Worried that a trove of White House records that had been brought to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate contained classified material, a top official in the former President’s orbit warned his aides last fall: Do not touch those boxes.
The senior official in Trump’s inner circle did not want to risk exposing sensitive materials to aides who may have lacked the appropriate security clearances, according to a person familiar with the matter. The boxes, which were being stored at the time in Trump’s Florida club, had landed on the National Archives and Records Administration’s radar after officials there noticed that several items were missing from their catalog of Trump White House records.
In May 2021, the realization that important items from Trump’s time in office – including some of his correspondence with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and infamous Sharpie-altered map of Hurricane Dorian – were not transferred to the Archives at the end of his presidency prompted NARA officials to contact Trump’s team.
Longtime Archives lawyer Gary Stern first reached out to a person from the White House counsel’s office who had been designated as the President Records Act point of contact about the record-keeping issue, hoping to locate the missing items and initiate their swift transfer back to NARA, said multiple sources familiar with the matter. The person had served as one of Trump’s impeachment defense attorneys months earlier and, as deputy counsel, was among the White House officials typically involved in ensuring records were properly preserved during the transfer of power and Trump’s departure from office.
But after an extended back and forth over several months and after multiple steps taken by Trump’s team to resolve the issue, Stern sought the intervention of another Trump attorney last fall as his frustration mounted over the pace of the document turnover. A spokesperson for Trump did not return a request for comment.
In a statement on Thursday, Trump claimed the boxes that had been brought to Mar-a-Lago “contained letters, records, newspapers, magazines and various articles” that are to be featured in his presidential library “someday.”
“The papers were given easily and without conflict and on a very friendly basis,” he said.
One source familiar with the situation says the document turnover has “not been fully resolved” and says Trump is still in possession of documents the Archives wants. The Archives hinted at this in a statement earlier this week.
“Former President Trump’s representatives have informed NARA that they are continuing to search for additional Presidential records that belong to the National Archives,” the Archives said in a statement.
In a series of interviews with CNN, a half-dozen people familiar with the matter described a tense situation that took nearly eight months to resolve – beginning with NARA’s outreach in May and ending with its retrieval of the boxes from Mar-a-Lago last month.
In the end, it may have been a threat that ended the impasse. At one point, the Archives notified a member of Trump’s team that it planned to alert Congress and the Department of Justice of the matter if it wasn’t quickly resolved, according to a person familiar with the warning. According to a person familiar with the matter, the Archives have since asked the Justice Department to investigate. It is unclear whether the Justice Department has started an investigation.
The House Oversight Committee chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, has also vowed to initiate a probe of the records’ removal from Trump’s Palm Beach resort, which she called “deeply troubling” in a statement on Monday.
In a separate statement to CNN, the Archives said, “We do not comment on potential or ongoing investigations.”
One source, who has worked with Stern on other issues, described the Archives lawyer as “persnickety” about securing the presidential records, noting that Trump’s haphazard and chaotic preservation of records likely frustrated Stern beyond measure.
He “must have lost his mind,” this person said, describing Stern as an extremely meticulous individual who is known for writing letters that start off polite and gradually became more lawyerly and agitated. The same source said the archivists at NARA are very serious about presidential records, and that their review process involves first reviewing materials that are turned over in a secure room to determine if anything is classified and then working with the former President’s designated Presidential Records Act points of contact to sort everything out.
Two people familiar with the process said that NARA customarily wants to see all records that a president touched or viewed during his time in office, which would have included letters from foreign leaders or predecessors like the kind that were recovered from Mar-a-Lago in Florida. A former White House official says Trump would often bring documents from the White House into his residence at Mar-a-Lago, but it could not be learned where the documents were kept after his presidency.
A pattern of haphazard record-keeping
The issues that have arisen with Trump’s presidential records since he left office follow a pattern of behavior that began long before he ever stepped foot inside the Oval Office and then continued – much to the shock and frustration of aides – during his four-year term.
Running afoul of normal preservation procedures, then-President Trump would often tear up documents, drafts and memos after reading them and is said to have also periodically flushed papers down the toilet in the White House residence – only to be discovered later on when repairmen were summoned to fix the clogged toilets. The revelation of Trump’s toilet-flushing habit was first revealed Thursday by Maggie Haberman, a New York Times journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Confidence Man” about Trump. Haberman is a CNN contributor. In a statement on Thursday, Trump denied the allegations as categorically untrue.
