Two of Trump's Chiefs of Staff Reject Declassify Order Claim: 'Foolish'

Two of former President Donald Trump's ex-chiefs of staff rejected claims that there was a "standing order" to declassify documents taken to his residence.

The FBI carried out a search warrant of Trump's Florida resort home, Mar-a-Lago, on August 8 to recover top secret and other classified materials that the ex-president had taken from the White House. Although Trump initially floated the possibility that the FBI planted the classified documents, his spokespeople later pivoted to say that the files were declassified under an established procedure.

"President Trump, in order to prepare for work the next day, often took documents, including classified documents, to the residence. He 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," his team told Fox News in a statement last Friday evening.

However, John Kelly, who served as Trump's White House chief of staff from July 2017 to January 2019, and Mick Mulvaney, who held the role in an acting capacity from January 2019 to March 2020, told CNN for an article published Thursday, that there was no "standing order." Kelly went so far as to call the idea "foolish."

Mick Mulvaney and John Kelly
Mick Mulvaney (left) and John Kelly (right) greet each other at a White House briefing on May 2, 2017. Mulvaney and Kelly, who both served as former President Donald Trump's White House chief of staff, dismissed his team's claim that there was a "standing order" to declassify federal documents. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"Nothing approaching an order that foolish was ever given," Kelly said. "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."

Mulvaney told CNN that he was "not aware of a general standing order" while he served as the former president's top White House aide. The CNN report cited 18 former Trump administration officials, some of who were not named, who said they'd never heard of the directive.

Newsweek reached out to Trump's press office and the former president's final chief of staff, Mark Meadows, for comment.

Trump said that the information was "declassified" in a post to his Truth Social online platform last Friday. "Number one, it was all declassified. Number two, they didn't need to 'seize' anything. They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago," he wrote.

Presidents do have wide latitude to declassify federal government documents while in office. However, legal experts have explained that this still requires a process, and it's not clear that the required steps were followed for Trump to declassify the material. Other legal analysts have said that it may not matter, as the federal statutes the FBI warrant cited wouldn't require the documents to be classified in order for the law to have been broken.

"This defense will fail because the three laws that they selected to put on the search warrant don't require that the documents be classified," former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade said during a Saturday appearance on MSNBC. "I think this is going to be the incredible shape-shifting defense; we've already seen several iterations of this from first denying that he had them and then accusing the FBI of planting certain evidence and now it's the classification."

Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton, who held that title from April 2018 to September 2019, also said he was unaware of a so-called "standing order" about declassified material.

"I was never briefed on any such order, procedure, policy when I came in," Bolton told The New York Times last week. "If he were to say something like that, you would have to memorialize that, so that people would know it existed."

The ex-president has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and accused the FBI of corruption, although the federal agency is currently led by Director Christopher Wray, a Republican whom Trump nominated to the position. The former president also said that the FBI search was part of a broader partisan "witch hunt" targeting him and his family.