WASHINGTON — Former President Donald J. Trump claimed on Friday that before leaving office, he declassified all of the documents the F.B.I. present in this week’s search of his Florida residence that agents described as classified in an inventory of what they seized — including several caches apparently marked as “top secret.”
“It was all declassified,” Mr. Trump asserted in an announcement.
The claim echoed an assertion in May by Kash Patel, a former Trump administration official and a significant supporter of Mr. Trump, after the National Archives found materials marked classified in boxes of documents it faraway from Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and estate. He asserted that Mr. Trump had deemed those files declassified shortly before leaving office, but that the markings had not been faraway from them.
Mr. Trump has offered no details, but when he’s saying he made a blanket, oral invocation that each one the files he took to Mar-a-Lago were unclassified, without making any formal, written record, that will be difficult to prove or disprove. Even when there is no such thing as a evidence that Mr. Trump followed normal procedures for declassifying certain kinds of information, his lawyers could argue that he was not constitutionally certain to obey such rules.
But in any case, such a claim wouldn’t settle the matter. For one thing, two of the laws that a search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago this week referred to — Sections 1519 and 2071 of Title 18 of america Code — make the taking or concealment of presidency records against the law no matter whether or not they had anything to do with national security.
For one more, laws against taking or hoarding material with restricted national-security information, which generally carry heavier penalties than theft of peculiar documents, don’t at all times line up with whether the files are technically classified.
That’s because some criminal laws enacted by Congress to guard certain national-security information operate individually from the chief branch’s system of classifying documents — created by presidents using executive orders — as “confidential,” “secret” or “top secret.”
Particularly, a 3rd law the warrant references was Section 793, which carries a penalty of as much as 10 years in prison per offense. Higher often called the Espionage Act, it was enacted by Congress during World War I, a long time before President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order creating the fashionable classification system for the chief branch.
Because of this, the Espionage Act makes no reference as to whether a document has been deemed classified. As an alternative, it makes it against the law to retain, without authorization, documents related to the national defense that may very well be used to harm america or aid a foreign adversary.
Prosecutors could argue that a document meets that act’s standard no matter whether Mr. Trump had pronounced it unclassified short before leaving office; by the identical token, defense lawyers could argue that it fell in need of that standard no matter the way it had been marked.
“Since the Espionage Act speaks by way of national defense information, it leaves open the chance that such information may very well be unclassified so long as an agency continues to be taking steps to guard it from disclosure,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy on the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.