On one occasion during a mid-flight visit to the press cabin aboard Air Force One, Trump brought along a copy of a speech that he had just delivered and asked if anyone wanted to put it up for auction on eBay, recalled a person who witnessed the exchange. Though Trump appeared to be joking and nobody took him up on his offer, the episode further underscores the former President’s seeming casual attitude toward record preservation.
Other times, the former President would task aides with carrying boxes of unread memos, articles and tweet drafts aboard the presidential aircraft for him to review and then tear to shreds.
A former senior Trump administration official said a deputy from the Office of Staff Secretary would usually come in after Trump left a room to pull things out of the trash and take them off his desk. Even by the end of his term, Trump had clearly not learned, “this is the bag you put things in that we are keeping and that you have to archive,” the official said.
The concern among aides extended beyond just the Presidential Records Act. One former White House official described angst Trump’s habit would lead to, at the very least, the perception that he was obstructing justice during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Some of the documents handed over to Mueller’s team had to be taped back together after they were torn, though one source says they were less consequential documents, such as newspaper clippings. Another person familiar with the matter said Mueller’s team asked at least two White House aides about whether Trump tore up documents, and they replied yes.
While document preservation was a key responsibility of the staff secretary, the rest of Trump’s senior staffers did not seem to have any sense of their obligation to maintain records of papers that moved through the West Wing, the same official recalled.
“Those who knew the rules did their best to scramble … and make sure to do the best they could following retention requirements, but they very often were not followed,” the official said.
Making some of his aides’ efforts to preserve records even more difficult was the sheer volume of papers that constantly surrounded Trump, who has long preferred handwritten notes and printed documents to email correspondence, and his habit of adding things to his calendar without notifying the proper channels. For instance, anytime Trump would conduct an interview at the White House or tape a video to share on social media, he was supposed to have a stenographer and representative from the White House Communications Agency nearby to record what was said, according to the same official.
But there were moments when he did not have a trained transcriptionist near him because of a rogue last-minute addition he had made to his daily schedule, the official said.
“They would do their best to keep track of his calendar but his was very fluid,” said the former senior administration official, adding that sometimes the White House Communications Agency and White House stenographers would have to “race over” to an event that Trump had added at the last minute.
Former White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Friday told CNN that National Security Council staffers put into a place a “foolproof” system for their own record keeping, but acknowledged that the system could have been ignored after he left the White House in March 2018.
“We put in a system that was, I think, was kind of foolproof in that connection, with what came from the National Security Council staff. If the staff is running it well, everything that goes into the Oval Office … is logged in and everything the President sees should be logged in,” McMaster said.
“I can’t speak about what happened after I left,” he added. “I was one of many national security advisers, so I’m not sure what happened after that.”
‘Everything was just hastily put into moving trucks’
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s November election loss, the White House Counsel’s Office made clear what the obligations were for preserving records in accordance with longstanding legal guidelines and staffers started going through the White House and collecting documents for the archives.
But in the final days of the administration, as Trump desperately tried to hang onto power, things went off the rails, multiple sources say. They describe chaos and empty hallways with no one to oversee a proper move out, which would have normally included instructions on where dozens and dozens of records should be transported to.
“Everything was just hastily put into the moving trucks in order to make the quick turnaround,” said a former Trump campaign aide.
Aides to the former President, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claimed that the sloppy preservation of records in the waning days of Trump’s presidency was exacerbated by issues with the General Services Administration. The GSA typically handles the packing and moving of the West Wing while US Secret Service and residence staff oversee other parts of the executive complex move out. Due to strict coronavirus protocols at the time and heightened security in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, Trump aides said there was a shortage of trained movers and staff available to help with the process.
“There were major pandemic staffing issues,” said one Trump adviser.
GSA press secretary Christina Wilkes said in a statement to CNN on Sunday that the agency only helps with moving “government owned furniture within the complex,” adding that the White House chief usher coordinates the first family’s move out of the East and West Wings.
Trump’s handling of records both inside the White House and after his presidency could come under intense legal scrutiny in the coming months as congressional investigators look into the records transfer initiated by NARA, but experts don’t believe he will face criminal charges. More potentially could come to light in a spate of books about the Trump White House that are due for release this year by former White House aides and journalists who closely covered the administration.
If the boxes the Archives retrieved from Mar-a-Lago contained sensitive or classified materials, as The Washington Post first reported late Thursday and Trump’s own aides worried about, the former President could find himself under even greater legal pressure.
This story has been updated to remove a specific reference as to where boxes were stored in Mar-a-Lago. The previous location mentioned was where documents were kept during his presidency, and the current location is not known. The story has also been updated Sunday to include a statement from the GSA.