When FBI agents descended on Donald Trump’s Florida home in Mar-a-Lago this month, they opened a desk drawer in his personal office and found classified documents mixed with the former President’s personal effects. The find flew in the face of months of assurances from Trump’s legal team that he had turned over all the secret records he had taken from the White House and that any other government records he had were in a storage room at the club. While federal officials already suspected that Trump’s lawyers had misled them, the contents of that desk drawer shifted the spotlight squarely to Trump himself.
This revelation was one of many detailed allegations in an unsealed court filing late Tuesday. Prosecutors said that there was evidence that “efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation” and that government records were “likely concealed and removed” from the storage room where they had been kept.
The court filing ratcheted up the stakes of the investigation into Trump’s hoarding of materials from his time as President, a baffling saga that has left even some of his strongest supporters confused about the motivations behind his actions. Although the reasons Trump kept these documents are not clear, it is likely that Trump’s personality and lifelong traits brought him to this point. He’s an inveterate pack rat. Trump Tower’s New York desk and the private room he shared with Oval Office staff were filled with paper and mementos. He loved to display his wealth. As a way of highlighting his power and connections with the world, he casually searched through his magazines for photographs and letters. He has always been proud of his defiance and finds strength in being seen pushing back against others. He avoided an indictment on obstruction for Mueller and retained Republican votes in Senate to win two impeachment trials.
Trump may find it difficult to escape the Legal Quicksand he is currently in with the National Archives for a dispute over a treasure trove of documents. Trump, his lawyer and the custodian for records could all be charged with obstruction of justice in an investigation that sought to find national security secrets Trump allegedly brought from Mar-a-Lago to the White House when he quit office 19 months ago.
Just two months before the August Mar-a-Lago search, during a June 3 visit to the club by federal prosecutors, Trump’s lawyer gave investigators a thick, rust-colored folder, double-wrapped in tape—an apparent precaution to protect the state secrets inside. Investigators saw it as an acknowledgment that not all of the classified documents in Trump’s possession had been returned in January, when 15 boxes had been sent to the National Archives.
But that wasn’t all. Trump’s team made assurances to the federal officials that the issue had been resolved. Trump’s lawyer told investigators that day that “all available boxes were searched” and “there were no other records stored in any private office space or other location,” according to an investigator’s account of interactions with Trump’s legal team that was part of the document filed in court late Tuesday. When investigators looked inside the taped accordion file, they were alarmed to find 38 classified documents inside, including 16 documents marked “secret” and 17 marked “top secret.” Trump’s lawyer “offered no explanation” for why there were still government records at Mar-a-Lago five months after Trump had handed over 15 boxes of government records to the National Archives.
That same day, on June 3, a person who identified themselves as Trump’s custodian of records (the name has been blacked out) swore in a legal certification in response to a court ordered grand jury subpoena that there had been a “diligent search” of the boxes from the White House and all relevant documents with classified markings were handed over. Two months later, the FBI’s search, executed with a court-approved warrant, revealed that wasn’t true. 33 boxes were removed by agents, including more than 100 classified files.
An evidence photo taken by FBI agents during the August search and released Tuesday shows more than a dozen pages marked “secret” and “top secret” and boldly colored classified cover sheets splayed out over filigree carpet. The image shows a Bankers Box with a TIME cover in gold frame. It is located next to the classified papers.
All this takes place in court files, legal subpoenas, and sworn testimony. In these cases, lies or misrepresentations can result in severe legal consequences. When prosecutors requested the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, they presented evidence in court that there was probable cause to believe crimes had been committed, including “wiilful retention of national defense information,” “concealment or removal of government records” and “obstruction of a federal investigation.”
The latest filing by prosecutors showed that they believed they had evidence of a criminal offense. “The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation,” says the Justice Department’s Aug. 30 court filing.
The latest government filing is the most damning so far, and only came about in response to a request from Trump’s legal team for a judge to appoint a so-called “special master” to review the material seized from Trump’s club in August and set aside anything covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege. Prosecutors have said that since the FBI is part of the executive branch and the records are not Trump’s records but belong to the government, executive privilege would not apply. Justice Department officials also informed the judge about the fact that the so-called “taint” team of investigators was not involved in the case and had reviewed Mar-a-Lago’s information. They set aside material that might be outside of the scope of their investigation.
When Trump himself was President, he signed a law beefing up the penalties for mishandling classified material—increasing the crime for inappropriately moving classified material from a misdemeanor to a felony, and the maximum penalty from one year to five years in prison. Trump campaigned heavily on protecting classified information, shaming his opponent Hillary Clinton for using an email server to send emails from while she was Secretary. “In my administration, I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law,” Trump said at a campaign event in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 18, 2016.
Trump repeated in public statements his belief that he owned Mar-a-Lago government records. He’s maintained, without evidence, that he declassified the documents he had in his possession. He’s also said, falsely, that he was cooperating with federal officials to return the documents. In Trump’s response on social media Wednesday to the most recent court filings, he didn’t dispute he had the documents and wasn’t returning them. “Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!They then began taking photos of the documents for public viewing. They wanted their secrets kept secret? Lucky I Declassified!” Trump wrote. Kash Patel, a former Trump official has claimed that Trump released the White House documents. However, no record exists of these steps.
Even if some of the documents were formally declassified before Trump left office on Jan. 20, 2021, prosecutors have pointed out that such records are still not Trump’s to own; they belong to the government. They could also be violated if Trump hoarded them or misled federal investigators.
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