In December 2019, after President Donald Trump had shared with journalist Bob Woodward the fawning letters that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had written to him, the U.S. leader seems to acknowledge he should not be showing them around.
After urging Woodward to “treat them with respect,” Trump warns in an interview, “and don’t say I gave them to you, okay?”
“But I’ll let you see them,” Trump adds. “I don’t want you to have them all.”
A month later, in January 2020, Woodward pressed Trump in a phone call to let him also see the letters that Trump wrote to Kim. “Oh, those are so top secret,” Trump says, according to notes of the call taken by Woodward and highlighted in a new audiobook: “The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Trump.”
In hindsight, the comments by Trump show he was well aware that the 27 letters exchanged between himself and Kim were classified, despite his repeated claims that none of the documents he improperly took from the White House when leaving office, including the Kim letters, were in that category. The FBI and Justice Department this year executed a court-authorized search of Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club and residence — turning up 103 documents marked classified and roughly 11,000 not marked classified as part of an ongoing criminal probe into Trump’s handling of sensitive material.
The new details also provide further evidence of Trump’s abiding obsession with the Kim letters, which he often bragged about and would show off to friends. The English translations of the letters, which Woodward includes as an appendix to a written transcript of the audiobook, shows page after page of pen-pal niceties — birthday tidings, “best wishes” for friends and family — between the then-president and the autocratic leader of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
The audiobook, which comes out next Tuesday, contains 19 raw and lengthy interviews Woodward conducted with Trump between fall of 2019 through August 2020 for his book, “Rage,” as well as one interview he conducted with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa in 2016. The interviews, Woodward says in his introduction, were edited only for clarity.
During the December 2019 interview, Trump asks Woodward what he did with the letters he had provided him at that point, asking if he made “a Photostat of them or something” — apparently referring to a photocopy.
“No, I dictated them into a tape recorder,” Woodward replies, to Trump’s amusement.
In an interview with The Post ahead of the audiobook’s release, Woodward said Trump helped set him up with an aide in the West Wing, who supervised as Woodward — who had been given both the English translations and original Korean versions of Kim’s letters to Trump — handled the documents and dictated them all into his tape recorder.
Later, after Trump agreed to share his letters to Kim, Woodward said he returned to a West Wing office, where an aide again watched as he read the new set of letters into his tape recorder.
In the interview, Woodward also said he observed no classified markings on any of the letters he was given, though U.S. officials have indicated that they were classified documents.
In an aside in the audio book, Woodward describes “the casual, dangerous way that Trump treats the most classified programs and information, as we’ve seen now in 2022 in Mar-a-Lago, where he had 184 classified documents, including 25 marked ‘Top Secret.’”
That was in reference to Trump implying there was a secretive weapons system he controlled. “I have built a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said in an interview, before referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.”
Trump’s long obsessions with strongmen leaders — and Kim in particular — comes through in the interviews. Throughout their conversations, Trump repeats the false claim that former president Barack Obama tried 11 times to reach Kim with no success.
Woodward points out that Trump’s own military advisers have warned him that Kim “lies through his teeth to you,” and that Obama made no attempts to speak with Kim himself.
“Kim Jong Un gave you bad information on that,” Woodward tells Trump at one point. “I don’t think that’s true.”
But Trump is not persuaded, choosing to believe Kim over his own advisers.
“Obama called 11 times,” Trump insists. “They showed me the records in Korea. I’m very close to this man. Very close.”
In a later interview, Trump boasts that he averted a war with North Korea, again repeating his false claim about Obama and choosing to believe Kim over his own military team: “Obama wanted, 11 times he tried,” Trump says. “Kim Jong Un told me. Eleven times.”
Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.