At key moments in the Mar-a-Lago saga, you could squint at emerging revelations and conclude that Donald Trump himself might not be directly implicated. Perhaps his aides botched the transfer of documents to the National Archives. Or perhaps they failed to fully account for documents when archives officials came knocking, and fumbled things again when the FBI followed suit.
The key takeaway from the Justice Department’s latest filing in the case is that this notion is getting impossible to sustain. The new filing implicates Trump himself in the hoarding of national security secrets more directly than anything yet.
The filing — which contests the Trump team’s demand for a special master to review seized documents — provides a detailed ticktock of efforts to recover documents from him. That began with archives officials demanding them throughout 2021 and culminated in the Aug. 8 search of his Mar-a-Lago compound.
Two big revelations in that ticktock implicate Trump in a fresh way.
The first revelation: We now have clearer insight into how classified documents were apparently kept at Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s team turned over a bunch to the National Archives. And it now appears more likely that Trump was involved in deceiving law enforcement about it.
After Trump’s team gave some documents to the archives in January — following efforts throughout 2021 to retrieve them — the FBI developed evidence that “dozens” of boxes “likely” containing classified information still remained at Mar-a-Lago, the filing says.
That evidence was borne out. After the missing documents were subpoenaed, Trump lawyers met with FBI agents on June 3, and showed them more documents in a Mar-a-Lago storage room. The filing notes that Trump’s own lawyers treated those documents as classified.
That undercuts Trump’s claim that he magically declassified them with a wave of his post-presidential wand. Instead, they apparently remained classified and he kept them long after the archives began demanding them, and he kept them after missing documents were supposedly turned over.
What’s more, on that day, Trump’s lawyers gave agents a sworn statement declaring that a “diligent search” to locate “any and all” remaining and relevant documents had been conducted.
Importantly, that statement also said this characterization was being delivered “on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump.” That appears to suggest the statement — reportedly signed by lawyer Christina Bobb — was authorized by Trump himself.
This information turned out to be highly misleading. Which would mean Trump may have authorized his lawyers to mislead law enforcement.
To see why, let’s look at the next revelation. It gives us a clearer understanding of how the evidence suggested Trump was personally engaged in obstruction, and how suspicions of that drove the decision to search Mar-a-Lago.
After receiving that sworn statement, says the filing, investigators developed evidence of still more classified documents remaining at Mar-a-Lago. Importantly, this included evidence that documents had been moved from the storage room.
Here again, evidence was borne out: The subsequent search found 33 more boxes or other items, with more than 100 classified documents, including some highly classified ones. Three classified documents were in desks in Trump’s office.
It’s hard to imagine that Trump himself did not know these documents were put in his office, or that Trump was not involved in making that happen.
Here’s a really critical point in the filing: Investigators executed the search because that evidence of those still-stored documents pointed to obstruction, i.e., obstruction of the ongoing FBI investigation into the hoarding of documents.
That strongly suggests Trump held classified documents even after his lawyers swore on his behalf that a full search had been executed, and that some were held in his office as part of that effort to obstruct, says former FBI counsel Andrew Weissmann.
“Is it really the case that for 18 months, nobody, including counsel, ever discussed this with the president or took direction from him?” Weissmann asked rhetorically, noting that the filing says some of these documents were “interspersed with personal items.”
Weissmann told me prosecutors can now ask the court for permission to subpoena Trump’s lawyers, in order to directly ask whether Trump authorized the original statement misleading investigators about classified documents still held at Mar-a-Lago.
Indeed, Weissmann said that Trump’s lawyers are now “potential witnesses.” Weissmann added that the idea that Trump wasn’t in the loop on all this is “inconceivable.”
Trump’s call for a special master appears designed as a stalling tactic, and it may work. Alternatively, Trump may never be criminally charged. But if the information in the filing is accurate, then Trump is implicated more deeply in this whole affair than we knew only 24 hours ago. We also have a clearer picture of law enforcement’s theory that Trump committed obstruction.
Remarkably, the public is getting all this new information courtesy of tactics Trump himself attempted. This filing happened because Trump’s team pursued this special master strategy, prompting this response. And the release of the affidavit for the search warrant, which also contained very damaging revelations, was a response to Trump and his propagandists demanding it.
In a strange twist of poetic justice, Trump’s own screams of a coverup — which are rooted in his conviction that he can spin away any set of damaging facts with his magical reality-bending powers — are resulting in an uncommon level of transparency that is only further damning him.