Consider this a follow-up to the story Ed wrote earlier about the FBI’s decision to exercise a search warrant at former President Trump’s home Monday. Both Jonathan Turley and Alan Dershowitz have suggested that the search seems a bit over the top if this really is about Trump taking material covered by the Presidential Records Act. That’s what several news outlets (Fox News, CBS News, NY Times) reported last night but I’ve spent most of the day arguing with people on Twitter who seem eager to ignore those early reports.
This evening the Washington Post has published a story which confirms in greater detail that this search warrant definitely was a follow up to 15 boxes of material that Trump turned over back in February.
Officials became suspicious that when Trump gave back items to the National Archives about seven months ago, either the former president or people close to him held on to key records — despite a Justice Department investigation into the handling of 15 boxes of material sent to the former president’s private club and residence in the waning days of his administration.
Over months of discussions on the subject, some officials also came to suspect Trump’s representatives were not truthful at times, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
The Post points to this CNN story published earlier today which reveals that investigators visited Mar-a-Lago in June:
In early June, a handful of investigators made a rare visit to the property seeking more information about potentially classified material from Trump’s time in the White House that had been taken to Florida. The four investigators, including Jay Bratt, the chief of the counterintelligence and export control section at the Justice Department, sat down with two of Trump’s attorneys, Bobb and Evan Corcoran, according to a source present for the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, Trump stopped by and greeted the investigators near a dining room. After he left, without answering any questions, the investigators asked the attorneys if they could see where Trump was storing the documents. The attorneys took the investigators to the basement room where the boxes of materials were being stored, and the investigators looked around the room before eventually leaving, according to the source.
A second source said that Trump came in to say hi and made small talk but left while the attorneys spoke with investigators. The source said some of the documents shown to investigators had top secret markings.
Five days later, on June 8, Trump’s attorneys received a letter from investigators asking them to further secure the room where the documents were stored. Aides subsequently added a padlock to the room.
And jumping back to the Post, during the raid yesterday the FBI cut off the padlock they’d recommended for the storage room and wound up removing about 12 boxes of documents. There’s also this detail about who was pushing to get the documents.
…officials at the National Archives had been aggressively contacting people in Trump’s orbit to demand the return of documents they believed were covered by the Presidential Records Act, said two people familiar with those inquiries.
This was definitely about documents that the National Archives believed needed to be returned, which is exactly what all of those news outlets reported last night.
So let’s put of this in chronological order.
- It started back in February when Trump returned 15 boxes of documents a story that was widely reported at the time.
- “In April and May, aides to Trump at Mar-a-Lago were interviewed by the FBI as part of the probe into the handling of presidential records, according to a source familiar with the matter,” CNN reported today.
- In June there was a sit down at Mar-a-Lago with Trump’s lawyers. They looked over some items in a storage space but didn’t take anything at the time.
- Five days later they called and asked that a padlock be added to the storage space.
- Meanwhile the National Archives was contacting people close to Trump to demand the return of some documents.
- Monday, the FBI went to Mar-a-Lago and seized 12 boxes of material, some of which apparently were in the same storage area they’d looked at in June. The Post reports the FBI cut off the padlock investigators had requested be placed on the door.
Of course we still don’t know what’s in the documents in question. We don’t know why Trump thought he could keep them at Mar-a-Lago and we don’t know why the National Archives was so hot to get them back. Here’s what the Post reported about that.
Trump resisted handing over some of the boxes for months, some people close to the president said, and believed that many of the items were his personally and did not belong to the government. He eventually agreed to hand over some of the documents, “giving them what he believed they were entitled to,” in the words of one adviser.
He may have resisted but it does sound like there was something like a normal back and forth process going on prior to yesterday’s search. Trump’s lawyers were dealing with investigators and showed them at least some of the material in question in June which appears to be what the FBI came back for. So it does make you wonder why this couldn’t have been worked out by lawyers or maybe a subpoena rather than this high profile search.
CNN suggests that the FBI may have been trying to keep to a 90 day rule about politically sensitive action prior to an election. The search Monday would have been 92 days prior to the election. But the question remains: Why did the FBI feel this matter, which had been ongoing since at least February, was suddenly so urgent?
For comparison purposes, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State until Feb. 2013. Her private email server had classified information on it but the FBI didn’t seize the server until August 2015, more than two years later. So in Trump’s case, what’s the big rush?
Did the Archives have some reason to think the material was going to disappear if they didn’t grab it this week? Until we know what the search warrant says (or better yet the application for the warrant) I guess we won’t know.