|Trump on the campaign trail|
A tape recording uncovered this week of Donald Trump discussing classified documents suggests to some critics that the former president is not fit to hold the office he hopes to regain in 2024, but that might not affect Trump's support from his adoring political base, according to an analysis at CNN. Stephen Collinson, the network's White House reporter, writes under the headline "The tape that perfectly encapsulates why Trump may be unfit for the Oval Office – and why it may not matter":
Critics on Tuesday seized on the latest Trump tape as a perfect example of why the twice-impeached, twice-indicted former president is unfit to return to the Oval Office.
But the recording also explains the former commander in chief’s undimmed appeal to GOP base voters for whom rule breaking that horrifies Washington elites is a major justification for granting him a second term.
On the audio – exclusively obtained by CNN – Trump discusses holding a secret document. The conversation from a July 2021 meeting at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club is one of two episodes referenced in the indictment where prosecutors allege Trump showed classified information to others who did not have security clearances.
Given the extraordinary circumstances in which an indicted ex-president is also the GOP front-runner for 2024, the tape – the existence of which CNN first reported late last month – will play a political role separate from its use in Trump’s trial.Some of the former president’s most prominent critics already say it should be a campaign killer.
“We’ve seen now with the audio tape that is out today, as well you know, that there is simply no question that he’s unfit to be the president of the United States,” former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who effectively sacrificed her career in Republican politics to oppose Trump, told NBC’s Lester Holt at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig said the tape appears to play directly into the charges that Trump is facing – alleged willful and illegal retention of national-security documents.
Why does the tape matter in some circles? Collinson writes:
“What has this tape established? Donald Trump had sensitive information, confidential information relating to military plans,” Honig said on “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday. “He knows that that’s what this is. And he’s sharing the information somehow or other with outsiders with no security clearance.”
Former GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – like Cheney, a former member of the House select committee that probed the January 6, 2021, insurrection in the last Congress – added: “Most people with an ego try to put national security … above your ego. It’s the opposite in this case.”
Trump has put his legal problems at the center of his campaign – portraying himself as an innocent victim of political persecution. While this may be a good strategy in the GOP primary, it may not play so well next November if he’s the nominee.
In a surprising twist on Tuesday that could fuel such concerns among Republicans, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy – one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants – said in a CNBC interview that he thinks Trump can win in 2024, but added of his patron, “Is he strongest to win the election – I don’t know that answer.” The California Republican faced an immediate backlash in Trump world. “People are not happy. What was he thinking?” one source told CNN’s Kristen Holmes. (The speaker later told Breitbart News that he thinks Trump is “stronger today than he was in 2016.”)
It remains unclear what corroborating information prosecutors have around the recording and with key Trump interlocutors. But the audio does appear to undercut Trump’s previous claims he didn’t have any such classified material. It will be up to a jury of his peers in Florida to decide whether such evidence is sufficient to convict Trump, who has pleaded not guilty to 37 charges related to alleged mishandling of classified documents.
In the tape, Trump seems to indicate he was holding up information that may be among the government’s most closely guarded secrets. “These are the papers,” he says on the recording, suggesting he just picked up a pile off his desk.
His apparent disregard for classified information is breathtaking as he laughs and jokes. As he often did in office, Trump appears to have been using US national security as a tool for his own personal or political gain. Trump also appears to be making the case of federal prosecutors for them. He admits he can’t declassify the material as an ex-president, apparently blowing up one of his most likely avenues of self defense at trial. (Trump has recently said he did not have any documents with him, telling Fox that the papers were newspaper clippings and magazines.)
For national-security professionals, lawmakers, and former officials, many of whom fear infringing strict rules on the handling of classified material, his disdain for the law – and the national security of a nation he once pledged to preserve, protect and defend – is staggering.
As the blowback directed at McCarthy suggests, Trump's MAGA base does not much care what their beloved leader might have done wrong. Writes Collinson:
Yet as extraordinary as the latest example of Trump’s mockery of presidential conventions is, it is also likely to provide the umpteenth example of how Trump’s antics – while horrifying to millions of Americans – are unlikely to besmirch him with core GOP voters.
