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Prosecutors say Trump talks about keeping classified documents on a recording

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Federal prosecutors reportedly have a recording of president - former President Donald Trump talking about a classified document he had after he left office. The first account of this came from CNN. In the audio from 2021, Trump reportedly can be heard waving a paper. It's said to be a Pentagon memo about a potential attack on Iran. He's saying he'd like to share it, but the document is classified. That would contradict Trump's repeated claims that secret documents seized from his Florida home last year were all declassified. Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti joins me now to discuss the significance of this recording.

Good morning, Renato. Thanks for being on the program.

RENATO MARIOTTI: Good morning.

FADEL: So this recording seems to show Trump knew he had classified documents. Is this the piece of evidence the special counsel needs to bring a case?

MARIOTTI: It certainly helps quite a bit. The special counsel already had a pretty strong case, based on what we know publicly. I think this particular piece of evidence not only moves this case forward, but it undercuts some of the president's, you know, strongest defenses or the defenses that he did have, as you mentioned a moment ago.

FADEL: When you say it's the strongest piece of evidence, if you could talk about why.

MARIOTTI: Sure. So the biggest challenge for a prosecutor in a case like this is proving the defendant's state of mind. We don't have a telescope that can see inside President Trump's mind, and the jury would have to be convinced that he knew that he was, you know, retaining information that was supposed to be in the hands of the government. He, of course, has made statements to try to, you know, disclaim that and confuse the issues. And this recording, I think, indicates very clearly that he knew he had information that was important defense information. I think it's fair to say that an attack on Iran is sort of a document that should be kept secret. It shows that he had the information; he knew he wasn't supposed to share it. But frankly, he was actually, you know, alluding to doing so on that tape.

FADEL: So it shows intent there.

MARIOTTI: It does.

FADEL: How might Trump's team explain what is on this recording?

MARIOTTI: I think it's difficult, and that's part of the power of that evidence. It's very difficult to explain away his words, particularly without the former president taking the stand himself, which is always a risky thing to do if you are charged in a criminal case. I think that they would basically have to try to say that he was, you know, joking and/or that he was, you know, pointing out that he didn't share the details of that information there, so he knew not to share it. But that's sort of beside the point.

FADEL: Now, this case is one of several. There are ongoing criminal and civil cases involving the former president, and that's pretty uncharted legal territory. What kind of trouble could Trump potentially face here?

MARIOTTI: Yeah. I think this is by far the most serious and problematic case for the former president. I think it's in a league of its own. And this case would result in a sentence of, you know, multiple years in prison. If we look at comparable sentences, for example, a case where a defense contractor brought home classified documents and retained them, you know, at his home, received a number of years in prison. Obviously, we can't predict exactly what would happen in this particular case given that it would be unprecedented.

FADEL: Now - but this is a former president here, and other former presidents have had classified documents in their homes or their office, the current president as well. What's the difference with this case?

MARIOTTI: Well, the - in those other cases, you had stray documents that were inadvertently possessed by those presidents. And ultimately, those presidents reported it themselves. Here, the former president had the government trying very desperately to get that information from him, and he refused to provide it.

FADEL: Renato Mariotti is a formal - former federal prosecutor. Excuse me. Thank you so much for your time.

MARIOTTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.