Washington — Efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration to retrieve materials taken by former President Donald Trump at the end of his administration have spanned more than a year and a half, leading to an extraordinary filing by the Justice Department on Tuesday alleging efforts were “likely taken to obstruct” a federal investigation into the missing records.
The submission by the Justice Department came in response to a request by Trump for a federal judge to appoint a third party to review documents seized by the FBI in its Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s South Florida home.
Federal prosecutors provided in their 36-page filing the most detailed look yet at the attempts by the Archives and Justice Department to retrieve the materials taken from the White House and brought to Mar-a-Lago, some of which contained classified and national defense information, they said.
The Justice Department is investigating Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, as well as possible obstruction of the probe, prosecutors have said. The former president has claimed he and his representatives cooperated with officials trying to retrieve the records and alleges he declassified the materials at issue, though the accounts of FBI agents and prosecutors contradict those assertions.
Legal proceedings surrounding the search and the investigation continue. Here is a look at the events that have transpired over the course of the government’s attempts to get back the documents, gleaned from recent court filings, government records and media reports.
Jan. 14: Six days before the presidential transition, movers are photographed wheeling boxes out of the White House complex and placing them on nearby trucks.
Jan. 18: CBS Miami reports moving trucks are observed at Mar-a-Lago.
Jan. 19: Trump tells the Archives that he has designated Mark Meadows, Pat Cipollone, Pat Philbin, Scott Gast, Steven Engel and Michael Purpura, who served in his administration either within the White House or Justice Department, as his representatives to handle matters pertaining to records from his presidency.
May 6: The Archives requests that Trump turn over missing records, and continues to ask for the documents until late December.
December: A Trump representative informs the Archives they located 12 boxes of material at Mar-a-Lago and the agency arranges for them to be securely brought back to Washington. Archives officials say they “did not visit or ‘raid’ the Mar-a-Lago property.”
Jan. 18: Fifteen boxes of records, some containing classified material, are retrieved from Mar-a-Lago by Archives representatives.
Jan. 31: The Archives says in a statement that some of Trump’s presidential records it received included “paper records that had been torn up by” the former president.
“As has been reported in the press since 2018, White House records management officials during the Trump Administration recovered and taped together some of the torn-up records,” the agency said. “These were turned over to the National Archives at the end of the Trump Administration, along with a number of torn-up records that had not been reconstructed by the White House.”
The Archives notes that under the Presidential Record Act, all records created by presidents must be handed over to the agency at the end of their administrations.
Feb. 7: The Archives confirms that in mid-January, it arranged for the 15 boxes containing presidential records to be transported from Mar-a-Lago to the agency. It says Trump’s representatives are “continuing to search” for more records that belong to the Archives and notes that under federal law, they should’ve been transferred from the White House at the end of the Trump administration.
Feb. 9: The Archives’ Office of the Inspector General sends a referral to the Justice Department requesting it investigate Trump’s handling of records. The referral notes a preliminary review of the 15 boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago indicated they contained newspapers, printed news articles, photos, notes, presidential correspondence and “a lot of classified records.”
“Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified,” the referral stated.
Feb. 18: David Ferriero, then-archivist of the United States, sends a letter to House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney informing her some of the boxes retrieved by the Archives in mid-January contained items marked as classified national security information, and asked Trump’s representatives to continue searching for any additional presidential records that had not been transferred to the Archives.
Ferriero tells Maloney that because the Archives identified classified information in the boxes, its staff had been in communication with the Justice Department.
April 11: The White House Counsel’s Office formally transmits a request that the Archives provide the FBI access to the 15 boxes retrieved from Mar–a-Lago for its review.
April 12: The Archives says it communicated with Trump’s “authorized representative” about the 15 boxes of seized records and told his attorney Evan Corcoran about the Justice Department’s “urgency” in needing access to them. The agency also advises Trump’s counsel it intended to provide the FBI with the documents the next week.
Corcoran later requests the Archives delay the disclosure to the FBI to April 29.
April 29: The Justice Department’s National Security Division tells Corcoran that there are “important national security interests in the FBI and others in the intelligence community getting access to these materials.”
More than 100 documents with classification markings totaling more than 700 pages were among the materials in the boxes retrieved by the Archives from Mar-a-Lago, according to the Justice Department, some of which include the “highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program materials.”
