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Tipsheet

The Leaked Trump Audio Is Bad

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

I've already said my piece on the Hillary Clinton affair and the 'two tiers' of justice credibility problem that our federal law enforcement institutions have created for themselves.  I received a fair amount of flack for making those points, but they're true and I believe them.  I'm also willing to acknowledge, and at least partially agree with, many conservatives' concerns about how the audio discussed below leaked to the press, including relevant ethical and legal ramifications.  On that same point, it would not take much to convince me that such a damaging and damning leak would not have occurred in another politically-sensitive case, particularly if the target's politics were different.  The Durham report, and the many facts leading up to and included in it, were devastating to the image of the Justice Department and FBI as politically-neutral arbiters, and that's a very serious problem.

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But I used the words "damaging" and "damning" intentionally because that is what this audio tape, furnished to and aired by CNN, is.  Before you listen to it, let's first recall what former President Trump told Fox News anchor Bret Baer on Special Report just last week.  Baier asked, inevitably, about the federal indictment in a fair amount of depth, and to the surprise of many (including Baier), Trump answered extensively, rather than offering no comment on an ongoing case.  On the issue of the alleged audio tape documenting Trump showing off highly classified materials to non-eligible guests at his residence, and reportedly admitting in the process that the document he was revealing hadn't been declassified, Trump offered this explanation:

"There was no document -- that was.not a document," he said, insisting that "there was nothing to declassify" because "these were newspaper stories, magazine stories, and articles."  After Trump made this statement on national television, law professor Jonathan Turley wrote that the former president "is arguing that he was referring to newspaper articles etc -- not an actual document. Even if this was not going to be the defense of Trump's team, it now is.  Trump is arguing that there never was a document and that he was referencing coverage on the Iran attack."  Trump not only chose to engage on the subject, he chose to mount this defense.  There was "no document."  He was showing media stories on that tape, nothing more.  And then the audio tape arrived.  Listen to the whole thing -- it's only two minutes long:

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Trump: "I'll show you an example. [General Milley] said that I wanted to attack Iran, isn’t it amazing? I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up. Look. This was him. They presented me this – this is off the record but – they presented me this. This was him. This was the Defense Department and him.”  In this excerpt, Trump plays to his audience, fake marveling at the 'coincidence' that this document just happened to be at the top of his "big pile of papers."  He then states that whatever he's showing his guests (who lack security clearances) came from the Pentagon and a four-star General.  And it dealt with a potential attack against Iran.  “These are the papers. This was done by the military and given to me."  He is plainly and explicitly discussing a sensitive document produced by the Department of Defense.  You can hear the papers being shuffled on the tape.

He warns that the documents are "like, highly confidential" and "secret information," and then seems to wonder aloud how much he's allowed to show his guests. An aide responds, "I don't know, we'll have to see.  We'll have to try to..."  Trump interjects, "declassify it."  But then he explains why that's not possible under the circumstances. "See as president, I could have declassified it.  Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”  An aide reacts, "now we have a problem."  Seemingly turning his attention back to impressing his guests, Trump asks, "isn't that interesting?...It's so cool...It's incredible, right?"  With everyone duly impressed, he then asks a staffer to bring everyone soft drinks.  Trump has now resorted to arguing that his comments on the tape were "bravado" and that no classified documents were shown.  He also says that his reference to "plans" in the Fox interview was not about secret attack plans, but rather building plans for golf courses.  As others have noted, this could be digging even deeper, assuming the special counsel's team has already interviewed the people on the tape and knows what at least some of them would testify to.  Which seems like a relatively safe assumption.

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This is powerful and damning evidence that appears to be a smoking gun of sorts.  Trump shows off documents that he admits were (a) drawn up by the US military, (b) not declassified because he no longer has the power to do so, and therefore (c) still secret.  I'll note that CBS has reported the document in question isn't among the items Trump has been charged for unlawfully retaining, so I'd like to see an explanation for that.  Again, though, Trump's own words on the tape are what hurt him most.  He said the military document was never declassified and still a secret.  It seems entirely possible that the indictment's summary of the audio transcript was handled in such a way as to set another trap for Trump, excluding just enough context and details as to allow the former president to dream up some lie or spin that might seen somewhat plausible to him, based on incomplete information.  If that's the case, Trump raced right into the trap, going on television with his half-baked defense.  Then out comes the tape.  It exposes Trump even further from a legal perspective, and inflicts additional political harm -- even if the GOP base has decided none of this matters, or even somehow amounts to an imperative to nominate him again.  

The Republicans should be able to defeat an unpopular, geriatric, struggling incumbent president.  They just can't alienate the people who swing elections by picking a challenger who's even less popular. Hardcore Republicans and Trump loyalists may convince themselves nobody cares about these things, but voters have sent loud and clear messages for three straight election cycles, and they continue to send the same message.  Among these key voters, in what conceivable way might the new developments mentioned above help with this issue?

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