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The curious timing of Trump naming two allies to access his records

The first page of a search warrant approved by a U.S. District Court magistrate judge allowing the FBI to search former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is released by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 12. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

On June 19, former president Donald Trump sent a letter to the National Archives. The subject was not his ongoing dispute with the agency over material he’d removed from the White House and brought to his Mar-a-Lago resort. Instead, he was naming two individuals — former Trump administration official Kash P. Patel and conservative writer John Solomon — as “representatives for access to Presidential records of my administration.”

In light of what we’ve learned in the week since FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago and removed dozens of boxes of material, the timing of that appointment is interesting.

A list of items seized in the FBI’s search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago home was unsealed on Aug. 12. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

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A full timeline of what unfolded before the FBI search is below, but June was a significant month for the government’s effort to retrieve the material.

By then, the Archives had already referred the issue to the Justice Department and a grand jury had issued a subpoena for the recovery of material. On June 3, a senior official from the department visited Mar-a-Lago along with several FBI agents, reviewing the storage room where much of the material seized last week would be recovered. They would soon ask that the room “be secured” — suggesting that it may not have been secured previously — and the material within it not be moved. A few days later, the New York Times reported over the weekend, a lawyer for Trump signed a document indicating that no further classified material remained at Mar-a-Lago.

On June 22, the Justice Department subpoenaed security footage from Mar-a-Lago, including near the storage room. Trump’s team turned it over.

“According to a person briefed on the matter, the footage showed that, after one instance in which Justice Department officials were in contact with Mr. Trump’s team, boxes were moved in and out of the room,” the Times reported.

In the midst of all of this and three days before that subpoena, Patel and Solomon were tapped as authorized consumers of Trump’s records. In explaining the decision to Politico, Solomon indicated that the intent was that he write a history of the Russia investigation — one that a Trump spokesperson justifiably expected to be favorable in a statement to the outlet.

After it was reported that the material Trump turned over in January included classified material, Patel spoke with Breitbart to offer a defense that’s cropped up a lot in the interim: Trump had actually declassified all of it in advance.

This could have been self-serving. As an administration official, Patel probably had a high level of security clearance though, as journalist Marcy Wheeler noted in an assessment of the Solomon-Patel appointment, that may have been rescinded as a part of an investigation into whether he leaked classified information. If he’d seen what Trump had in that storage room, Wheeler points out, Trump could be further criminally implicated. The same goes for Solomon: as a news writer, he would not have had clearance to view those documents.

Perhaps this is a coincidence. Perhaps Trump just got around to naming Patel and Solomon as he’d intended to do all along.

Or, perhaps, he and his team understood that the government’s interest in what he had in that storage room near the Mar-a-Lago pool hadn’t waned, and that it would be useful to loop his two allies into the community of people with some credible authorization for viewing what he’d taken from the White House. Perhaps he understood that he wouldn’t be able to retain the documents indefinitely and so wanted his defenders to have the legal authority to take a look.

One could be forgiven for wondering if maybe they already had.

Update: In response to an email from The Post, Solomon denied that he had seen the material kept at Mar-a-Lago.

“My authorization as a representative to the National Archives with access to the Trump collection has nothing to do with the grand jury investigation, the dispute over documents at Mar-a-Lago or the FBI search," he wrote. "It was granted solely in my capacity as a reporter. I did not access the documents in Florida, seek to access them or have anything to do with them or the dispute surrounding them.”

Patel has not replied to our inquiry.

The timeline

Jan. 20, 2021. Watching Trump depart the White House, national archivist David S. Ferriero notices staff carrying boxes.

“I can remember watching the Trumps leaving the White House and getting off in the helicopter that day, and someone carrying a white banker box, and saying to myself, ‘What the hell’s in that box?’” he told The Post. This, he says, triggers a review of what the National Archives had received from the outgoing president.

May. The Archives realize high-profile documents from Trump’s presidency — like his communications with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — are in fact missing from its records.

At one point, The Post reported, “Archives officials threatened that if Trump’s team did not voluntarily produce the materials, they would send a letter to Congress or the Justice Department revealing the lack of cooperation.”

End of the year. Trump begins packing up material to be returned to Washington.

He was “noticeably secretive about the packing process,” The Post reported, “and top aides and longtime administrative staffers did not see the contents.”

Jan. 17. A contractor arrives at Mar-a-Lago to pick up 15 boxes of material removed by Trump at the end of his administration.

Feb. 9. The Post reports that the National Archives referred Trump’s handling of records to the Justice Department.

Feb. 18. The Archives informs the Justice Department that some of the material turned over by Trump was marked as classified.

May. A grand jury issues a subpoena for material the government believed to be in Trump’s possession even after he turned over the prior material. This was in conjunction with interviews being conducted by the Justice Department.

May 5. Patel speaks with Breitbart, claiming that Trump had already declassified material that had been turned back over to the government in January.

June 3. Jay I. Bratt, chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section, visits Mar-a-Lago with three FBI agents. They are shown a storage area with boxes containing material taken from the White House, some of which they take with them upon departure.

At one point, Trump himself greets the officials. “Anything you need, let us know,” he reportedly told them.

A few days later. One of Trump’s attorneys signs a written statement claiming that all material marked as classified had been returned to the government.

June 8. Bratt sends Trump's team an email asking that a stronger lock be installed on the room.

“We ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice,” it read.

June 19. Trump names Patel and Solomon as his “representatives for access to Presidential records of my administration.”

A spokeswoman for the former president said that the two were selected so that they might “work to make available to the American people previously declassified documents that reveal a clear conspiracy to unlawfully spy on candidate and then President Donald J. Trump — by the FBI, DOJ, and others — the largest state-sponsored criminality in American history.” This framing, it should go without saying, is unfounded.

June 22. The government subpoenas surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago security cameras over a 60-day period, which is turned over. It includes footage from outside the storage room.

Aug. 5. Believing that Trump still had material in his possession that needed to be returned, the FBI obtains a search warrant from a federal magistrate judge in West Palm Beach.

Aug. 8. Mar-a-Lago is searched by the FBI. Among the material recovered are more than 20 boxes of material, two binders of photos, and a number of classified items identified as confidential, secret or top secret.

Aug. 11. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces that he will ask for the search warrant to be unsealed.

The warrant is released publicly. In an appearance on Fox News, Solomon claims that Trump had a blanket order to declassify material he took to the residence section of the White House.