In the days since the FBI seized classified and top secret documents from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, the former President and his allies have claimed that Trump had a “standing order” to declassify documents he took from the Oval Office to the White House residence.
But 18 former top Trump administration officials tell CNN they never heard any such order issued during their time working for Trump, and that they believe the claim to be patently false.
Several officials laughed at the notion. One senior administration official called it “bullsh*t.” Two of Trump’s former chiefs of staff went on the record to knock down the claim.
“Nothing approaching an order that foolish was 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 that worked at the White House after me that would have simply shrugged their shoulders and allowed that order to go forward 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 and told CNN he was “not aware of a general standing order” during his tenure.
In addition, CNN spoke with former national security and intelligence officials as well as White House lawyers and Justice Department officials. Taken together, their tenure covers all four years of the Trump administration, and many served in positions where they would either be included in the declassification process, or at the very least, be aware of such orders.
Official after official scoffed at the claim Trump had a standing order to declassify documents that left the Oval Office and were taken to the residence.
“Total nonsense,” one senior White House official said. “If that’s true, where is the order with his signature on it? If that were the case, there would have been tremendous pushback 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 the condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss internal Trump administration dynamics as well as to avoid any potential blowback from the former President.
Blanket claims of declassification
Trump and his allies have made a wide range of claims about declassification in the days after the FBI’s August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago, which resulted in federal agents seizing 11 sets of classified documents – including some marked with the highest levels of classification.
On his social media platform Truth Social last week, Trump made the sweeping claim that the documents in the boxes seized by the FBI at his home were “all declassified.”
John Solomon, editor-in-chief of conservative website “Just the News,” was more specific in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity last week. Solomon, who Trump named as one of his designees to 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 taken to the residence were deemed to be declassified the moment 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 to the Archives – also said on Fox last week that Trump “issued sweeping declassification orders on multiple occasions.” Patel said he did not know whether the boxes at Mar-a-Lago contained documents that were part of those orders.
Representatives for the former President did not respond to requests for comment. Solomon and Patel also did not respond.
The FBI’s unprecedented search warrant of the former President’s residence in Florida was the result of a federal investigation into the removal of classified material from the White House as Trump was leaving office. The investigation goes well beyond the question of whether the material was classified: The search warrant made public last week identifies possible violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records as reasons for the search.
On Thursday, a judge heard arguments to unseal additional materials in the investigation, including the affidavit federal investigators would have had to file laying out why they believed there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. The Justice Department opposes releasing the affidavit, saying it would harm the ongoing criminal investigation.
‘It can’t just be an idea in his head’
Even if Trump had sought to broadly declassify documents, there is a specific process that the president is supposed to follow, the officials said. Declassification must be memorialized and includes careful reviews and notifying agencies such as the CIA, NSA, Department of Energy, State Department and Defense Department.
“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 they were.”
Laufman’s successor, Jay Bratt, was one of the four federal investigators who met with Trump’s attorneys about the documents at Mar-a-Lago in June, CNN has previously reported.
One source familiar with declassification inside the Trump White House said although it is true that the President has broad declassification powers, Trump would have needed to create a record of it – and the source said he did not do that.
“As a practical matter, you have to prove it,” the source said. “If he says, ‘I declassified something,’ the obvious question is, ‘Did you tell anybody about it?’ The obvious concern is that this is all after the fact.”
Another source with knowledge of how the former president operated said it was Trump’s view that he could declassify information anytime and any way he wanted.
“He was counseled that’s not the way it works,” the source said.
‘A complete fiction’
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton called the notion of a standing declassification order “a complete fiction.”
“I was not briefed on anything like that when I started as national security adviser,” Bolton said on CNN’s “New Day” earlier this week. “I never heard of it, never saw it in operation, never knew anything about it.”
In addition, Olivia Troye, a former homeland security adviser to then Vice President Mike Pence, called the notion of a blanket declassification “ludicrous.” Another former senior intelligence official laughed and said it was “ridiculous.”
And a source familiar with White House records and declassification said Trump’s claim was “laughable” and that if any such order existed, it was “Trump’s best kept secret.”
Multiple sources said they believed that Trump’s claim the documents were declassified was nothing more than a transparent attempt to try to defend himself for taking the documents to Mar-a-Lago.
“There is a process to declassify, the president can’t just wave a magic wand,” a former senior Trump White House official said.
All 18 former Trump administration officials who spoke to CNN agreed. “It doesn’t even work that way, there is an actual process,” said one former White House national security official.
“If this existed, there had to be some way to memorialize it,” Bolton said on “New Day.” “The White House counsel had to write it down. Otherwise, how would people throughout the government know what to declassify?”
‘They would have resigned’
A former senior intelligence official said intelligence community leaders, such as then-CIA Director Gina Haspel, would have been informed of any declassification orders.
“And they would not 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 nearly unlimited discretion to classify and declassify information. But Aftergood said the notion that a document was declassified based on its location – such as taking it out of the White House – simply “strains credulity.”
“A document that is classified in Washington, DC, is unclassified in Florida – one could say such a thing, but it is nonsensical,” he said. “And it calls into question the good faith of anyone who would make such a claim.”
Troye, the former homeland security adviser to Pence, said, “there would be a paper trail of this blanket authority being the case, and in two and a half years of working in national security in the White House, not once did I ever hear this discussed.”
Troye resigned from the Trump administration in August 2020 and now leads 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 could essentially do whatever they want with our nation’s secrets poses an incalculable risk to US national security,” Griffin said.
“We would know,” another former intelligence official said, adding that trying to say the documents were automatically declassified is like “trying to close the barn door after the horse.”
CNN’s Gloria Borger, Evan Perez, Sara Murray and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.