision. So when you send it, it’s declassified. I declassified everything.”
Presidents do have sweeping authority to declassify records, but there is a process that is normally followed.
Generally, a president’s instructions to declassify documents are first written down in a memo, typically drafted by White House lawyers, which the president would then sign. Relevant agencies are usually then consulted and when a final decision is made, the document would be marked, with its old classification level crossed out, and stamped, “Declassified on X date” by the agency in question.
Trump’s handling of classified documents “worried” his onetime national security adviser John Bolton. The fact that Trump wanted to hold onto sensitive documents worried Bolton, Bolton told CBS News in an interview last month.
“My concern was that he didn’t feel that the confidentiality of much of this information was as important as we knew it to be,” Bolton said. “It just didn’t register with him that safeguarding this information for its own sake, and because of the risk to sources and methods of obtaining the intelligence, could be jeopardized.”
In the end, it may fall to the courts to decide how sweeping a sitting president’s declassification powers can be.
— CBS News’ Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.