Appearing to contradict former President Donald Trump's primary public defense in the classified documents case, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has told special counsel Jack Smith's investigators that he could not recall Trump ever ordering, or even discussing, declassifying broad sets of classified materials before leaving the White House, nor was he aware of any "standing order" from Trump authorizing the automatic declassification of materials taken out of the Oval Office, sources familiar with the matter tell ABC News.
Ever since the FBI's seizure of more than 100 classified documents from his Mar-a-Lago estate last August, Trump has insisted that he declassified all the materials before he left office. The former president now faces 40 separate criminal charges related to his possession of those documents, ranging from unlawful retention of national defense information to various obstruction-related offenses.
Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has denied any wrongdoing.
ABC News has also reviewed an early draft of the prologue to Meadows' book, "The Chief's Chief," about his time serving as Trump's chief of staff for the final months of the Trump White House, which includes a description of Trump having a classified war plan "on the couch" at his office in Bedminster, New Jersey, at a meeting attended by Meadows' ghostwriter and publicist, but not by Meadows himself. The reference to that document being in Trump's possession was removed before the book was published.
Multiple sources tell ABC News Meadows acknowledged to investigators that he asked that the paragraph be changed, and that it would be "problematic" had Trump had such a document in his possession. Sources tell ABC News that Meadows told special counsel investigators that he did not discuss making those edits with Trump.
Meadows also told investigators that he was not involved in packing the boxes that Trump took to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House, sources told ABC News, largely distancing himself from the removal of government documents, including classified materials. The sources said Meadows told investigators he did not witness Trump himself packing boxes and was unaware that Trump had taken any government records, including classified documents.
The former chief of staff also told investigators that shortly after the National Archives first requested the return of the official documents taken to Mar-a-Lago in 2021, he offered to Trump that he would go through the former president's boxes to retrieve the official records and send them back to Washington. Meadows told investigators Trump did not accept his offer, according to sources.
Following the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, Trump's team issued a statement to one media outlet claiming that, while still in office, Trump had issued "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." On social media, Trump himself insisted that the documents at Mar-a-Lago were "all declassified."
According to sources familiar with the matter, Meadows told investigators that he had heard the term "standing order" used during his time in the White House, but not in relation to the declassification process.
While Trump's attorneys have not formally put forward such a defense in court, if they were to seek to make such a claim at trial then prosecutors could see substantial value in putting forward Meadows as a witness to counter such claims.
A spokesperson for the special counsel's office declined to comment when reached by ABC News. Meadows' lawyer, George Terwilliger, declined to comment for this story when reached by ABC News.
In a statement to ABC News, a Trump spokesperson, without evidence, accused the Justice Department of "selectively leaking incomplete information" to impact the 2024 election.
The statement claimed the DOJ and the special counsel "have resorted to selectively leaking incomplete information that lacks proper context because they know they can't win inside a courtroom, so now they are trying to deceive Americans through the court of public opinion," adding that "This witch-hunt is nothing more than a desperate attempt to interfere in the 2024 election as President Trump dominates the polls and is the only person who will take back the White House."
Meadows recalled to investigators only one instance in his time serving as Trump's chief of staff where he claimed to see Trump declassifying documents, involving a binder with materials from the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign's ties with Russia, multiple sources familiar with the matter said. That order, in the final days of Trump's time in the White House, has been a subject of dispute, however, as the Justice Department has resisted publicly releasing the purported documents at issue.
Meadows has been publicly silent on the topic of the classified documents probe, as well as Smith's parallel investigation into Trump and his allies' efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election -- generating speculation among Trump's inner circle regarding what Meadows may have told investigators in that probe, according to sources. Meadows himself was indicted last week alongside Trump and 17 others in Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' separate investigation into election interference in Georgia.
Smith's team has also questioned other witnesses about the references to the war plan document that were dropped from the early draft of Meadows' book, sources say. According to sources, a previous draft of the book written by Meadows' ghostwriter -- who, along with the book's publicist, was present at the meeting with Trump at Bedminster in July 2021 -- specifically referenced a four-page war plan the president was heard referring to in an audio recording from the meeting that he claimed had been produced by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Meadows himself was not at the meeting.
"Wait a minute, let's see here. I just found, isn't that amazing?" Trump says in the recording, later obtained by ABC News. "This totally wins my case, you know. Except it is like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this. This was done by the military and given to me. As president I could have declassified, but now I can't."
In the final version of Meadows' book, "The Chief's Chief," released in late 2021, the Bedminster exchange comes up in the prologue where it says Trump "recalls a four-page report typed up by Milley himself."
"It contained the general's own plan to attack Iran, deploying massive numbers of troops, something he urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency," Meadows' book says.
But a draft version of the passage initially sent to Meadows by his ghostwriter, which was reviewed by ABC News, more directly referenced the document allegedly in Trump's possession during the interview.
"On the couch in front of the President's desk, there's a four-page report typed up by Mark Milley himself," the draft reads. "It shows the general's own plan to attack Iran, something he urged President Trump to do more than once during his presidency. ... When President Trump found this plan in his old files this morning, he pointed out that if he had been able to make this declassified, it would probably 'win his case.'"
Sources told ABC News that Meadows was questioned by Smith's investigators about the changes made to the language in the draft, and Meadows claimed, according to the sources, that he personally edited it out because he didn't believe at the time that Trump would have possessed a document like that at Bedminster.
Meadows also said that if it were true Trump did indeed have such a document, it would be "problematic" and "concerning," sources familiar with the exchange said. Meadows said his perspective changed on whether his ghostwriter's recollection could have been accurate, given the later revelations about the classified materials recovered from Mar-a-Lago in the months since his book was published, the sources said.
In an interview with Fox News in June, Trump denied that the material in his possession at Bedminster was a classified document.
"I didn't have a document, per se," Trump said. "There was nothing to declassify. These were newspaper stories, magazine stories and articles."
Meadows also told investigators that he would have responded differently than Trump when the National Archives first asked Trump to return all remaining presidential records in his possession, and would have been very diligent in his handling of the initial search for documents to return to NARA, sources familiar with the matter said.
It's not clear whether the special counsel continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding Meadows' book edits.
In a superseding indictment last month, Smith charged Trump with possessing the document he was allegedly referring to in that meeting, after Smith previously only referenced the exchange in his first indictment the month before.
Meadows, along with the other former Trump aides, had been subpoenaed by Smith for testimony and documents related to the special counsel's probes. ABC News has previously reported that Meadows appeared in April before a federal grand jury hearing evidence in the classified documents probe.