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James Risen on Why Trump’s Charges Are Different Than for Whistleblowers Targeted Under Espionage Act

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As former President Donald Trump faces Espionage Act charges, newly leaked audio reveals he showed a classified Pentagon document to multiple people in 2021 detailing a plan to attack Iran, contradicting Trump’s recent claim that he did not have classified documents. We speak with veteran national security reporter James Risen, who says Trump is a thief and should not be compared to whistleblower Reality Winner or others, but also notes, “I am no fan of the Espionage Act. I don’t think that it should be on the books.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I really want to get your book, Jim, a fascinating book called The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy, but first want to turn to the new developments in the charges that former President Trump violated the Espionage Act through the willful retention of classified records.

On Monday night, CNN released an audio recording of Trump from a 2021 conversation at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, when he discussed holding classified documents, knowing they were classified, knowing he hadn’t declassified them, showing them to a publisher and a writer and his aides. In the tape, Trump is heard shuffling through the papers as he describes a top-secret Pentagon document that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley had written, he said, a document about attacking Iran, and more. The recording, first aired on CNN, contradicts Trump’s recent claim that he didn’t have the classified documents.

DONALD TRUMP: These are bad, sick people. But —

STAFFER: That was your coup, you know, against you. That —

DONALD TRUMP: Well, it started right at the beginning.

STAFFER: Like when Milley is talking about, “Oh, you were going to try to do a coup.” No, they were —


STAFFER: — trying to do that before you even were sworn in.

UNIDENTIFIED: That’s right.

STAFFER: Trying to overthrow your election.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, with Milley — uh, let me see that. I’ll show you an example. He said that I wanted to attack Iran. Isn’t it amazing? I have a big pile of papers. This thing just came up. Look. This was him. They presented me this — this is off the record, but they presented me this. This was him. This was the Defense Department and him.


DONALD TRUMP: We looked at some. This was him. This wasn’t done by me. This was him. All sorts of stuff, pages long. Look.


DONALD TRUMP: Wait a minute. Let’s see here.

UNIDENTIFIED: Oh gosh. Oh my gosh.


DONALD TRUMP: I just found — isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know.

STAFFER: Mm-hmm.

DONALD TRUMP: Except it is, like, highly confidential.


DONALD TRUMP: Secret. This is secret information. Look. Look at this. You attack, and —

STAFFER: Hillary would print that out all the time, you know.

DONALD TRUMP: She’d send it —

STAFFER: Her private emails.

DONALD TRUMP: No, she’d send it to Anthony Weiner.


DONALD TRUMP: The pervert.

STAFFER: Please print.

DONALD TRUMP: By the way, isn’t that incredible?


DONALD TRUMP: I was just saying, because we were talking about it. And, you know, he said, “He wanted to attack Iran, and what” — these are the papers.

STAFFER: You did.

DONALD TRUMP: This was done by the military and given to me. Uh, I think we can probably — right?

STAFFER: I don’t know. Well, we’ll have to see. Yeah, we’ll have to try to —

DONALD TRUMP: Declassify it.

STAFFER: — figure out a — yeah.

DONALD TRUMP: See, as president, I could have declassified it.


DONALD TRUMP: Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.

STAFFER: Yeah. Now we have a problem.

DONALD TRUMP: Isn’t that interesting?


DONALD TRUMP: It’s so cool. I mean, it’s so — look, her and I have — and you probably almost didn’t believe me, but now you believe me.

WRITER: No, I believed you.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s incredible, right?

WRITER: No, they never met a war they didn’t want.

DONALD TRUMP: Hey, bring some — uh, bring some Cokes in, please.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that audio aired on CNN of Trump. It comes as he’s charged with violating the Espionage Act through the willful retention of classified records. He also faces six counts, including obstruction of justice and false statements, at a federal trial in Miami scheduled for August 14th.

For more on this, we continue with James Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, now with The Intercept, where he’s senior national security correspondent, also director of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund. He was a target of the U.S. government’s crackdown on journalists and whistleblowers himself and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at The New York Times about warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the National Security Agency. Jim waged a seven-year battle, risking jail, after the Bush administration, then the Obama administration sought to force him to testify and reveal his confidential sources in a leak investigation. He never gave in. The government finally backed down. Well, now he’s written a piece for The Intercept headlined “Don’t Compare Donald Trump to Reality Winner. He’s No Whistleblower. He’s just a thief!”

Can you elaborate on this, Jim?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, sure. I think one of the things that bothered me right after the Trump indictment was that there were a lot of pundits starting to compare Trump to people who have been caught up in other espionage cases, including Reality Winner, who was a whistleblower about Russian efforts to hack into American election systems in the 2016 presidential race. And I just thought it was a ridiculous comparison, because Trump was just doing this for selfish reasons. He clearly came to believe that keeping classified information was like keeping gold coins. It was a way of keeping something of value and just stealing something of value from the government on his way out the door. I don’t think he cared much about public service or about the public interest in this information. He wanted to either sell it to the highest bidder or to continue to use it to gain status somehow. And so, I think it’s just a horrible comparison to talk in the same breath with people who have risked their lives in order to make the public aware of government abuses, like, you know, so many whistleblowers have.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jim, while I agree with you that there’s a major difference between what whistleblowers and what Trump did, aren’t some skeptics of what’s happening with this prosecution at least partially right that, one, there’s a major problem of overclassification of documents by the government in this country, and also that this whole issue of the Espionage Act and the dissemination of classified information has been weaponized by the government to go after people?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, sure. Well, they did it — you know, they’ve done it in a million cases, including a case I was involved in. So, I am no fan of the Espionage Act. I don’t think that it should be on the books. I think it should be repealed. But I just find that the irony is very thick here in this case, where he was spending most all of his presidency prosecuting as many whistleblowers as possible and was trying jail his opponents, have anybody who leaked investigated, and now he’s caught up in it. So, I’m not advocating this is the right way to conduct government operations by having an Espionage Act. I just find it very ironic. And to me, it’s kind of like Al Capone, who got, after he — on his murderous reign in Chicago, ultimately got caught up in a tax evasion case. To me, that’s — you know, Trump is a criminal. He’s a pathological liar. And this is the — the irony is, this is kind of the Al Capone tax evasion case, in my opinion. It’s something that the government could get him on because they didn’t get him on other things.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, just 10 seconds — Walt Nauta is going to be arraigned today, Jim Risen. You have another piece talking about how lackeys always take the fall for President Trump.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I mean, he is a classic Trump lackey. He’s a low-level guy who probably had no idea what was going on. He just followed orders. And then Trump used him and abused him and set him up in a situation where everything he was doing was illegal. And I’m sure Trump tried to convince this poor guy from the Navy that, you know, he was the president, and he could set the laws. I’m sure it’s somebody who had no idea what he was really doing, and then finally got caught up because he agreed to lie and obstruct justice for Trump. And so, I think if he’s smart, he’ll flip on Trump. But the track record shows that very few of Trump’s lackeys ever do flip on him.

AMY GOODMAN: And a number go to jail. James Risen —


AMY GOODMAN: — we’re going to continue with you after break, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, formerly with The New York Times, now with The Intercept. But next up, we’re going to talk about your major new book, The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy. We’ll be talking about the FBI, the CIA. We’ll be talking about assassination plots by the U.S. government against people like Castro, Lumumba and others. Stay with us.

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