The department adds that access to the documents is necessary “for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation.”
On that day, Trump’s attorney requests another delay before the records are given to the FBI and says if the extension was not granted, his letter serves as a “protective assertion of executive privilege.”
May 10: Acting Archivist Deborah Steidel Wall informs Corcoran in a letter that there is “no basis” for the former president to make a “protective assertion of executive privilege,” and she therefore would not honor Trump’s “protective” claim of privilege.
Wall also tells Corcoran that the Archives would provide the FBI access to the records taken from Mar-a-Lago as early as May 12.
May 11: The Justice Department obtains a grand jury subpoena seeking “any and all” documents bearing classification markings that are in Trump’s possession at Mar-a-Lago. The subpoena sets a May 24 deadline for the requested records to be turned over and for Trump’s custodian of records to appear in federal district court in Washington.
In a separate letter from Jay Bratt to Evan Corcoran, Bratt thanks him for “agreeing to accept service” of the subpoena and says Trump’s custodian of records may comply with the subpoena by handing over the responsive documents to the FBI. He also notes the custodian will have to provide a sworn certification that the documents “represent all responsive records.”
May 16-18: FBI agents conduct a preliminary review of the 15 boxes retrieved from Mar-a-Lago and find classified documents in 14 of them. The trove includes: 184 documents bearing classification markings, including 67 marked confidential, 92 marked secret and 25 marked top secret.
May 24: Trump’s lawyer asks for an extension for complying with the subpoena, and the government ultimately pushes back the date to June 7.
May 25: Corcoran tells the Justice Department in a letter that Trump has the absolute authority to declassify documents.
June 2: Corcoran reaches out to the Justice Department and requests FBI agents retrieve the documents that are responsive to the May 11 subpoena from Mar-a-Lago.
June 3: Three FBI agents and Bratt, the Justice Department counterintelligence chief, travel to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the materials in response to the subpoena, and try to find a resolution to the Archives’ dispute with the former president.
Trump’s attorney and custodian of records are present and turn over one large envelope, “double-wrapped in tape,” that contains documents. Neither asserts that Trump declassified the records or asserted claims of executive privilege, federal prosecutors said in a filing detailing the encounter.
The custodian of records for Trump’s post-presidential office signs a certification attesting that a “diligent search” was conducted of boxes moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago to locate documents covered by the grand jury subpoena and that “any and all responsive documents” were provided with the certification.
Trump’s lawyer says all records brought from the White House to Mar-a-Lago are stored in a single location, a storage room on the premises, and that there are no other records stored in private office space or other locations on the property. Additionally, he represents that all available boxes were searched.
FBI agents and Bratt are given access to the storage room, which contains boxes containing “clothing and personal items” of Trump and first lady Melania Trump, according to Trump’s lawsuit.
But the Justice Department says government personnel were prohibited from opening or looking inside any boxes that remained in the storage room, “giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained.”
The FBI goes on to review the documents contained in the envelope and finds 38 unique documents bearing classification markings, including five documents marked confidential, 16 marked secret and 17 marked top secret.
June 8: Bratt sends a letter to Trump’s team warning that “Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information” and asking the room be secured.
Trump’s attorneys acknowledge receipt of the letter a day later. Trump directs his staff to place a second lock on the door to the storage room, he says in his lawsuit.
June 19: Trump designates Kash Patel, a former Pentagon official, and John Solomon, a conservative commentator, as his “representatives for access to Presidential records,” in a letter to the Archives.
June 22: Federal investigators issue a subpoena for security-camera footage at Mar-a-Lago, and Trump’s team complies, turning over the footage to the U.S. government.
Aug. 5: The Justice Department seeks and obtains a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago from a federal magistrate judge in West Palm Beach.
The department says that prior to seeking the warrant, the FBI “uncovered multiple sources of evidence” indicating classified documents were still at Mar-a-Lago, despite the sworn certification made June 3.
Federal prosecutors say the FBI 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.”
The search warrant approved by the judge allows the FBI to search the “45 Office,” which is Trump’s office space at Mar-a-Lago, as well as all storage rooms and other rooms used or available to Trump and his staff where boxes could be stored.