In response to the tape, Trump – as he often does – sought to redefine an apparent example of aberrant behavior as perfectly acceptable.
“I had a whole desk full of lots of papers, mostly newspaper articles, copies of magazines, copies of different plans, copies of stories, having to do with many, many subjects, and what was said was absolutely fine. … We did nothing wrong. This is a whole hoax,” he told Fox News Digital on Tuesday.
This is a tactic the ex-president has used before. He did so over a tape that appears to depict him trying to convince GOP officials in Georgia to help him steal the 2020 election in the swing state. And earlier over his “perfect” call to Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, in which he leveraged military aid to try to coerce the Ukrainian president to investigate his 2020 rival, Joe Biden. That call led to Trump’s first impeachment.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Trump was in vintage form, delighting an audience with his norm-busting behavior and untruths and conspiracy theories. He showed how he has successfully portrayed the criminal investigations he’s facing – including an earlier indictment in Manhattan – into a conceit bought by many GOP voters that he’s being targeted by a weaponized Justice Department.
“Every time the radical left Democrats, Marxists, communists and fascists indict me, I consider it a badge – a great, great, beautiful badge of honor and courage,” Trump said at the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women’s annual Lilac luncheon.
“Because I’m being indicted for you.”
His argument reflected the many ways that Trump has changed the GOP. The so-called adult-in-the-room party on national security is now effectively led by a former commander in chief who mocks classified-document protocols and allegedly ferreted away critical war plans. Once the party of law and order, many Republicans now regard the FBI as little more than a hotbed of liberal extremists.
This might sound absurd to many Americans, but that's not how the MAGA crowd hears it. The more Trump spits in the face of convention and the rule of law, the more they love it:
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the ex-president’s strategy is working politically – at least in a GOP primary.
Although his support among Republicans appeared to soften in a CNN poll conducted after his second indictment, he still had a firm lead in the primary field. Furthermore, 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters said Trump’s conduct doesn’t matter much to them as they consider his candidacy, because a president’s effectiveness matters more. Only 26% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said that Trump should end his campaign in light of the federal charges.
In another sign his narrative has taken hold, a new national NBC News poll found that 6 out of 10 Republicans believe the indictments and investigations Trump faces are politically motivated. Anecdotally, multiple New Hampshire Republican voters interviewed at a May CNN town hall with Trump – before the federal indictment – indicated that they had no concern over Trump’s handling of classified documents and viewed him as a victim of political persecution who was getting an unfair measure of scrutiny simply because of who he was.
Trump denies all wrongdoing in both the classified-documents case and the Manhattan matter, which is due to go to trial in March – right in the middle of primary season. He could face other indictments, including in a Justice Department probe into efforts to overturn the 2020 election. CNN reported exclusively Tuesday that former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has been interviewed by federal investigators. Trump is facing a separate probe in Georgia into efforts to overturn Biden’s win in the state.
None of these cases appears likely to interfere with his bid for the GOP nomination – even if first voting is still months away. But it is unclear how multiple trials could impact his campaign schedule and whether the weight of multiple indictments could change his prospects.
And the same polls that show Trump maintaining a lead in the primary also contain warning signs for the former president regarding a general election. The CNN poll shows that most Americans approve of Trump’s indictment in the classified-documents case, even as 71% say politics played a role in that charging decision.
The electability question is why some of Trump’s Republican primary foes have been gently experimenting with rhetoric on the classified documents, possibly to test whether they can fan doubts about Trump’s suitability as a nominee among GOP voters fed up with losing national races.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, for instance, has said Trump was “incredibly reckless” over his handling of classified information if the 37-count indictment handed down by special counsel Jack Smith is true. But reflecting Trump’s Teflon status among primary voters, Haley didn’t weigh in on the audio tape, telling CNN on Tuesday, “We’re gonna let the courts play that out and do whatever.”
It is far too early to judge whether Trump’s deepening legal woes will convince some Republicans that another candidate might be a better standard bearer in 2024. And if he is the nominee, there are multiple factors – including the state of the economy, potential national-security crises, and Biden’s age – that could shape the election.
But one key factor has been consistent since 2016: Whatever Trump does is unlikely to shake his bond with his most loyal supporters.