Trump's DOJ won a 2018 case that undermines claims about his broad declassification powers
President Donald Trump (left) stands next to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (right) as he spoke following his swearing-in in 2017. Image via AFP-Jiji.

Allies of former President Donald Trump have claimed that he unilaterally declassified every single government document that he took with him to Mar-a-Lago on his way out of the White House in 2021.

Many legal experts have cast doubt on claims that Trump can simply will documents declassified without going through any kind of formal process, and New York Times reporter Charlie Savage points to a case won by Trump's own Department of Justice in 2018 that rebuts the theory that presidents have near-omnipotent declassification powers.

The case in question involved a New York Times request for documents relating to covert operations in Syria that Trump had revealed in a tweet by criticizing "massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels" made by the United States government.

By talking about the matter publicly, argued the New York Times, Trump had in essence declassified the existence of the program, which would then make documents about it available to reporters through requests via the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Trump DOJ pushed back on this, however, and successfully argued that mere presidential proclamations are insufficient to formally declassify documents.

"The Times cites no authority that stands for the proposition that the President can inadvertently declassify information and we are aware of none," wrote the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in its decision against the Times. "Because declassification, even by the President, must follow established procedures, that argument fails."

Read the DOJ's entire filing at this link (PDF).