Former President Donald Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill who double as national security hawks were unfazed by his claim that presidents can declassify documents “even by thinking about it.”
The assertion, made in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, came amid the Justice Department’s criminal probe of Mr. Trump’s potential mishandling of classified materials.
Republicans aligned with Mr. Trump argued that while there is a more formal declassification process that is typically followed, presidents enjoy broad discretion on the matter.
“My understanding of the Constitution is he’s the one person who has the ability to declassify when he wants to declassify,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and close Trump ally. “It’s like the pardon power. It’s pretty much unlimited. The founders invested that power with him, and he can declassify it. I don’t know that the constitution spells out there’s a specific process he has to go through, I think he just has that power.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who regularly deals with classified information as the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said presidents “have pretty wide authority.”
“The president can declassify anything they want. It’s virtually impossible for a president to violate classification law because they determine what’s classified and what isn’t,” he said. “There’s no approval process. There’s nobody overseeing the president’s decision. There’s obviously a formal process by which they do it entirely under the executive’s discretion.”
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Mr. Trump‘s lawyers earlier this week refused to affirm to the special master, an independent third party who is determining what documents are off-limits to the DOJ investigators, that the scores of records were indeed declassified.
Still, Mr. Trump claimed in the TV interview that because he had “declassified everything,” the troves of classified documents seized from the former president’s South Florida Mar-a-Lago estate were not classified. He has repeatedly said — without evidence — since the raid that he had already declassified the information in question.
“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it,” Mr. Trump said. “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.”
While it is true that presidents enjoy broad declassification powers, there is a far more stringent process that is normally adhered to that takes place in writing and that involves White House lawyers and relevant government agencies.
Former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton has aired concerns about how his former boss regularly handled classified materials and strongly rejected claims by Mr. Trump that the seized Mar-a-Lago documents were previously declassified.
When prompted about Mr. Trump’s claims to declassify materials “by thinking about it,” Sen. Josh Hawley smiled and questioned whether he actually made such a claim. He went on to say that the former president was “probably suggesting, I imagine, that it’s easy to do.”
“I suspect what he means is that there’s not much to it, and that may be right. I just don’t know,” the Missouri Republican said. “I haven’t thought about the constitutional angle in terms of what authority that gives the president.”
Other Republicans bristled at such a notion, marking a divergence from those in the party who have steadfastly stood by Mr. Trump throughout the DOJ investigation.
“I think it’s probably more complicated than that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a close ally of Mr. Trump.
Other top Senate Republicans, including the No. 2 GOP leader in the chamber, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, offered stronger pushback.
“I think there’s a process for declassifying documents, and I think it ought to be adhered to and followed,” he told reporters.