Over the last month, following the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, which is now known to have turned up roughly 100 classified documents after Donald Trump’s lawyer signed a statement that there were none, court filings and public statements have filled in the details of what has been a very murky understanding of the “Doc-a-Lago” scandal. Trump left Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2021. And here we are, 17 months later, discovering that he had boxes of the most secret information—including national security documents involving human intelligence and imagery from spy satellites—stashed in Mar-a-Lago. Including in the drawers of his own desk.
It’s no wonder that the response of some skeptics to the whole affair is, “If these documents were so critical, why didn’t they move faster?”
Because the story revealed by all these documents isn’t just one in which Trump, beyond a shadow of doubt, committed and instructed others to commit multiple serious federal offenses, any one of which can, and has, sent other people to jail for many years. The story told in the court filings is one in which every agency involved—from the National Archives, to the Department of Justice, to the White House—gave Trump every possible break. Everyone gave Trump almost endless chances to do the right thing.
And, of course, he spat on them all.
The government brief filed on Monday evening in response to an order from Judge Aileen Cannon is absolutely devastating when it comes to the case against both Trump and his attorneys. Not only does that brief reveal that the government found documents of the highest possible classification scattered around Mar-a-Lago in unsecure locations, it found them after Trump attorney Christina Bobb signed an statement declaring that a “diligent search” showed no such documents remained. Even more sobering are statements in this filing that indicate Trump “likely concealed and removed” classified documents from Mar-a-Lago in an attempt to hide them from the FBI. With that in mind, it’s likely that all the classified material Trump took from the White House and other locations in D.C. has still not been found.
But this brief wasn’t the first document to emerge, or the first to paint a damning picture of what has happened over the last months at Mar-a-Lago. Last week, the affidavit behind the FBI search was released in response to an order from Judge Bruce Reinhart. That affidavit, which normally would have remained hidden, revealed that the FBI search took place as part of a “criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information” and that this investigation was opened to “among other things, determine how the documents with classification markings and records were removed from the White House.”
What’s amazing is that both of the documents—which are utterly damning—were released only because federal judges went out of their way to show unprecedented deference to Trump. It’s almost unheard of for a federal affidavit to be released in the midst of a criminal investigation, but Reinhart gave in to demands that it be seen after Trump supporters lobbied for its release. The latest filing, showing the stash of highly classified and clearly marked documents that Trump failed to turn over, came only because Cannon determined that she would grant Trump’s request for a “special master” even though granting that request took writing new law out of thin air.
Those two judges are at the end of a long line of people who, from day one of this affair, tried to give Donald Trump every possible break. Despite having walked out of the White House carrying documents that represent a threat to national security, and storing them in ways that made them accessible to hundreds of unvetted passers-by, Trump was given almost endless chances to simply hand them back and walk away.
It was never a mystery that Trump had taken some documents he shouldn’t have. Even before Trump went out the door, refusing to attend the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the National Archives was informed by the White House Records Office that documents it was tracking had not been returned. When the National Archives had trouble negotiating with Trump’s team to obtain these documents, they turned to the White House, but rather than issuing an order, Biden’s team took a hands-off attitude, leaving it to the archives to sort out. They considered seeking a subpoena, but instead worked slowly using the Presidential Records Act, while Trump either ignored their requests or asked for more time.
That’s why it took a full year before the 15 boxes of material made its way to the archives. What generated almost immediate concern wasn’t just that the boxes were found to contain 100 classified documents, 25 of which were at Top Secret or above, but that these documents had clearly been treated in a cavalier manner and were mingled with “newspapers, magazines, printed
news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes, presidential correspondence, personal
and post-presidential records.”
Again, the National Archives could have marched these documents straight to the FBI. They didn’t. Instead, they notified both the Department of Justice and Trump’s attorneys of what had been found, and continued working through the steps of the Presidential Records Act, which allowed Trump to continue asking for more time when not simply being unresponsive.
On April 12, the clearly frustrated archivist informed Trump that she intended to give the records to the FBI the next week. Trump’s response … was to ask for another delay. The Department of Justice didn’t get their first glimpse of what was in the first 15 boxes until April 29.
That day, the Department of Justice sent notification to Trump’s legal team that the contents of the boxes held “important national security interests” and that “access to the materials is not only necessary for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation, but the Executive Branch must also conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported.”
In the case of human intelligence, any sign that the identity of an asset had been revealed would have meant immediate exfiltration, even if there was no clear sign that the asset was in danger. Both embedded resources and in-place agents that had taken years to establish would have been removed as rapidly as possible to avoid any consequences of having been compromised. Considering that the CIA and other agencies had noted a recent increase in assets lost overseas, there is a chance that handling these documents in an unsecure fashion had already generated fatal results.
