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 Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by 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.
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 Trump had been amassing, and how to get it back and make sure the documents are properly handled.
Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. (Reuters/File Photo)
Mark Meadows, 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 Trump.
Jan. 18, 2021
The move to Mar-a-Lago begins.
Two days before Trump is to leave office, at least two moving trucks are spotted at Mar-a-Lago, his club and residence in Palm Beach, Florida.
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.
May 6, 2021
The archives alerts Trump’s team to missing material.
Gary M. Stern, the archives’ general counsel, emails Trump’s representatives — 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 Trump at the White House upon leaving office.
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 Cipollone specifically or his office. Nonetheless, Stern asks for help getting all the material back.
According to the affidavit, the archives continued to make such requests for months.
May 18, 2021
Trump offers to return letters from Kim.
Gast sends Stern a note indicating that 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.
Trump displays the Kim letters.
Trump shows off the letters from Kim, waving them at people in his office, where some boxes of material from the White House are being stored. Meadows, contacted by Philbin in an effort to facilitate the return of materials from Mar-a-Lago, talks to Trump about the documents at the club during a visit there. The conversation is brief, and it is not clear how aggressively Meadows pursues the issue.
Trump’s representatives to the archives are still engaged with the agency over unrelated records.
Archives officials warn of consequences.
Officials at the archives warn 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.
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. Trump ultimately goes through the boxes at the club himself, although he appears not to have gone through them all.
In late December, 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 NDI, which is protected by the Espionage Act.
The archives informs the Justice Department, which asks President Joe Biden to request that the archives provide the FBI 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 Trump must return.
Jan. 31, 2022
The archives publicly criticises Trump’s destruction of documents.
The archives makes a public statement about 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 Trump still has presidential records that should have been turned over to the archives at the end of his time in office.
Fed. 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.
Investigations into the missing material ramp up.
A grand jury is seated to look into the missing boxes of documents. The FBI begins interviewing several of Trump’s personal aides as well as three former White House lawyers who had been among Trump’s representatives to the archives.
By now, 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 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.”
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, Philbin and John Eisenberg, decline to get involved. 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 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 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 Trump’s handling of the material, telling right-wing news site Breitbart that the former president had declassified it.
May 11, 2022
A grand jury issues a subpoena to Trump.
Trump receives a grand jury subpoena seeking additional documents bearing classified markings.
The following week, as the FBI 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.
Trump’s handwritten notes are also found on some of the documents.
May 25, 2022
Trump defends his handling of documents.
M. Evan Corcoran, a lawyer for Trump, sends the Justice Department a letter asking that the department consider a few “principles,” including the claim that 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 FBI agents. Trump greets them in the dining room. According to Trump’s lawyers, the former president says: “Whatever you need, just let us know.”
Bratt inspects a storage room. Christina Bobb, another of 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 Trump’s lawyers, 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.”
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.
The FBI interviews Trump’s staff.
Members of Trump’s personal and household staff are interviewed by the FBI.
June 22, 2022
Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage is subpoenaed.
The Trump Organisation 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.
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 NDI or that are presidential records subject to record retention requirements currently remain at the premises.”
Aug. 8, 2022
The FBI searches Mar-a-Lago.
The search warrant is executed by the FBI. 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 Trump’s office and a former dressing room in the bridal suite above the enormous ballroom.
Trump publicises the search and angrily condemns the FBI and the Justice Department, prompting a wave of threats against law enforcement.