Former Vice President Mike Pence said on Sunday that he knew of no widespread declassification of documents by President Donald J. Trump when they were in the White House together, refuting one of the former president’s main defenses against charges of endangering national security.
Mr. Trump, who has been indicted on 40 felony counts and accused of taking war plans and other secret documents with him when he left office and refusing to return many of them, has long insisted that he had issued a “standing order” to declassify papers and that any he brought home were automatically declassified.
But his vice president became the latest former Trump administration official to say that he had heard of no such edict. “I was never made aware of any broad-based effort to declassify documents,” Mr. Pence said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“There is a process that the White House goes through to declassify materials,” Mr. Pence added. “I’m aware of that occurring on several cases over the course of our four years. But I don’t have any knowledge of any broad-based directive from the president. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur; it’s just not something that I ever heard about.”
Mr. Pence’s recollections square with those of other former White House officials. Mark Meadows, who was Mr. Trump’s last White House chief of staff, told investigators working for the special counsel Jack Smith that he did not recall the former president issuing such an order or even discussing it, ABC News reported on Sunday, citing unnamed sources.
Eighteen former administration officials, including at least two of Mr. Meadows’s predecessors as chief of staff, John F. Kelly and Mick Mulvaney, previously told CNN that they knew of no such order either. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have not included the claim of such a declassification order in court papers, where they would be liable for making false assertions.
Instead, Mr. Trump has made the claim only in public appearances, where there is no legal penalty for not telling the truth. Shortly after an F.B.I. search of his home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida last August turned up a trove of classified documents that he had taken and failed to return after being subpoenaed, Mr. Trump posted on social media that “it was all declassified.”
That evening, he issued a statement read on Fox News saying that he “had a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to the residence were deemed to be declassified.”
During a subsequent interview with Sean Hannity on Fox, Mr. Trump said he did not need to follow any process to declassify documents. “You’re the president of the United States — you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it,” he said then.
Referring to the documents found at Mar-a-Lago, he said, “In other words, when I left the White House, they were declassified.”
Mr. Trump has maintained that assertion for months. During a CNN town hall in May, he said, “They become automatically declassified when I took them.”
But the indictment filed by Mr. Smith in Federal District Court in Florida includes evidence that Mr. Trump was aware that the documents were not declassified. During a recorded July 2021 meeting with two people interviewing him on behalf of Mr. Meadows for the former aide’s memoir, Mr. Trump referred to attack plans against Iran and on the tape sounded as if he were holding it up to show them.
“See, as president, I could have declassified it,” he told them. “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”
ABC News reported that it had reviewed an early draft of Mr. Meadows’s resulting memoir that described Mr. Trump having a classified war plan “on the couch” at his office in Bedminster, N.J., but that the reference was deleted by Mr. Meadows because it would be “problematic.”
George Terwilliger, Mr. Meadows’s lawyer, declined to comment on ABC’s account.
Mr. Pence, who is trailing in his campaign against Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination next year, has been cautious about criticizing his former running mate, who has been indicted in four separate state and federal cases.
But with the first Republican debate looming this week, Mr. Pence has been more willing lately to deride Mr. Trump’s reliance on “crackpot lawyers” in trying to overturn the 2020 election and for asking his vice president “to put him over the Constitution” by invalidating Electoral College votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Asked on ABC on Sunday whether the president’s chief of staff would have known about any broad declassification order had it existed, Mr. Pence said, “I would expect so.”
But he added: “But, look, President Trump is entitled to a presumption of innocence. He’s entitled to his day in court. And I’m just not going to comment on the latest leak or the latest reporting coming out of that process.”
Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.