Inside the 20-Month Fight to Get Trump to Return Presidential Material

WASHINGTON — The National Archives and the Justice Department tried and failed repeatedly for more than a year and a half to retrieve classified and sensitive documents from former President Donald J. Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by Mr. Trump’s lawyers.

The documents, including an unsealed, redacted version of an affidavit from the Justice Department requesting a warrant to conduct the search, make clear the lengths to which the government went before pursuing a law enforcement action to recover the material.

Here’s a timeline of the events that led to the search.

Late 2020

Talks begin between the National Archives and Trump.

The Trump White House begins having conversations about transferring presidential records to the National Archives, as required by the Presidential Records Act.

Notes from conversations among White House staff members indicate that there are discussions about material that Mr. Trump had been amassing, and how to get it back and make sure the documents are properly handled.

Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, tells others he will take care of it, according to people familiar with the matter, but it is unclear whether he ever talks to Mr. Trump.

Jan. 18, 2021

The move to Mar-a-Lago begins.

Two days before Mr. Trump is to leave office, at least two moving trucks are spotted at Mar-a-Lago, his club and residence in Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Trump leaves the White House for Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 20. Photographs show boxes of material leaving with him, although those boxes are only a portion of what ultimately made it there.

When the F.B.I. searched Mar-a-Lago this month, federal agents recovered 11 sets of classified material.Credit…Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

May 6, 2021

The archives alerts Trump’s team to missing material.

Gary M. Stern, the archives’ general counsel, emails Mr. Trump’s representatives — the lawyers Patrick F. Philbin, Michael Purpura and Scott Gast — saying that the government had discovered that the original correspondence with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, was missing, as was a letter that President Barack Obama had left for Mr. Trump at the White House upon leaving office.

Mr. Stern, sounding impatient, says that Pat A. Cipollone, the former White House counsel, identified roughly two dozen boxes of material that had been in the White House residence but was never transferred to the archives. It was not clear whether he meant Mr. Cipollone specifically or his office. Nonetheless, Mr. Stern asks for help getting all the material back.

Explore Our Coverage of the Trump Investigations

  • White House Documents: Mr. Trump kept more than 700 pages of classified documents, according to a letter from the National Archives. The Justice Department is said to have retrieved more than 300 classified documents from Mr. Trump since he left office.
  • A Showdown in Georgia: Senator Lindsey Graham is fighting efforts to force him to testify before an Atlanta special grand jury investigating election interference by Mr. Trump and his allies in the state.
  • Invoking the Fifth Amendment: Sitting for a deposition in the New York attorney general’s civil inquiry into his business practices, Mr. Trump repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self incrimination.

According to the affidavit, the archives continued to make such requests for months.

May 18, 2021

Trump offers to return letters from Kim Jong-un.

Mr. Gast sends Mr. Stern a note indicating that Mr. Trump will return correspondence with the North Korean leader and asks how to proceed. Another archives official recommends that the letters be sent by FedEx, to which Trump aides object. The letters are not returned.

Summer 2021

Trump displays the Kim letters.

Mr. Trump shows off the letters from Mr. Kim, waving them at people in his office, where some boxes of material from the White House are being stored. Mr. Meadows, contacted by Mr. Philbin in an effort to facilitate the return of materials from Mar-a-Lago, talks to Mr. Trump about the documents at the club during a visit there. The conversation is brief, and it is not clear how aggressively Mr. Meadows pursues the issue.

Mr. Trump’s representatives to the archives are still engaged with the agency over unrelated records.

Late 2021

Archives officials warn of consequences.

Officials at the archives warn Mr. Trump’s representatives that there could be a referral to the Justice Department or an alert to Congress if the former president continues to refuse to comply with the Presidential Records Act.

Mr. Trump’s advisers are concerned about who can go through the documents held at Mar-a-Lago, because appropriate clearances are needed to review classified material and it is not immediately obvious what is in them. Mr. Trump ultimately goes through the boxes at the club himself, although he appears not to have gone through them all.

In late December, Mr. Trump’s lawyers inform the archives that they have found 12 boxes of documents at Mar-a-Lago and that they are ready for retrieval.

Jan. 18, 2022

The archives recovers sensitive material from Mar-a-Lago.

Officials from the archives retrieve 15 boxes containing presidential records and other sensitive material, along with various news clippings and other miscellanea. According to the Justice Department, the documents “appear to contain national defense information,” sometimes called N.D.I., which is protected by the Espionage Act.

The archives informs the Justice Department, which asks President Biden to request that the archives provide the F.B.I. with access to the boxes for examination. Later, when the Justice Department reviews the materials, investigators come to believe they have not recovered everything that Mr. Trump must return.

The National Archives in Washington. Among the missing records that the archives sought was correspondence with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Jan. 31, 2022

The archives publicly criticizes Trump’s destruction of documents.

The archives makes a public statement about Mr. Trump’s record-keeping practices, noting that some of the records it received at the end of his administration “included paper records that had been torn up by former President Trump.”

