Former President Donald Trump and his attorneys promised in June that, for real, he had handed over all the White House documents the federal government had demanded be returned. Weeks later, the FBI recovered thousands of documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate — and it appears now that the lying from Trump hasn’t stopped.
NBC News reported Friday that the Justice Department still isn’t convinced Trump has forked over all the documents he packed away when leaving Washington. If that’s the case and Trump isn’t storing them at Mar-a-Lago, there are only a few options for where else they might be. It’s time, then, for the FBI to come knocking again — particularly at Trump’s Bedminster golf course in New Jersey.
Top counterintelligence official Jay Bratt recently communicated the Justice Department’s beliefs to Trump’s team, NBC News reported. The New York Times, which first reported the Justice Department’s suspicions Thursday, noted that Trump’s lawyers were divided over how to respond to the insinuation that their client is still being less than honest with the government.
After Bratt’s warning, Trump initially agreed to a plan from attorney Chris Kise, who “suggested hiring a forensic firm to search for additional documents.” But Kise was outmaneuvered by more combative lawyers in Trump’s circle, who play better to Trump’s (often self-destructive) instinct to fight.
His lawyers have argued in court since the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago that the “legally unsupported raid” (as they deem it) was unnecessary given Trump’s cooperation with the investigation. But that cooperation, as the Justice Department has laid out in numerous filings, was spotty at best. Trump reportedly pushed back throughout the process, at times referring to the documents as “mine.” The January transfer of 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives and Records Administration took almost a year to facilitate.
Throughout the process, The Times reported Saturday, Trump lied to everyone — including his own lawyers — about the contents of the boxes he’d packed before leaving the White House. Trump himself reportedly sorted through the documents to be shipped to the National Archives in December, never letting on that classified material was strewn throughout the papers. Once the FBI reviewed the contents and realized that was the case, the Justice Department issued a subpoena for any and all additional government records in Trump’s possession.
Bratt and other Justice Department officials visited Mar-a-Lago on June 3 to stress how vital it was that Trump hand over all the required documents. He handed over a few more, and a Trump attorney signed a document certifying that a “diligent search” had been conducted to look for any stray papers. But Trump’s lawyers also (in a completely non-suspicious fashion) told the Justice Department they weren’t allowed to look at any of the boxes in a storage room that supposedly held all the needed material.
After that visit, the Justice Department said in a September court filing, the FBI “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.” On Aug. 5, that evidence helped persuade a federal judge to sign off on a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago. Federal agents left the Florida estate with dozens of boxes containing over 10,000 government documents, at least 100 of which bore classification markings. Those classified documents are under review by the FBI despite several attempts by Trump’s team to stonewall the investigation.
As NBC News’ report stressed, some key questions remain unanswered, “including whether the department has concrete evidence that Trump still holds classified material or it's just a suspicion based on inferences, such as the empty envelopes with classified markings that were seized at Mar-a-Lago or information from the National Archives that it's still missing documents from Trump's presidency.”
Whatever the reason for Bratt’s warning, it’s clear that the Justice Department needs to move quickly to ensure the former president isn’t playing a never-ending shell game. Two other main properties could be used to keep documents away from the FBI. One, his office in Manhattan, seems unlikely, given that it could be searched as part of two separate investigations into Trump’s businesses. But Bedminster? That seems like a much stronger possibility, based on Trump’s habit of decamping there during the summer. The golf course has been the subject of speculation for weeks now, based on video recorded days after the National Archives first reached out to Trump to say some documents were still missing. In the video, Trump is boarding a plane to Bedminster with several of the type of boxes used to store paperwork onboard.
If the Justice Department isn’t already preparing an affidavit to be filed in court in New Jersey for a warrant to search the property, the only question is “why not?” Trump’s pattern of behavior throughout this investigation should make it clear that there is probable cause to search Bedminster for any documents he continues to sequester. Delaying any search only gives him more time to further obstruct what should have been a routine part of leaving the presidency.