Why does Trump insist that he negotiated delivery of classified documents? 2:28
(CNN) -- Federal prosecutors have obtained an audio recording of a meeting in the summer of 2021 in which former President Donald Trump acknowledges that he withheld a classified Pentagon document about a potential attack on Iran, multiple sources told CNN, undermining their argument that he declassified all documents in his possession.
The recording indicates that Trump understood he withheld classified material after leaving the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation. In the recording, Trump's comments suggest he would like to share the information but is aware he is unable to do so in his post-presidency capacity to declassify the documents, two of the sources said.
CNN did not hear the recording, but several sources described it. One source said the relevant part on the Iran document lasts about two minutes, 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's investigation into Trump, focused on the meeting as part of the criminal investigation into Trump's handling of national security secrets.
Sources describe the recording as "important" evidence in a potential case against Trump, who repeatedly claimed he could preserve presidential records and declassify documents "automatically."
- ANALYSIS | New revelations in Trump's case about classified documents suggest a fateful reckoning looming
Prosecutors asked witnesses about the recording and the document before a federal grand jury. The episode generated enough interest that investigators questioned Gen. Mark Milley, one of the highest-ranking national security officials of the Trump era, 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 secretary of staff, Mark Meadows, as well as other advisers employed by the former president, including communications specialist Margo Martin. The attendees, according to the sources, did not have security clearances that would allow them to access classified information. Meadows did not attend the meeting, the sources said.
Meadows' autobiography includes an account of what appears to be the same meeting, during which Trump "recalls a four-page report written by Trump's own former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Mark Milley. It contained the general's own plan to attack Iran, deploying immense numbers of troops, something he urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency."
The document Trump is referring to was not prepared by Milley, CNN was told.
Investigators questioned Milley about the episode in recent months, making him one of the highest-ranking Trump administration national security officials to meet with the special counsel's team. Milley's spokesman, Dave Butler, declined to comment to CNN.
The revelation that the former president and commander in chief were caught on tape discussing a classified document could elevate his legal exposure as he makes his third attempt at the White House.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing. CNN has contacted a lawyer and spokesperson for the former president.
Asked on a CNN forum this month if he showed anyone the classified documents he kept after the presidency, Trump replied: "Not really. I would have the right to do so. By the way, they were declassified afterwards."
An attorney for Meadows declined to comment. An attorney for Martin declined to comment.
Smith's investigation has shown signs of nearing its end, though it has not yet resulted in any criminal charges. A spokesman for the special counsel's office declined to comment for this story.
In this February 2020 photo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks with President Donald Trump after delivering the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images/File)
Trump outraged by The New Yorker's report on Milley and Iran
The recording now in the hands of prosecutors shows they are not only looking into Trump's actions regarding classified documents recovered from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but also what happened in Bedminster a year earlier.
The meeting in which Trump discussed the Iran document with others came shortly after The New Yorker published a report by Susan Glasser detailing how, in the final days of Trump's presidency, Milley instructed the Joint Chiefs to make sure Trump did not issue illegal orders and that he was informed if there were any concerns about it. The story infuriated Trump.
Glasser reported that in the months after the election, Milley repeatedly argued against hitting Iran and worried that Trump "could set in motion a full-scale conflict that was not justified." Milley and others convinced Trump not to take such drastic action, according to The New Yorker article.
In the recording and in response to the report, Trump brings up the document, which he said came from Milley. Trump told those in the room that if he could show it to people, it would undermine what Milley was saying, according to sources. One source says Trump refers to the document as if he had it in front of him.
- According to Woodward and Costa's book, General Milley feared Trump would "rebel," so he took steps to protect nuclear weapons.
Several sources say the recording captures the sound of rustling paper, as if Trump is waving the document, though it's unclear if it was the actual document on Iran. There is also laughter in the room that is captured in the recording.
The meeting happened long before Trump's team returned 15 boxes of presidential records and classified documents to the National Archives and Records Management (NARA) in January 2022, after months of back and forth between his team and the records agency.
The Justice Department later obtained additional documents with classification marks in Trump's possession, seizing more than 100 during a search at Mar-a-Lago last August. Trump's legal team hired several people to search other Trump properties, including Bedminster, late last year.
Investigators from the special counsel's office also probed in their document handling and obstruction investigation into other scenarios in which Trump might have shown national security documents — such as maps — to other people, the sources say. They also asked several witnesses to share details about Trump's anger toward Milley.
- Trump's lawyer took notes saying the former president wanted to fight the subpoena for classified documents
During the summer of 2021, sources say several people were making recordings of Trump while he was holding conversations with journalists and biographers.
Trump's Different Explanations for Declassified Documents
Trump and his lawyers have given several different, often contradictory, explanations for why Trump unintentionally withheld classified material in violation of federal law.
Initially, Trump's allies argued that he had a "standing declassification order," so documents removed from the Oval Office were immediately declassified. A few weeks later, Trump told Fox News he could declassify things "just by thinking about it."
Earlier this year, Trump's legal team told Congress that the classified material was unknowingly packaged at the end of the administration. More recently, Trump told CNN at a forum that the materials were "automatically declassified" when he took them.
However, there is no indication that Trump followed the declassification process required by law, and his lawyers have so far avoided saying in court whether Trump declassified the records he had in his possession.
-- Kristen Holmes and Sara Murray contributed reporting.
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