The big story last night and all day today has been the audio tape obtained by CNN of Defendant Trump bragging about the top-secret plan to attack Iran during an interview for a book Mark Meadows was writing about his big, difficult, arduous 11 months as White House chief of staff. We already knew that Special Counsel Jack Smith had the tape, apparently obtained from either the writer and publisher for the Meadows book, or from one of the two staffers who were present during the interview.
The big deal was hearing Trump’s voice on the tape. Comparisons were made to the Watergate tapes, when we finally heard Nixon’s voice telling John Dean something like “we can do that” when Dean mentioned a fairly high figure being demanded by the Watergate burglars for their silence. The words “smoking gun” were used to describe the revelation on the tape, but they applied to Nixon’s voice, as well, because there just wasn’t anything like listening to a man of Nixon’s stature – he was president of the United States – committing a felony.
And now here was the voice of Defendant Trump talking about a top-secret plan to attack Iran with a roomful of people who were not cleared to hear anything about such a document, even that it existed at all, much less references to its content. The mere fact that what the document contained was top-secret was itself a secret. We lesser mortals aren’t supposed to know that our government has prepared plans to attack another nation – any nation, much less our sworn enemy, Iran.
And yet, according to what we already knew from the 37-count indictment of Defendant Trump, there he was, sitting out there at his golf club in New Jersey, bragging about having this top-secret document in his possession – in fact, right there in the room with him.
The big revelation from CNN was hearing the sound of Defendant Trump waving around a sheaf of papers and saying on the tape, “These are the papers!” Those words had been missing from the indictment of Defendant Trump, which had included most of the rest of the conversation during the interview. This had allowed Defendant Trump to trumpet in an interview on Fox News last week, “There was no document. That was a massive amount of papers and everything else talking about Iran and other things,” Defendant Trump said on Fox. “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.”
Talk about a gotcha moment! We had been able to read it before, but now, here he was on tape, talking in his Queens-accented braggadaccio way, saying this: “Look what I found! This was Milley’s plan of attack. Read it, and just show…this is interesting,” Defendant Trump says to his rapt audience of aides and interviewers. “He said that I wanted to attack Iran, isn’t it amazing?” (The sound of papers shuffling can be heard.) “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. We looked at some. This was him. This wasn’t done by me, this was him. All sorts of stuff…pages long. Look,” Trump says, as more shuffling of papers can be heard. “Wait a minute. Let’s see here.” A staffer is heard laughing. “I just found. Isn’t that amazing? This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is, like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look. Look at this…by the way, isn’t this incredible?”
Listening to the tape, you can hear comments attributed in the special counsel’s indictment to “STAFFER” and “WRITER” interjecting such encouragement as “wow,” and “uh-uh” and “you did.” But then we get to what politicians like to call the red meat, the real stuff, and in Watergate days, the smoking gun:
“I was just thinking, because we were talking about it. And you know, he said you wanted to attack Iran and…these are the papers!”
There is is! Zingo! Bam! Ka-boom! He’s got them in his hand, and he is clearly showing them to the assembled lackeys and wannabes! He continues, explaining again, in case they didn’t hear him the first time -- Defendant Trump is, if nothing else, a master of repetition, once he’s got an audience in his thrall:
“This was done by the military and given to me! Uh, I think we can probably [use it] right?”
A staffer answers hesitantly, “I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I think we’ll probably have to…”
“Declassify it. See as president, I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret,” says Defendant Trump.
Okay, I thought to myself. I’ll go along with the conventional wisdom that the tape, and especially hearing his voice, proves that, for want of a better phrase, we’ve got him. It is, by God, a smoking gun.
But then I looked again at the date of the Bedminster interview: The indictment tells us it took place on July 21, 2021, less than six months after Trump left the White House.
Then I began to wonder why all the stories about the audio tape begin with reporting about how upset Defendant Trump was with a book written by the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and the New York Times’ Peter Baker and published more than a year later: The Divider: Trump in the White House. The book portrayed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley as so alarmed by the behavior of Defendant Trump after he lost the election in November 2020 that Milley began making daily morning phone calls between himself and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
“Pompeo and Milley soon took to calling them the ‘land the plane’ phone calls,” Baker and Glasser wrote. “‘Our job is to land this plane safely and to do a peaceful transfer of power the 20th of January,’ Milley told his staff. ‘This is our obligation to this nation.’ There was a problem, however. ‘Both engines are out, the landing gear are stuck. We’re in an emergency situation.’”
The book goes into paranoia among the top Pentagon brass that Defendant Trump would order a strike against Iran. The week that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was fired, just a few days after Defendant Trump lost the election, the book reported, “Milley was called to the Oval Office to present various military options for attacking Iran and encountered a disturbing performance by [Christopher] Miller, the new acting Defense Secretary…Trump kept asking for alternatives, including an attack inside Iran on its ballistic-weapons sites. Milley explained that this would be an illegal preëmptive act: ‘If you attack the mainland of Iran, you will be starting a war.’”
