When the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago eight weeks ago, it seemed to resolve part of the larger controversy. Donald Trump had improperly taken documents from the White House, and federal officials had retrieved them. It was time to move on to questions about how — and whether — to hold the former president accountable.
But what if Trump, even now, still has materials he’s not supposed to have?
The National Archives and Records Administration recently let the House Oversight Committee know that it believes some records from the Trump White House still haven’t been turned over. As The New York Times reported, the Justice Department has delivered a similar message to the former president’s defense attorneys.
A top Justice Department official told former President Donald J. Trump’s lawyers in recent weeks that the department believed he had not returned all the documents he took when he left the White House, according to two people briefed on the matter. The outreach from the official, Jay I. Bratt, who leads the department’s counterintelligence operations, is the most concrete indication yet that investigators remain skeptical that Mr. Trump has been fully cooperative in their efforts to recover documents the former president was supposed to have turned over to the National Archives at the end of his term.
If Bratt’s name sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s come up quite a bit in this story. In early June, for example, Bratt and three FBI agents traveled to Mar-a-Lago in the hopes of retrieving documents Trump improperly took. The chief of the counterespionage section of the national security division of the Justice Department received some materials, including documents bearing classification markings, but not everything.
What’s more, on Aug. 11, when the former president reached out to a Justice Department official to deliver a provocative message to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the person Trump spoke to was Bratt.
According to the Times’ report, which NBC News has confirmed, the Justice Department official is still on the case, letting Team Trump know that while many of the materials the former president stole are now back in government custody, it appears Trump may still be holding onto documents that he’s not supposed to have.
Complicating matters is the reported dysfunction among the Republican’s lawyers. From the Times’ article:
The outreach from the department prompted a rift among Mr. Trump’s lawyers about how to respond, with one camp counseling a cooperative approach that would include bringing in an outside firm to conduct a further search for documents and another advising Mr. Trump to maintain a more combative posture. The more combative camp, the people briefed on the matter said, won out.
It was Christopher Kise, whom the former president paid $3 million up front to represent him in the Mar-a-Lago case, who suggested Team Trump hire a forensic team to look for more documents. This dovetails with a recent Washington Post report that said Kise believed that once federal officials had all of the materials back in their hands, “maybe prosecutors could be persuaded to resolve the whole issue quietly.”
Kise’s rivals within Trump’s team pushed a more combative approach — and they appear to be winning while Kise appears sidelined.
As for where the former president might be keeping these elusive documents, I’ve seen some jokes about the FBI searching Trump’s Bedminster property in New Jersey, and part of me is starting to think those jokes might have merit.