The initial batch of documents retrieved from the National Archives by former President Donald Trump in January included more than 150 marked classified, a number that sparked intense concern at the Justice Department and helped launch the criminal investigation that led FBI agents to raid Mar – a-Lago this month is seeking to recover more, said several people briefed on the matter.
In all, the government has recovered more than 300 classified documents from Trump since he left office, the people said: that first batch of documents returned in January, another batch provided by Trump aides to the Justice Department in June and the material seized by the FBI in the investigation this month.
The volume of previously unreported sensitive material found in the former president’s possession in January explains why the Justice Department moved so urgently to seek out any other classified material he might have.
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And the extent to which such a large number of highly sensitive documents remained at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., for months, even as the department sought the return of all material that should have remained in custody when Trump left office, suggested to officials that the former president or his aides were cavalier in their handling of it, that they had not fully briefed investigators, or both.
The specific nature of the sensitive material Trump took from the White House remains unclear. But the 15 boxes Trump turned over to the archives in January, nearly a year after he left office, included documents from the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI covering various national security matters, a person briefed on issue. he said.
Trump went through the boxes himself in late 2021, according to multiple people briefed on his efforts, before delivering them.
The highly sensitive nature of some of the material in the boxes prompted archives officials to refer the matter to the Justice Department, which within months had convened a grand jury investigation.
Trump aides turned over a few dozen additional sensitive documents during a visit to Mar-a-Lago by Justice Department officials in early June. After the investigation concluded this month, officials were left with 26 boxes, including 11 sets of material marked classified, containing dozens of additional documents. One set had the highest level of classification, top secret/sensitive departmental information.
The Justice Department’s investigation is ongoing, suggesting officials are unsure whether they have recovered all of the presidential records Trump took with him from the White House.
Even after the FBI’s emergency decision to execute a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, investigators sought additional surveillance footage from the club, people familiar with the matter said.
It was the second such demand for the club’s security tapes, the people familiar with the matter said, noting that authorities were still looking into how classified documents were handled by Trump and his staff before the investigation.
A spokesman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
Trump allies insist the president had a “standing order” to declassify material that left the Oval Office for the White House residence and claimed the General Services Administration, not Trump’s staff, packed the boxes of documents.
No documentation has come to light to confirm that Trump declassified the material, and the potential crimes cited by the Justice Department in seeking the Mar-a-Lago search warrant will not depend on the classified status of the documents.
National Archives officials spent much of 2021 trying to get material back from Trump after learning that about two dozen presidential records had been sitting in the White House residence for several months. Under the Presidential Records Act, all official materials remain government property and must be provided to the archives at the end of the president’s term.
Among the items they knew were missing were Trump’s original letters from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and a note that President Barack Obama had abandoned Trump before he left office.
Two former White House officials who were named among Trump’s representatives with the records received calls and tried to facilitate the return of the documents.
Trump resisted those calls, describing the boxes of documents as “mine,” according to three advisers familiar with his comments.
Shortly after beginning their investigation earlier this year, Justice Department officials believed there were additional classified documents they needed to collect. In May, after a series of witness interviews, the department issued a subpoena for the return of the remaining classified material, according to people familiar with the incident.
On June 3, Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division’s counterintelligence division, went to Mar-a-Lago to meet with two of Trump’s lawyers, Evan Corcoran and Christina Bobb, and retrieve any confidential material. to satisfy the subpoena. Corcoran went through the boxes himself to identify classified material in advance, according to two people familiar with his efforts.
Corcoran showed Bratt the basement storage room where he said the rest of the material was kept.
Trump briefly came to see the investigators during the visit.
Bratt and the agents who followed him received a bundle of classified material, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Corcoran then drafted a statement, which was signed by Bobb, who is said to be the custodian of the documents. He claimed that, as far as he knows, all the classified material that was there had been returned, according to two people familiar with the statement.
Corcoran did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Bob did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Soon after that visit, investigators, who were interviewing several people in Trump’s inner circle about the documents, came to believe there were other undelivered presidential records, according to people familiar with the matter.
On June 22, the Justice Department subpoenaed the Trump Organization for the Mar-a-Lago security video, which included a heavily trafficked hallway outside the storage facility, the people said.
The club had 60-day monitoring plans for certain areas of the property, running until the end of April this year.
While much of the footage showed hours of club employees walking down the busy hallway, some of it raised concerns for investigators, according to people familiar with the matter. It revealed people moving boxes in and out, and in some cases, appeared to be changing the containers inside which some documents were kept. The video also showed other parts of the property.
Seeking a second round of security footage, the Justice Department wants to review the tapes for the weeks leading up to the Aug. 8 investigation.
Federal officials said their initial goal was to secure any classified documents Trump kept at Mar-a-Lago, a paid-for-members club where there is little control over who comes as a guest. It remains to be seen whether anyone will face criminal charges stemming from the investigation.
The combination of witness interviews and the initial security plan led Justice Department officials to begin drafting a request for a search warrant, the people familiar with the matter said.
FBI agents conducting the search found the additional documents in Mar-a-Lago’s basement storage, as well as in a container in a closet in Trump’s office, the people said.
Trump allies have attacked law enforcement, accusing investigators of being partisan.
Intense public interest has now sparked a legal battle to see the underlying search warrant affidavit. On Monday, a federal judge issued a formal order asking the Justice Department to send him sealed proposed amendments to the warrant-based affidavit used in the Mar-a-Lago search through Thursday, along with a memorandum explaining his excuses.
In the order, the judge, Bruce E. Reinhart, said he was inclined to release portions of the sealed affidavit but wanted to wait until he saw the government’s filings before making a decision.
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