There was some question after the FBI searched — and took documents from — Mar-a-Lago last week about whether that might’ve represented the end of the process. In other words, Donald Trump allegedly took highly classified national security secrets to his glorified country club, and after federal law enforcement removed the materials, that might’ve effectively resolved the controversy.
As a New York Times report put it last week, it wasn’t altogether clear “whether the search was carried out simply to ensure that the documents and other materials were properly turned over to the archives” or whether it was “a possible precursor to a prosecution of Mr. Trump for mishandling classified material or obstructing efforts to get it back.”
That answer has come into sharper focus.
For example, on Monday, Justice Department lawyers asked the judge who approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant to keep the accompanying affidavit under seal. As an NBC News report put it, federal law enforcement cited “a need to protect witnesses and the ongoing investigation.” If the collection of the documents was the endpoint, this isn’t what the DOJ would’ve said or done.
But that’s not the only relevant revelation. The New York Times also published this notable report:
Pat A. Cipollone and Patrick F. Philbin, the White House counsel and his deputy under President Donald J. Trump, were interviewed by the F.B.I. in connection with boxes of sensitive documents that were stored at Mr. Trump’s residence in Florida after he left office, three people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Cipollone and Mr. Philbin are the most senior people who worked for Mr. Trump who are known to have been interviewed by investigators after the National Archives referred the matter to the Justice Department this year.
According to the reporting, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Philbin was interviewed in the spring — when Trump was still refusing to give up the materials that didn’t belong to him — and it’s unclear when Cipollone was interviewed.
Why does this matter? Right off the bat, the fact that federal law enforcement wanted to talk to the top two members of Trump’s White House counsel’s office suggests the Justice Department is taking this investigation quite seriously. Any questions about whether officials simply wanted to reclaim the materials appear to have been answered.
What’s more, as we discussed the other day, if Trump had issued a “standing order” about declassifying these materials, such a policy likely would’ve gone through his White House counsel’s office — and Cipollone and Philbin almost certainly would’ve made the Justice Department aware of this.
The fact that the FBI showed up at Mar-a-Lago anyway suggests that the “standing order” didn’t exist, and it was made up on the fly last week by a desperate political operation.
As my MSNBC colleague Lisa Rubin noted yesterday, it’s also of interest that Cipollone and Philbin, in addition to their White House roles, were among the officials tasked with coordinating with the National Archives on presidential record keeping. A year and a half later — shortly after Team Trump met with federal law enforcement about the elusive materials — Trump sent a letter to the Archives, explaining that partisan loyalists Kash Patel and John Solomon, would serve as “representatives for access to Presidential records of my administration.”
It’s not yet clear whether the FBI’s chats with Cipollone and Philbin led to Trump’s unexplained follow-up letter to the Archives two months ago.
Finally, the Times’ report yesterday added that, after a June meeting in which Team Trump falsely told the Justice Department in writing that all of the materials had been returned, “officials then used a subpoena to obtain surveillance footage of the hallway outside a storage room at Mar-a-Lago and saw something that alarmed them.”
I don’t know what it is that might’ve “alarmed” officials — maybe it was the reported footage of boxes being “moved in and out” at Mar-a-Lago? — but it’s a safe bet we haven’t heard the last of this.