The book goes on to report that Trump “continued pushing for a missile strike on Iran even after that November meeting. If Trump said it once, Milley told his staff, he said it a thousand times. ‘The thing he was most worried about was Iran,’ a senior Biden adviser who spoke with Milley recalled. ‘Milley had had the experience more than once of having to walk the President off the ledge when it came to retaliating.’”
But an excerpt from the Glasser/Baker book was published on August 8, 2022, more than a year after Defendant Trump gave the Bedminster interview in which he appeared obsessed with Milley thinking that he was going to start a war with Iran.
Then there was the other book that got Defendant Trump’s ire up: Peril, by Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. CNN headlined a story on the book the day it was published on September 14, 2021, titled “Worried Trump could ‘go rogue,’ Milley took secret action to protect nuclear weapons.” “Two days after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump’s top military adviser, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, single-handedly took secret action to limit Trump from potentially ordering a dangerous military strike or launching nuclear weapons,” CNN reported.
After the attack on the Capitol, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called Milley, sounding alarmed. “What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do?” Pelosi said to Milley, according to a transcript of the call obtained by Woodward and Costa. “And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?” Pelosi continued. “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.”
Milley responded, “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.” CNN reported that after the call with Pelosi, “Milley decided he had to act. He told his top service chiefs to watch everything ‘all the time.’ He called the director of the National Security Agency, Paul Nakasone, and told him, ‘Needles up … keep watching, scan.’ And he told then-CIA Director Gina Haspel, ‘Aggressively watch everything, 360.’”
Woodward and Costa reported that Milley “felt no absolute certainty that the military could control or trust Trump and believed it was his job as the senior military officer to think the unthinkable and take any and all necessary precautions.” Milley told Woodward and Costa it was the “absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility.”
So, there is a lot of stuff out there about General Mark Milley for Defendant Trump to be pissed off about – but every sentence was published well after the day the tape was made at the Bedminster golf club in July of 2021.
One thing we can be certain of is that Trump would never have given an interview to the ghost writer and publisher of a memoir by Mark Meadows if he had known back in July 2021 that Meadows had been on the phone almost daily after November 2020 with Milley and Pompeo talking about “landing the plane” on January 20, 2021, so there would be a smooth transition of power.
Nor would he have given an interview to help out his former chief of staff if he had known that Meadows would give testimony before grand juries in both Washington D.C. and Atlanta about Defendant Trump’s attempts to overthrow the election of 2020. Rolling Stone reported last week that members of Trump’s legal team have been using a rat emoji when referring to Meadows. Other reports have said that nobody close to Trump has been in touch with Meadows “for months.”
So, there are at least two questions about that interview in Bedminster: One, what was Defendant Trump doing with a top-secret document he described as a plan to attack Iran given to him by General Mark Milley? And two, why was he so exercised about Milley on that particular day, months before the Woodward/Costa book would expose the split between him and Milley, and over a year before the Glasser/Baker book would first note that Defendant Trump had asked Milley for a plan to attack Iran just days after he lost the election, and Milley had become so concerned, that he instituted the “land the plane” phone calls?
According to the tape obtained by CNN, Defendant Trump began the interview by calling unnamed people “bad” and “sick.” A staffer who was present during the interview jumps in and says they had tried a “coup” against him. Defendant Trump responds, “Like when Milley is talking about, ‘Oh you’re going to try to do a coup.’”
“No, they were trying to do that before you even were sworn in,” the staffer chimes in.
So the whole thing was touched off by Defendant Trump’s allegation that Milley had accused him of attempting a “coup.” And to rebut Milley, Trump launches into his detailed discussion about the top-secret plan to attack Iran that he alleges Milley gave him.
None of it adds up, especially when you consider that all of this happened before the National Archives had even begun bugging Defendant Trump for the documents and materials they believed he had removed from the White House on January 20 as he left office. And most especially when you consider that Defendant Trump had moved the top-secret document he was waving around twice – first from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, and second, from Mar a--Lago to Bedminster in May 2021 when he relocated for the summer.
There are even more questions: how many other top-secrets documents did Defendant Trump take with him that spring from Mar-a-Lago to Bedminster? And why, for crying out loud? He probably didn’t know in May that Meadows would contact him in July and ask him to talk to his ghost writer and publisher. So, what was he doing with a top-secret plan to attack Iran that he could simply pull from a pile of papers on his desk and describe for his drooling crowd of suck-ups? Did he want to have his secret documents with him in in Bedminster so he could impress his golfing buddies?
Or was there more going on that we don’t yet know?
For the time being, we’ve at least got Trump’s voice committing a felony on tape, exposing some of the nation’s most sensitive national security and military secrets to a gaggle of adoring goofballs, not one of whom had so much as a “confidential” security clearance, much less the clearance needed to see or hear about a document with markings labeling it Top Secret/Secure Compartmented Information – for the eyes only of the man who gave it to him, General Mark Milley, and probably a half-dozen other top Pentagon commanders.
If I were Ayatollah Whoever-the-hell-is-in-charge over in Iran, I would be rubbing my hands together with glee. The rest of us can join him at our leisure as the jaws of justice clench tighter and tighter around the ankles of Defendant Trump.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.