Aug. 8: The Justice Department executes the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago beginning around 10 a.m. At least two of Trump’s lawyers, Christina Bobb and Lindsey Halligan, are present, and Bobb signs a receipt listing the property seized by the FBI at 6:19 p.m.
Among the items taken by agents are Trump’s passports, which are later returned. The Justice Department says in its later filing that, consistent with the parameters of the search warrant, “the government seized the contents of a desk drawer that contained classified documents and governmental records commingled with other documents,” which included two official passports.
“The location of the passports is relevant evidence in an investigation of unauthorized retention and mishandling of national defense information; nonetheless, the government decided to return those passports in its discretion,” federal prosecutors write in the filing.
During execution of the warrant, the government seizes 33 boxes, containers or items of evidence from both the storage room and Trump’s office. An investigative team reviewing the materials finds that 13 boxes or containers contain documents with classified markings, including more than 100 unique documents with classification markings. Three documents marked classified are located in desks in Trump’s office, prosecutors said, and 76 more were found in the storage room.
A partially redacted photo included in the Justice Department filing shows some documents recovered from Trump’s office had colored cover sheets indicating their classification status. The records range from “CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET information, and certain documents included additional sensitive compartments that signify very limited distribution,” the Justice Department says.
Aug. 11: Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers a statement about the search and reveals he personally approved the decision to seek the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department also moves to unseal the warrant amid requests from media companies, including CBS News, for the magistrate judge to also unseal the underlying affidavit laying out the reasons for the search.
Aug. 12: Trump does not oppose the release of the search warrant, and the federal magistrate judge unseals it.
The Archives also issues a statement refuting claims by Trump about former President Barack Obama’s handling of records. The agency says it “assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”
Aug. 15: The Justice Department returns Trump’s passports to his lawyers. A Trump spokesman tweets an email that confirms the FBI used a filter team to screen out evidence that was seized but not responsive to the warrant.
Aug. 18: The federal magistrate judge who approved the search warrant application holds a hearing about requests to make public the underlying affidavit and asks the Justice Department for potential redactions, to be submitted a week later.
Aug. 22: Trump files a lawsuit against the Justice Department asking for the appointment of a special master to review the seized records. The request comes more than two weeks after the initial search.
Aug. 24: The acting archivist sends a letter to staff addressing the investigation, characterizing their agency as “fiercely non-political” and refuting claims of harboring political motivations.
Aug. 25: The Justice Department submits a redacted version of the underlying search warrant affidavit. Finding the submission satisfactory, the magistrate judge orders its release a day later.
Aug. 26: The redacted affidavit is made available to the public.
Separately, in a letter to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines confirms the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence are facilitating a classification review of relevant materials seized. The intelligence office will also review risks to national security.
Aug. 27: U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, presiding over Trump’s request for a third party to review the seized items, issues a preliminary order indicating she is likely to appoint a special master.
Aug. 29: The Justice Department informs Cannon that the filter teams, acting separately from the investigative teams, had completed their search for potentially privileged material in the seized records.
Aug. 30: The Justice Department submits a 36-page response to Trump’s request for a special master, calling it “unnecessary,” and reveals they have evidence that Trump’s team might have obstructed their investigation.
Aug. 31: Trump claims in a post to Truth Social, his social media site, that he declassified the records displayed in the redacted FBI photo.
“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!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see. Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!” he writes.
Federal prosecutors, however, asserted in their filing that Trump’s representatives never “asserted that the former president had declassified the documents or asserted any claim of executive privilege.”
Separately, Trump’s legal team file a 19-page reply to the Justice Department’s opposition to the appointment of a special master. The former president’s lawyers again urge Cannon to tap a third party to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago and criticize the execution of the search warrant as “unprecedented, unnecessary, and legally unsupported.”
“Left unchecked, the DOJ will impugn, leak, and publicize selective aspects of their investigation with no recourse,” they write.
Federal prosecutors have argued sensitive records taken from Trump’s property belong to the government and should’ve been returned to the Archives at the end of his administration in January 2021. But Trump’s lawyers counter in their filing that the “notion that presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.”
They also argue the Archives should have made a “good faith effort” with Trump to recover the records, though the agency has made public numerous letters indicating their apparent willingness to work with the former president’s team to retrieve the materials brought to Mar-a-Lago.