The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump team claimed boxes at Mar-a-Lago were only news clippings

The 2021 assertion to the National Archives vastly misrepresented the scale and variety of documents, including classified records, later recovered from Trump’s property

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) attends a speech by President Donald Trump during a signing ceremony on Oct. 9, 2019. Meadows later became Trump's chief of staff. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Months before National Archives officials retrieved hundreds of classified documents in 15 boxes from former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, they were told that none of the material was sensitive or classified and that Trump had only 12 boxes of “news clippings,” according to people familiar with the conversations between Trump’s team and the Archives.

During a September 2021 phone call with top Archives lawyer Gary Stern, former deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin offered reassuring news: Philbin said he had talked to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who made the assertion about the dozen boxes of clippings, the people familiar with the call said. Trump’s team was aware of no other materials, Philbin said, relaying information he said he got from Meadows.

The characterization made in the call vastly misrepresented the scale and variety of documents, including classified records, eventually recovered by the Archives or the FBI.

Philbin said that Meadows also told him no documents had been destroyed, according to two people with knowledge of the call and a third person with knowledge of Stern’s contemporaneous account of the call. These and other people spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal details.

Stern had sought the call because he believed there were still more than two dozen boxes of materials that Trump had, and he also had concerns about whether digital records had been properly retained, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Top Archives officials continued to believe there was more material than they were being told about, according to people familiar with their thinking.

A spokeswoman for Philbin declined to comment. A person close to Philbin said he was unaware of the contents of the boxes and did not know there was classified material in them.

“Mr. Meadows did not personally review the boxes at Mar A Lago and did not have a role in examining or verifying what was or wasn’t contained within them,” Ben Williamson, a spokesman for Meadows, said in a statement Friday night after the article was published online.

In the year since the call, Archives and Justice Department officials have recovered 42 boxes of records from Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., property, including 15 boxes handed over by Trump’s representatives to the Archives last January and an additional 27 boxes retrieved by the FBI during a court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago last month.

The records recovered by the FBI included documents that detailed top-secret U.S. operations and information about a foreign government’s nuclear capabilities, The Washington Post has reported. Some of the documents retrieved by the Archives had also been torn up, which Trump had a habit of doing.

The new details about the Philbin call show that Meadows was more deeply involved in the communications with Archives officials than previously known. Some White House advisers had previously said Meadows was deeply involved in the final packing at the White House.

The Justice Department has conducted interviews with Archives officials and subpoenaed documents from the Archives as a part of their probe into Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. Officials are seeking to understand what the Archives was told and whether Trump’s representatives were honest, according to people familiar with the matter.

In an email to Trump lawyers in May 2021 previously reported by The Post, Stern wrote that there were roughly two dozen boxes that were kept in the White House residence that had yet to be returned to the Archives, “despite a determination by [former White House counsel] Pat Cipollone in the final days of the administration that they need to be.”

In court filings, the Justice Department has released an email from the Archives to Trump’s counsel stating that NARA officials had “ongoing communications” with Trump’s representatives “throughout 2021” to try to secure missing presidential records, which resulted in the transfer of only the first 15 boxes.

Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday that there would be “problems in the country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before” if he were indicted on charges of mishandling classified records.

“I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it,” Trump said.

Trump’s legal team has said the documents seized include some personal records. They have argued that the former president has “an absolute right to access” to his presidential records and suggested that it is possible that some of the documents marked classified may have been declassified by Trump before he left office. However, his lawyers have not formally asserted any were declassified or otherwise addressed concerns that Trump might have been improperly storing national security secrets at his Florida club.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon appointed Raymond J. Dearie, a former chief federal judge in New York, as a special master to sort through the documents seized by the FBI to see whether any should be shielded from criminal investigators because of attorney-client or executive privileges. The Justice Department is barred from using any of those documents in its criminal probe until Dearie reviews them, significantly slowing down the inquiry.