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Trump’s Fox News interview was a defense attorney’s nightmare

The former president offered a confusing, and likely damaging, defense of his latest indictment.

Former President Donald Trump Speaks At Trump National Golf Club Bedminster
Former President Donald Trump sat down for a Fox News interview addressing his latest indictment.
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In a tense Fox News interview on Monday, former President Donald Trump offered a confusing defense in response to his recent indictment, touting his right to keep sensitive documents and effectively admitting that he held onto them even after he was supposed to return them. Trump’s interview follows a 37-count indictment that’s centered on his decision to take classified national security documents after leaving the White House, for which he was arraigned in court in Miami last week.

“I have every right to have those boxes,” Trump told Fox News host Bret Baier as part of their conversation, while claiming that these documents were “declassified,” a point the indictment rebuts. “This is purely a Presidential Records Act. This is not a criminal thing.”

Trump’s statements, many of which were meandering and difficult to follow, both provided a muddled defense, and may have offered fodder to reinforce some of the charges against him. By acknowledging that he had the documents in his possession and that he had reasons for not returning them promptly, Trump’s statements corroborated allegations he’s charged with regarding mishandling these materials.

Trump also clashed repeatedly with Baier on other subjects, as he was pressed regarding repeated falsehoods about the 2020 election results and critiques from members of his former administration. Below are four takeaways from their contentious conversation, which addressed the documents case as well as Trump’s plans for a potential second term.

1) Trump explained why he didn’t hand documents over to National Archives

At one point, Baier asks Trump directly why he didn’t give sensitive documents back to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Trump notes that it’s because he wanted to remove personal belongings and because he was “busy.”

“Why not just hand them over then?” Baier asked.

“Because I had boxes. I want to go through the boxes and get all my personal things out,” Trump said. “I don’t want to hand that over to NARA yet. And I was very busy, as you’ve sort of seen.”

“But according to the indictment, you then tell this aide to move to other locations after telling your lawyers to say you’ve fully complied with the subpoena when you hadn’t,” Baier asked.

“But before I send boxes over, I have to take all of my things out,” Trump argued. “These boxes were interspersed with all sorts of things, golf shirts, clothing, pants, shoes, there were many things.”

These statements are significant because, as some legal experts have noted, they indicate that Trump knew he was holding on to information he was asked to return. That admission, ultimately, could be used to show that Trump was aware of what he was doing and involved in the retention of the documents.

“Trump confessed to personally going through the boxes and had no explanation for why classified records from those boxes wound up in his personal desk,” national security attorney Bradley Moss told Newsweek. “He placed himself at the scene of the retention and obstruction. This is the stuff of nightmares for a defense attorney.”

2) Trump claims he did not refer to confidential Iran document in recording

In the recording described in the indictment, Trump allegedly mentioned having sensitive information about attack plans on Iran in a meeting with a book publisher. According to the transcript, Trump describes a document that’s “secret” and “highly confidential.”

But in the Monday interview, Trump denied referring to or having a classified document, seemingly directly contradicting his own words in the recording. He emphasized that the materials he referenced in the recording included other content, like news clippings.

“There was no document,” Trump claimed. “That was a massive amount of papers and everything else talking about Iran and other things. And it may have been held up or may not, but that was not a document. I didn’t have a document per se. There was nothing to declassify. These were newspaper stories, magazine stories, and articles.”

3) Trump addresses critics from his own administration

Baier put Trump on the spot about attacks he’s faced from his own Cabinet members and questions about how he’d even staff the White House if he’s elected.

“Your Vice President Mike Pence is running against you, your Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, she’s running against you, your former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he’s not supporting you, you mention National Security Advisor John Bolton, he’s not supporting you either. You mentioned Attorney General Bill Barr, says you shouldn’t be president again, calls you the consummate narcissist and troubled man,” said Baier, going on to list other officials Trump has criticized. “So why did you hire all of them in the first place?”

“I hired 10 to one that were fantastic. We had a great economy, we had phenomenal people in charge of the economy, we had phenomenal people in the military. … I’m not a fan of certain of the television people,” Trump noted. “For every one you say, I had 10 that love us.”

Baier’s question points to the awkward situation Trump now finds himself in, with multiple former administration officials and allies now challenging him in the 2024 Republican primary. It’s an unusual scenario in which several former members of his own team, like Pence, have become some of his most vocal critics.

4) Trump doubles down on 2020 election lies

In response to a question about how he could win over independent women voters who may be turned off by his legal baggage, Trump leaned into his election lies further by once again suggesting that he won in 2020, a claim that’s been repeatedly disproven.

“First of all, I won in 2020 by a lot,” Trump said, suggesting that there was “cheating” on the other side.

“You lost the 2020 election,” Baier responded.

“You take a look at all of the stuffed ballots, take a look at all of the things, including things like the 51 intelligence agents,” Trump said.

“There were recounts in all of the swing states, there was not significant widespread fraud,” Baier noted. “There were investigations of widespread corruption, there was not a sense of that. There were lawsuits, more than 50 of them by your lawyers, some in front of judges that you appointed, that came out with no evidence.”

This exchange highlighted how Trump has continued to refuse to move on from the 2020 election fraud claims even as many Republicans have been eager for a fresh start after election denialism proved to be a losing message in many midterm races.

Trump’s interview comments may actually hurt his case

Legal experts have concluded that Trump’s comments could prove damaging for him when the case goes to trial, something that could happen as soon as later this year. Not only did his statements fail to offer a coherent defense of his actions, but parts of the interview have the potential to strengthen the prosecution’s case since they speak to concerns that he actively took documents and prevented authorities from recovering them.

“He essentially admitted to obstruction of justice and said the reason he did it was that he needed to go through them,” Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “This evidence, this recording is very likely to be played before a jury trial.” Trump’s 2024 rival Chris Christie echoed this point in a CBS News interview on Tuesday, suggesting that Trump admitted to “obstruction of justice” in his conversation with Baier when he said he took more time to review the documents.

The statements from Trump’s interview could ultimately be used in court to bolster prosecutor’s claims that Trump both kept classified documents and failed to comply with a federal subpoena for them. “Statements of this kind are generally admissible at trial,” George Washington University law attorney Jonathan Turley posted on Twitter.

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