Mar-a-Lago search appears focused on whether Trump, aides withheld items

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 21, 2016, weeks after he was elected president.

In the months before the FBI’s dramatic move to execute a search warrant at former president Donald Trump’s Florida home – and open his safe to look for items – federal authorities grew increasingly concerned that Trump or his lawyers and aides had not, in fact, returned all the documents and other material that were government property, according to people familiar with the discussions.

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.

In the spring, people familiar with the investigation said, Justice Department and FBI officials traveled to Mar-a-Lago to speak to Trump’s representatives, inspect the storage space where documents were held, and express concern that the former president or people close to him still had items that should be in government custody.

By that point, 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. Like the others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation.

Christina Bobb, a lawyer for Trump, said his lawyers engaged in discussions with the Justice Department this spring over materials held at Mar-a-Lago. At that time, the former president’s legal team searched through two to three dozen boxes of material contained in a storage area, hunting for documents that could be considered presidential records, and turned over several items that might meet the definition, she said.

In June, Bobb said, she and Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran met with Jay Bratt, the chief of the counterintelligence and export control section at the Justice Department, along with several investigators. Trump stopped by the meeting as it began to greet the investigators but was not interviewed. The lawyers showed the federal officials the boxes, and Bratt and the others spent some time looking through the material.

Bobb said the Justice Department officials commented that they did not believe the storage unit was properly secured, so Trump officials added a lock to the facility. When FBI agents searched the property Monday, Bobb added, they broke through the lock that had been added to the door.

The FBI removed about a dozen boxes that had been stored in the basement storage area, she said. Bobb did not share the search warrant left by agents but said that it indicated agents were investigating possible violations of laws dealing with the handling of classified material and the Presidential Records Act.

Trump announced Monday that the FBI had searched Mar-a-Lago and his safe, decrying the move as the latest unfair action against him by the Justice Department and FBI. Spokespeople at both agencies declined to comment.

Asked for comment Tuesday about whether the former president or his advisers had withheld documents or been untruthful, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich called the FBI’s action “not only unprecedented, but completely unnecessary.”

One adviser who spoke to Trump after the search said the former president said there is “nothing to worry about” and has claimed he would have no problems because of the search. In fact, the former president sounded buoyed by the development, bragging about how many Republicans were supporting him publicly, and said he thought the search would help him politically in the end, this person said.

“It furthers his inclination to run and galvanizes the Republican base on his behalf,” said Jason Miller, a longtime adviser and spokesman.

Some of the Trump’s advisers have urged him to move up his expected announcement that he will run for president in 2024 and make it soon at Mar-a-Lago, with the FBI search as a backdrop. But Trump has made no commitment to doing so, one person with direct knowledge of the conversations said.

Two people familiar with the initial recovery of the materials at Mar-a-Lago said that Archives officials believed that more records were missing and were skeptical that Trump had handed everything over. As the investigation gained steam, some Trump advisers have sought to stay away from the issue, fearing it would become a messy legal and political situation, according to people familiar with the discussions.

After Monday’s search, lawyers close to Trump sought advice or recommendations of criminal defense lawyers who could represent him in challenging the basis of the search warrant in federal court in South Florida, said a person familiar with those conversations. According to this person, the lawyers said the warrant was related to allegations that classified information was retained by Trump.

Trump already has a number of lawyers working for him, but it is not uncommon for individuals facing investigative activity to seek local attorneys to navigate a particular court district.

Dozens of die-hard Trump supporters came to West Palm Beach on Tuesday to express their support. Adriane Shochet, 64, of Lake Worth, Fla., bought a $14 broomstick, which she attached to an American flag and waved as she stood on the causeway that overlooks part of Mar-a-Lago.

“I just needed to come out and show the whole free world that this is frightening, and if they can do this, what’s next?” Shochet said. “This is the polar opposite of whatever effect politically they thought they were going to get because all it’s doing is empowering the right politically.”

Passing motorists honked in support. One man stood on the bridge, which crosses the Intracoastal Waterway, holding the American flag upside down – widely recognized as a symbol of his belief that the country is in distress.

Pat Stewart, 85, found the “Trump 2020” flag that used to fly at her house in Jupiter, Fla., which she had expected to keep tucked away until the next presidential election. For the next several hours, she stood in the sun alongside a friend who was visiting from Michigan, who is also 85, waving at passing motorists.

“I was very angry, very angry, and very upset, that our government would do this to an ex-president,” Stewart said. Even though aides said Trump was in New York and at his golf club and residence in Bedminster, N.J., this week, she held out hope that he was at Mar-a-Lago.

“We want him to come out and announce he’s running for president,” Stewart said.

One person familiar with the investigation said agents were conducting a court-authorized search as part of a long-running examination into why documents – some of them top-secret – were taken to the former president’s private club and residence instead of shipped to the National Archives and Records Administration when Trump left office. The Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other written communications related to a president’s official duties.

In January, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of documents and other items from Mar-a-Lago. David S. Ferriero, then the archivist of the United States, said in a statement in February that Trump representatives were “continuing to search” for additional records.

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.

Some of the materials Trump took from the White House included letters and notes from foreign leaders, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Searching a former president’s property to look for possible evidence of a crime is highly unusual and would probably require approval at the top levels of the Justice Department.

A department spokeswoman declined to comment when asked whether Attorney General Merrick Garland approved the search.

The search triggered a torrent of outrage from Trump and his political supporters, along with vows to investigate the Justice Department and the FBI.