Even then, the response of Trump’s attorneys was to … ask for more time. And, for the first time in this sequence, Trump tried a new ploy by saying that, if he didn’t get the extension he wanted, he would assert “‘executive privilege made by counsel for the former President.” On May 10, the acting archivist informed Trump’s attorneys that they were not giving them an extension, and did not recognize Trump’s authority to claim privilege over classified materials.
The FBI finally got there hands on those first 15 boxes on May 16. What they found inside was “184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as CONFIDENTIAL, 92 documents marked as SECRET, and 25 documents marked as TOP SECRET.” Additionally, some bore the markings indicating they were only to be handled within secure facilities or that they were restricted in the interest of national security. That day, May 16, was the first day the FBI, Department of Justice, and other agencies really got a sense of how bad this was going to be.
At this point, the FBI “developed evidence” that what was in the 15 boxes was far from a complete tally of the dangerous documents in Trump’s possession. There’s been an assumption that this was a matter of someone coming forward—a witness or whistleblower—but it’s also likely that the documents found may have simply been incomplete. Considering how loosely the material had been treated, these classified documents may have been missing pages, or documents that the White House Records Office had identified as being with Trump might not have surfaced.
Whatever happened, it happened fast. Even before the FBI started looking through the files, the Department of Justice had convened a grand jury, and dispatched a subpeona to Trump’s designated “custodian of records” (attorney Christina Bobb).
Even at this late date, it seemed as if the Department of Justice was desperately trying to offer Trump an “out,” because that subpoena indicated that Bobb could comply by sending any remaining classified documents to the Department of Justice and signing a “sworn certification that the documents represent all responsive records.” Trump’s team … asked for an extension.
And that’s how two FBI agents and a Department of Justice attorney ended up visiting Mar-a-Lago on June 3, 2022, supposedly to pick up the last remaining classified documents. When they arrived, Bobb handed over a single “Redweld envelope”—the kind of cardboard expanding file used to store documents in many offices—“double-wrapped in tape.” Bobb then signed a document saying:
“Based upon the information that has been provided to me, I am authorized to certify, on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump, the following: a. A diligent search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida; b. This search was conducted after receipt of the subpoena, in order to locate any and all documents that are responsive to the subpoena; c. Any and
all responsive documents accompany this certification; and d. No copy, written notation, or reproduction of any kind was retained as to any responsive document.”
At that moment, despite everything that had happened to get there, despite delays, foot-dragging, and the outright theft of clearly marked classified material that was in no way connected to any possible task Trump should have been conducting, it’s extremely likely that not another word or action would have been taken.
Except that the statement Bobb signed was a lie.
During that visit to Mar-a-Lago, the agents were allowed to see the so-called “storage room” at Mar-a-Lago where they were told all the boxes of documents from the White House were kept. However, they weren’t allowed to look at the contents of those boxes. In fact, “the former President’s counsel explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room, giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained.”
Obviously, that alone was a reason to be concerned. The envelope handed over that day contained a further 38 classified documents, including 17 marked as “TOP SECRET.” Some of these were also marked “SCI” indicating that they were where “sensitive compartmentalized” documents while others bore national security markings. Bobb didn’t even try to explain why Trump had these documents, or why they hadn’t been returned with the first 15 boxes.
Over the next month, the FBI “uncovered multiple sources of evidence” that “classified documents remained at the Premises, notwithstanding the sworn certification.” They also developed evidence that records were “likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.” Unlike the steps that made the FBI step up their activity in the first place, this change would almost certainly seem to reflect the action of some whistleblower or other witness who told the FBI about these crimes in progress. Video from the storage room area, showing that the room was frequently entered and that materials were taken from it, may have contributed to this conclusion.
Whatever the source, on Aug. 5, 2022, the government went to Reinhart for a search warrant. That search warrant was carried out on Aug. 8 and netted approximately another 100 classified documents. From the image contained in the latest Department of Justice filing—an image now suspected to represent documents found in Donald Trump’s personal office—many of those documents were not just top secret, but included the SCI notice showing that they were compartmentalized information. Other markings on those pages show that they are among the most valuable, most sensitive, documents in all of government.
What the whole history of this event shows is how at every level, and every step, the National Archives, the White House, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the judges involved gave Trump every possible break. He was granted almost endless delays. Neither the White House or the Department of Justice stepped in early, allowing the archivist to deal with Trump’s legal team right up until the point where it was clear that further efforts to negotiate were fruitless. Even when the Department of Justice and FBI stepped in, Trump had the opportunities to simply own up to the documents he was still holding and put this behind him.
He didn’t. Instead, he didn’t just lie, he had his legal representative lie, in writing, to the FBI, for the purposes of obstructing a criminal investigation in progress.
Trump had every opportunity. And threw them all away.
Whatever he was doing with those documents, he better hope it was worth it.
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