About a week later, the archives issues another public statement about retrieving documents from Mar-a-Lago, asserting that Mr. Trump still has presidential records that should have been turned over to the archives at the end of his time in office.

Feb. 9, 2022

The archives refers the matter to the Justice Department.

The archives tells the Justice Department that a preliminary review of the 15 boxes recovered in January indicated that they contained “a lot of classified records,” including highly classified records that were “unfoldered, intermixed with other records and otherwise unproperly identified.”

The next day, the House Oversight Committee announces an investigation into the records retrieved from Mar-a-Lago.

Spring 2022

Investigations into the missing material ramp up.

A grand jury is seated to look into the missing boxes of documents. The F.B.I. begins interviewing several of Mr. Trump’s personal aides as well as three former White House lawyers who had been among Mr. Trump’s representatives to the archives.

By now, Mr. Trump has dug in his heels, insisting to his advisers that he has returned everything and is unwilling to discuss the matter further.

April 29, 2022

A review raises national security concerns.

The Justice Department tells Mr. Trump’s lawyers that the archives has found over 100 documents — more than 700 pages — with classification markings in the 15 boxes, and says the executive branch must assess “the potential damage resulting from the apparent matter in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.”

Mr. Trump’s team scrambles to find lawyers with appropriate classification to review the remaining documents still in his possession. Two of his representatives to the archives, Mr. Philbin and John Eisenberg, decline to get involved. Mr. Trump’s advisers call several other lawyers with the appropriate clearances to see if they will help review the materials, but they decline.

Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have been telling him for months that he needs to return the documents. But other allies, including Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, have been telling Mr. Trump that he is entitled to keep the documents and never should have been pushed to return them. One adviser, Kashyap Patel, a former senior Trump administration official, offers a defense for Mr. Trump’s handling of the material, telling the right-wing news site Breitbart that the former president had declassified it.

May 11, 2022

A grand jury issues a subpoena to Trump.

Mr. Trump receives a grand jury subpoena seeking additional documents bearing classified markings.

The following week, as the F.B.I. reviews the material in the 15 boxes recovered from Mar-a-Lago, the agency identifies classified documents in 14 of the 15 boxes. In total, there are 184 unique documents with classification markings; of those, 67 are confidential, 92 are secret and 25 are top secret.

The markings show that some documents pertained to foreign intelligence surveillance and information gathered by human intelligence sources. Some were not to be shared with foreign entities, and others were marked “ORCON,” meaning that the agency that originated the document had to approve any dissemination beyond the government entities approved to see it.

Mr. Trump’s handwritten notes are also found on some of the documents.

M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, wrote to the Justice Department on the former president’s behalf.Credit…Jon Elswick/Associated Press

May 25, 2022

Trump defends his handling of documents.

M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, sends the Justice Department a letter asking that the department consider a few “principles,” including the claim that Mr. Trump had the absolute authority to declassify the documents.

June 3, 2022

The Justice Department visits Mar-a-Lago.

Jay I. Bratt, the Justice Department’s chief of counterintelligence, visits Mar-a-Lago accompanied by F.B.I. agents. Mr. Trump greets them in the dining room. According to Mr. Trump’s lawyers, the former president says: “Whatever you need, just let us know.”

Mr. Bratt inspects a storage room. Christina Bobb, another of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, signs a written statement asserting that to the best of the lawyers’ understanding, they have turned over the remaining classified material from the White House boxes, satisfying the subpoena, according to several people briefed on the statement.

June 8, 2022

The Justice Department requests that Trump’s storage room be preserved.

In a letter to Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Mr. Bratt requests that the Mar-a-Lago storage room where the classified materials were kept be secured. He also asks that all boxes that had been moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago be preserved in that room until further notice.

“As I previously indicated to you, Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” he writes, adding that since being taken from the White House, the documents “have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location.”

Mr. Trump’s team interprets that missive to mean they should put a second lock on the door of the storage room, according to his lawyers.

June 2022

The F.B.I. interviews Trump’s staff.

Members of Mr. Trump’s personal and household staff are interviewed by the F.B.I.

June 22, 2022

Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage is subpoenaed.

The Trump Organization receives a subpoena for surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago and provides it. The 60-day period of footage shows people moving boxes from the basement storage area around the time of one of the outreaches from the Justice Department.

Law enforcement officials outside Mar-a-Lago after the F.B.I. conducted its search.Credit…Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

Aug. 5, 2022

The warrant to search Mar-a-Lago is approved.

A federal judge approves a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. The government is given 14 days to execute it.

In the application for the search warrant, the Justice Department, using the abbreviation for national defense information, states that “there is probable cause to believe that additional documents that contain classified N.D.I. or that are presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the premises.”

Aug. 8, 2022

The F.B.I. searches Mar-a-Lago.

The search warrant is executed by the F.B.I. Eleven sets of classified material, comprising scores of pages, are recovered from the basement storage area, a container on the floor of a closet in Mr. Trump’s office and a former dressing room in the bridal suite above the enormous ballroom.

Mr. Trump publicizes the search and angrily condemns the F.B.I. and the Justice Department, prompting a wave of threats against law enforcement.

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