The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s latest Mar-a-Lago spin has a huge hole in it

Former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
4 min

Of all the reasons to doubt the spin from Donald Trump and his defenders on the Mar-a-Lago matter, one of the biggest has to be this: The FBI investigation and search were in no small part driven by information that agents apparently gleaned from people around Trump himself.

This basic fact keeps getting lost in the noise. But it’s essential to focus on it, because it illuminates a great deal about this saga while blowing a gaping hole in one of Trump’s biggest defenses.

The role of people around Trump in providing information can be ferreted out of a new report in the New York Times. The article says Trump had more than 150 classified documents when the National Archives originally retrieved them in January, and re-creates in granular detail why Trump’s conduct led to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.

Trump is now demanding that the court appoint a “special master” to oversee a review of classified documents captured in the search. He wants a more detailed inventory of what was taken and insists the search was “illegal” overreach, because he “would have given” all documents back regardless — i.e., he always intended to do the right thing.

Legal experts say a “special master” isn’t applicable, because such outside experts typically examine whether attorney-client-privileged information was implicated in searches. They note that the court will likely rule that the inventory already released — which showed the search found highly classified documents — is sufficient to honor the law.

But put that aside. Let’s focus on Trump’s contention that he always intended to turn over all documents, and that this renders the search illegitimate overreach.

It’s hard to square this notion with what we’ve learned about the role of people around Trump. The Times piece details three key moments, all of which are illuminated by such insiders.

Trump advisers said he initially resisted turning over documents. The National Archives tried throughout 2021 to recapture documents that remained in Trump’s possession, in potential violation of the Presidential Records Act. Trump’s letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was among them. Then this happened, per the Times:

Two former White House officials, who had been designated as among Mr. Trump’s representatives with the archives, received calls and tried to facilitate the documents’ return.
Mr. Trump resisted those calls, describing the boxes of documents as “mine,” according to three advisers familiar with his comments.

This information was supplied by people around Trump. They tried to fix the situation, and Trump resisted.

Witness interviews led to the subpoena of classified documents. After the Justice Department launched its investigation into the harboring of documents — which had been requested by Archives officials — investigators realized other classified documents had not been turned over.

Then this happened, per the Times:

In May, after conducting a series of witness interviews, the department issued a subpoena for the return of remaining classified material, according to people familiar with the episode.

So witnesses seemingly around Trump supplied information that helped lead to the subpoena of classified material that Trump had not turned over.

Witness testimony helped trigger the warrant. In June, a senior Justice Department official met with Trump lawyers to retrieve remaining classified documents. After the official was given classified material, one Trump lawyer signed a statement saying all such material had been returned.

Then this happened, per the Times:

Soon after that visit, investigators, who were interviewing several people in Mr. Trump’s circle about the documents, came to believe that there were other presidential records that had not been turned over, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Investigators then subpoenaed Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage. The Times reports that this “revealed people moving boxes in and out, and in some cases, appearing to change the containers some documents were held in.”

And then this happened:

The combination of witness interviews and the initial security footage led Justice Department officials to begin drafting a request for a search warrant, the people familiar with the matter said.

So witness testimony was key in triggering the search warrant. Also remember that a judge saw this evidence and approved the warrant — and that the search actually did retrieve highly sensitive national security documents, suggesting its rationale was at least partly borne out.

“At each critical juncture, Trump’s explanations to the FBI were undermined by cooperating witnesses whose statements could be independently corroborated,” national security lawyer Bradley Moss told me, adding that such witnesses “lack any obvious incentive to lie.”

Andrew Weissmann, a former FBI general counsel, agrees.

“Based on the reporting, it appears that at least one insider, if not more, played a substantial role in providing the evidence that compelled the department to proceed by search warrant,” Weissmann told me.

It’s always possible all this reporting is wrong, or generated by self-serving sources. Law enforcement activity should as a rule be treated with healthy skepticism; we still might ultimately learn that the search did constitute overreach. Trump might never be charged with crimes.

But at minimum, it’s clear that a key feature of Trump’s spin — that he always intended to do the right thing — is horse manure.

And that notion is central to a bigger claim: That nothing whatsoever in Trump’s conduct could conceivably have created a sound basis for this law enforcement activity, rendering it illegitimate at its core. It’s simply impossible to square this with the ongoing pileup of known facts and reporting.