But 18 former top Trump administration officials tell CNN they have never heard of such an order issued during their time for Trump, and they believe the claim is patently false.
Several officials laughed at the idea. A senior government official called it “bullsh*t.” Two former Trump chiefs of staff have filed charges to quash the claim.
“Nothing came close to a foolish order ever given,” said John Kelly, who served as Trump’s chief of staff for 17 months from 2017 to 2019. “And I can’t imagine anyone who has worked in the White House after me simply shrugged and let that order go through without dying in the ditch trying to stop it.”
Mick Mulvaney, who succeeded Kelly as acting White House chief of staff, also dismissed the idea, telling CNN he was “not aware of any general standing order” during his tenure.
In addition, CNN spoke with former national security and intelligence officials, as well as White House attorneys and Justice Department officials. All told, their tenure spans all four years of the Trump administration, and many served in positions where they would either be included in the declassification process, or at least be aware of such orders.
Official after official scoffed at the claim that Trump had a standing order to release documents that left the Oval Office and were taken to the residence.
“Total nonsense,” said a senior White House official. “If that is true, where is the warrant with his signature on it? If that was the case, there would have been a massive backlash from the Intel community and DoD, which would almost certainly have become known to Intel and Armed Services Committees on the Hill.”
Many of the officials spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the internal dynamics of the Trump administration and to avoid a possible backlash from the former president.
General claims of declassification
Trump and his allies have made a wide variety of declassification claims in the days following the FBI’s Aug. 8 search for Mar-a-Lago, which led to federal agents seizing 11 sets of classified documents, including some marked with the highest levels of classification.
On his social media platform Truth Social, Trump last week made the sweeping claim that the documents in the boxes the FBI seized from his home had “all been released.”
John Solomon, editor-in-chief of the conservative website “Just the News,” was more specific in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity last week. Solomon, who was named by Trump as one of his designees for the National Archives, read a statement from Trump’s team claiming that the former president had “a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and sent to the property were deemed to have been released at the time he removed them.”
Kash Patel, a Trump ally and former national security official in the Trump administration — and also one of the former president’s designees for the records — also said on Fox last week that Trump “has issued sweeping declassification orders on multiple occasions.” Patel said he didn’t know if the boxes at Mar-a-Lago contained documents that were part of those orders.
Representatives of the former president did not respond to requests for comment. Solomon and Patel also did not respond.
The FBI’s unprecedented search warrant for the former president’s Florida residence was the result of a federal investigation into the removal of classified material from the White House when Trump left office. The investigation goes well beyond the question of whether the material is classified: The search warrant released last week identifies possible Espionage Act violations, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records as reasons for the search.
On Thursday, a judge heard arguments to unlock additional material in the investigation, including the affidavit federal investigators would have had to file explaining why they believed there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. The Justice Department opposes releasing the affidavit because it would harm the ongoing criminal investigation.
‘It can’t just be an idea in his head’
Even if Trump had attempted to release documents broadly, there is a specific process the president should follow, the officials said. Declassification needs to be remembered and involves careful assessments and notification agencies such as the CIA, NSA, the Department of Energy, the State Department and the Department of Defense.
“It can’t just be an idea in his head,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division who investigated Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified documents. “Programs and officials would have been notified. There is no evidence that they were.”
Laufman’s successor, Jay Bratt, was one of four federal investigators who met with Trump’s lawyers in Mar-a-Lago in June about the documents, CNN previously reported.
A source familiar with Trump’s White House declassification said that while it’s true that the president has broad declassification powers, Trump should have made a record of it — and the source said he didn’t.
“In practice, you have to prove it,” says the source. “When he says, ‘I released something,’ the obvious question is, ‘Did you tell anyone about it?’ The obvious concern is that this all happened afterwards.”
Another source with knowledge of how the former president operated said Trump believed he could release information any time and any way he wanted.
“He was advised that it doesn’t work that way,” the source said.
‘A complete fiction’
Former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton called the idea of a permanent declassification order “a complete fiction”.
“When I started as a national security adviser, I was not informed about this,” Bolton said on CNN’s “New Day” earlier this week. “I’ve never heard of it, never seen it in action, never knew anything about it.”
In addition, Olivia Troye, former homeland security adviser to then Vice President Mike Pence, called the idea of a blanket declassification “ridiculous.” Another former senior intelligence official laughed and said it was “ridiculous”.
And a source familiar with the White House data and the declassification said Trump’s claim was “laughable” and that if such an order existed, it was “Trump’s best kept secret.”
Multiple sources said they believed Trump’s claim that the documents had been released was nothing more than a transparent attempt to defend himself for bringing the documents to Mar-a-Lago.
“There is a process to declassify, the president can’t just wave a magic wand,” said a former senior Trump White House official.
All 18 former Trump administration officials who spoke to CNN agreed. “It doesn’t even work that way, there’s a real process,” said a former White House national security official.
“If this existed, there had to be some way to commemorate it,” Bolton said on “New Day.” “White House counsel had to write it down. How else would people across government know what to release?’
‘They would have resigned’
A former senior intelligence official said intelligence community leaders, such as then CIA director Gina Haspel, would have been notified of any declassification orders.
“And they wouldn’t have allowed it,” the official said. “They would have resigned.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy and an expert on classification, noted that presidents have almost unlimited freedom to classify and declassify information. But Aftergood said the idea of a document being released based on its location — like getting it out of the White House — just “presses credulity.”
“A document classified in Washington, DC, is not classified in Florida — you could say something like that, but it’s nonsensical,” he said. “And it questions the good faith of anyone who would make such a claim.”
Troye, Pence’s former homeland security adviser, said: “There would be a paper trail from this General Authority, and in two and a half years working in national security at the White House, I have not once heard this discussed. .”
Troye resigned from the Trump administration in August 2020 and now heads an anti-Trump Republican group.
Alyssa Farah Griffin, a CNN political commentator who resigned as White House communications director shortly after the 2020 presidential election, called a blanket declassification “deeply reckless.”
“The idea that a president or former president can essentially do whatever he wants with our nation’s secrets poses an incalculable risk to US national security,” Griffin said.
“We would know,” said another former intelligence official, adding that trying to say the documents were released automatically is like “trying to close the stable door behind the horse.”
Gloria Borger, Evan Perez, Sara Murray and Gabby Orr of CNN contributed to this report.