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FBI search for Trump’s house pushes long conflict in the public eye

The FBI’s search of the home of former President Donald J. Trump in Florida on Monday, a law enforcement action with explosive legal and political implications, was the culmination of a protracted conflict between a president who took pride in his disregard for rules. and officials accused of protecting the nation’s records and secrets.

On one side were officials from the National Archives, which is responsible for ensuring that all presidential documents are kept in accordance with the law, and the Department of Justice, which some people familiar with the investigation said had been concerned about the whereabouts. of possible classified information and whether Mr. Trump’s team was fully available.

On the other hand, Mr. Trump, who, apparently in violation of the Presidential Records Act, had taken a wealth of material with him to his home in Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House that contained sensitive documents — and when, according to the Justice Department, had not fully complied with requests to return the disputed material.

After the investigation was largely out of public view for months, the report that officers arrived at the gates of Mar-a-Lago early Monday morning with a search warrant raised new questions about Mr Trump’s vulnerability to prosecution and sparked further investigations. partisan division.

Trump’s aides and allies on Tuesday intensified their criticism of the search, calling it unnecessary and claiming, without presenting any evidence, that it was a brutal use of prosecutorial power for political ends. On his social media site on Tuesday, Mr. Trump called the search as part of “a coordinated attack” involving local and state prosecutors, citing investigations of him being conducted in Georgia and New York.

Christina Bobb, a lawyer and aide to Mr. Trump who said she received a copy of the search warrant, told an interviewer the agents were looking for “presidential records or potentially classified material.”

At the White House, President Biden’s press secretary said he was not informed in advance of the decision to conduct the search, and at the Justice Department, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland kept public silence about the momentous move. .

Despite Mr Trump’s suggestion that an army of agents invaded Mar-a-Lago and stormed through his home, the FBI conducted the search on a day when Mr. Trump was out of town and the club was closed. The officers conducted the search relatively quietly, those in the know said; some say they weren’t seen donning the distinctive navy jackets with the agency’s initials on the back that are often worn when executing search warrants.

Another person familiar with the search said officers went through a storage area, where items such as beach chairs and umbrellas are kept, in the basement. They walked to his office, which had been built for him on the second floor of the main building, where they opened a hotel safe that was alleged to contain nothing of interest to the officers by two individuals informed about the search.

Then they moved into Mr Trump’s residence, the person said.

They eventually removed several boxes of documents, people familiar with the search said.

It is not clear what the officers were looking for or what they took. It is also unclear whether the search was conducted to ensure that the documents and other materials were properly turned over to the archives or whether it was a possible prelude to a prosecution against Mr. Trump for mishandling classified material or hindering attempts to obtain it back.

During his presidency, Mr. Trump had disdain for record keeping laws, and he was known for shredding documents and in some cases flushing toilets. It’s not clear whether he was trying to hold onto material sought by the archives and the Justice Department to keep it out of public scrutiny or for some other reason.

However, a closer look at the investigation reveals how it has quietly picked up steam for much of this year, introducing a new element to questions about Mr Trump’s diverse and mounting legal problems and his political viability, even as he alludes to another run for president.

For many months before leaving office, Mr. Trump would tell his aides to bring documents to the residence for him while he was in the Oval Office, and they obeyed, but there was no trial, meaning officials whose job it was paperwork to keep track of, according to people familiar with the events, they didn’t always know exactly what had happened there.



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Near the end of his presidency, and as Mr. Trump fought to undo his election loss, some of his aides were concerned about preserving the work of the office itself. His habit of transporting material in cardboard boxes, with a personal assistant or a servant, was well known, but the contents were not always clear.

Discussions were held inside the White House by top officials over how to return Mr. Trump’s boxes, people familiar with the events said; it’s unclear whether Mr. Trump was ever asked directly or whether officials simply didn’t bring the matter up to him.

As he left the White House, Mr. Trump took the boxes to Mar-a-Lago, packed with paperwork, including letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his ‘Sharpie-gate’ map of the path of a hurricane, along with personal items like golf balls and a raincoat and various other things stuffed into it.

The National Archives, whose mission is to preserve government records, found last year that many important presidential documents that archivists knew existed were missing and believed to be in Mr. Trump’s possession.

That caused a lengthy back and forth between the National Archives and Mr. Trump’s lawyers over which documents Mr. Trump would have taken. Trump’s reluctance to quickly hand over the documents frustrated archives, which during the Trump administration had become highly skeptical that Mr. Trump and his aides were following federal records-keeping laws.

For the rest of 2021, Mr. Trump resisted requests to return the material. In the meantime, Mr. Trump waved things like the North Korean leader’s letters to people as if they were collectibles he was showing off.

In January of this year, an official from the National Archives flew to Florida and retrieved 15 boxes of documents, gifts and other government property.

When archivists searched the boxes, they found several documents containing sensitive national security information, including some marked classified.

The archivists also found that Mr. Trump had failed to return several documents they believed the former president had in his possession. Around that time, the National Archives warned the Justice Department that it was concerned about the handling of the classified documents, which are closely monitored by the government and should remain within secure channels.

By this spring, the Justice Department had taken a series of steps indicating it was investigating what happened to the classified documents, as prosecutors issued a subpoena to the National Archives to obtain the boxes and a grand jury convened, whose term was later extended beyond the original expiration date.

Investigators began contacting potential witnesses, including Molly Michael, an aide to Mr Trump, to say they were seeking information from people close to the former president. A lawyer for Ms Michael declined to comment.

In the spring, a group of federal investigators, including Jay Bratt, the Justice Department’s top counterintelligence officer, traveled to Mar-a-Lago. mr. Trump briefly met with them, and lawyers for Mr. Trump were present.

In an interview on Tuesday with the right-wing channel Real America’s Voice, Ms. Bobb said she and other Trump attorneys had been “extremely cooperative” with the FBI during a previous visit when agents were given “free access” to the building.

After Bratt and other officials visited Mar-a-Lago, they sued the Trump Organization for a copy of Mar-a-Lago’s surveillance tapes, a person with knowledge of the matter said. The company obeyed and handed over the ties to the government.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers also searched his records at Mar-a-Lago to determine if he was still holding anything secret or sensitive. In the course of that process, Mr. Trump’s team made statements to the Justice Department about what Mr. Trump had returned.

But in recent weeks, officials have begun to question whether that information was entirely accurate — and whether Mr. Trump continued to store sensitive documents in Mar-a-Lago, one of the people said. It is unclear whether the Justice Department has conveyed those concerns to Mr Trump’s team.

Mr. Trump and his associates made it clear that they were surprised when officers arrived at Mar-a-Lago on Monday with a search warrant.

A person with knowledge of the case said the warrant was approved by a federal magistrate, Bruce Reinhart, a former federal prosecutor and attorney. Magistrate judges are selected by district judges, which means they are not political appointees. It is common for magistrates to review search warrants.

Glenn Thrush and Katie Benner reporting contributed.

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