Archives asked for records in 2021 after Trump lawyer agreed they should be returned, email says

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Workers load boxes of newspapers and other items into a truck inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex on Jan. 14, 2021.

WASHINGTON – About two dozen boxes of presidential records stored in then-President Donald Trump’s White House residence were not returned to the National Archives and Records Administration in the final days of his term even after Archives officials were told by a Trump lawyer that the documents should be given back, according to an email from the top lawyer at the record-keeping agency.

“It is also our understanding that roughly two dozen boxes of original presidential records were kept in the Residence of the White House over the course of President Trump’s last year in office and have not been transferred to NARA, despite a determination by Pat Cipollone in the final days of the administration that they need to be,” wrote Gary Stern, the agency’s chief counsel, in an email to Trump lawyers in May 2021, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.

The email shows NARA officials were concerned about Trump keeping dozens of boxes of official records even before he left the White House – concerns that only grew in the coming months as Trump repeatedly declined to return the records. It also showed that Trump’s lawyers had concerns about Trump taking the documents and agreed that the boxes should be returned – at least according to the top Archives officials – while Trump kept the documents.

The previously unreported email – sent about 100 days after the former president left office with the subject line “Need for Assistance re Presidential Records” – also illustrates the myriad efforts Archives officials made to have documents, including classified material, returned over an 18-month period, culminating with an FBI search this month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.

Cipollone was the White House counsel for Trump and was designated by Trump as one of his representatives to the Archives. A spokeswoman for Cipollone declined to comment Wednesday.

Stern does not say in the email how he determined that the boxes were in Trump’s possession. He wrote that he also had consulted another Trump lawyer during the final days of Trump’s presidency – without any luck. “I had also raised this concern with Scott in the final weeks,” Stern writes in the email, referring to Trump lawyer Scott Gast, who is also copied on the email.

In the email, Stern again asks for the documents to be returned.

Gast did not respond to a request for comment. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Archives did not respond to a request for comment.

Stern’s email to three Trump lawyers takes an almost pleading tone at times. Cipollone is not copied on the email, which is sent to Gast and two longtime Cipollone deputies.

Stern cites at least two high-profile documents that the Archives knew at the time were missing – letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a letter from former president Barack Obama at the beginning of Trump’s presidency.

“We know things are very chaotic, as they always are in the course of a one-term transition,” Stern wrote. ” . . . But it is absolutely necessary that we obtain and account for all presidential records.”

Stern did not state in the email what the Archives believed had been in the boxes kept in the White House residence. But he did cite the correspondence between Trump and Kim as an example of an item the former president requested “just prior to the end of the administration.”

Stern wrote, “it is our understanding that in January 2021, just prior to the end of the administration, the originals were put in a binder for the president, but were never returned to the office of Records Management for NARA.”

Throughout the fall of 2021, Stern continued to urge multiple Trump advisers to help the Archives get the records back, according to people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Trump only decided to give some of the documents back after Stern told Trump officials that the Archives would soon have to notify Congress, and Stern told Trump advisers that he did not want to escalate and notify Congress, these people said.

“‘We just want everything back’ was his message,” according to one Trump adviser.

Trump then returned 15 boxes of documents to the Archives in early 2022, and Archives officials urged Trump’s team to continue looking for more material at the beachfront club. But they also referred the matter to the Justice Department after realizing there were hundreds of pages of classified material in the boxes returned to the National Archives.

After extensive interviews with Trump aides, FBI officials raided Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 and seized an additional 11 sets of classified records after executing a search warrant – adding to the large volume of secret government documents recovered from the former president’s club.

The Post has previously reported on the former president’s long-standing habit of retiring to his private residence in the White House with official documents that regularly piled up. In interviews with former White House staffers, they recalled sending boxes of disorganized materials to the residence with Trump’s body man, at the then-president’s request.

Trump and his advisers have claimed that there was a standing declassification order for all documents taken to the residence, but multiple senior former administration officials have said they knew of no such order. Trump has also lamented to friends that he did not give the documents back because they were his personal property and did not belong to the U.S. government.