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Trump records investigation: From early red flags to the search at Mar-a-Lago

A watchdog raised alarm about White House records in 2018. An "unprecedented" search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago home Aug. 8 is related to a records probe.

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Federal agents descended on former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home on Aug. 8 in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of an investigation into allegations he took classified records from the White House and stored them at the home for up to a year, a potentially serious violation of the law. 

Trump denounced the investigation, saying he was entitled to take the records, which could include documents from appointments and call logs to handwritten notes.

Here's a timeline of the investigation into the former president's handling of presidential records.

Mar-a-Lago search: What's happening at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home? Was the FBI there? Answers to your questions

June 2018 

June 2018 

Watchdogs flag Trump's record management 

Two government watchdog groups – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and American Oversight – sounded the alarm in 2018 on Trump's management of records, particularly his habit of tearing up White House documents and papers.

“He’s absolutely breaking the law,” said Earl Lewis, president of the Organization of American Historians.

The Presidential Records Act says all presidential documents must be retained, both for current reference and the historical record. The president is responsible for the custody and management of the records but is not allowed to decide which records stay and which go. 

The watchdogs told the Palm Beach Post that presidential papers – even John F. Kennedy’s doodles during the Cuban missile crisis – serve as a check to presidential power and accountability, in addition to preserving history.

Feb. 9, 2022

Feb. 9, 2022

National Archives obtains presidential records from Mar-a-Lago

The National Archives obtained 15 boxes of presidential records that the former president had stored at his Mar-a-Lago club, including correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Trump described as "love letters," as well as a letter former President Barack Obama left before Trump's inauguration. 

In the boxes were 184 unique documents bearing classification markings, including 67 documents marked as “confidential,” 92 documents marked as “secret,” and 25 documents marked as “top secret," according to the affidavit for the search warrant. 

Citing the Presidential Records Act, the National Archives and Records Administration said the records should have been transferred to the archives agency at the end of the Trump administration in January 2021. Instead, the archives agency said it arranged for the transport of those presidential records in mid-January 2022 after discussions with Trump’s representatives in 2021. 

Trump advisers denied "any nefarious intent" and told The Washington Post the 15 boxes contained "mementos, gifts, letters from world leaders and other correspondence."

Feb. 10

Feb. 10

Lawmakers ask National Archives to document removal

Lawmakers on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform pushed the National Archives and Records Administration to investigate whether Trump improperly took classified information when he moved out of the White House.

"I am deeply concerned that these records were not provided to NARA promptly at the end of the Trump Administration and that they appear to have been removed from the White House in violation of the Presidential Records Act," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the oversight committee, said in a letter to the archives agency.

In the letter, which requested a response by Feb. 18, Maloney asked for an explanation of the delay in document production, details of the contents of the boxes, whether classified material was included and a description of records that Trump destroyed or tried to destroy.

Feb. 18

Feb. 18

National Archives confirms Trump removed classified documents from White House 

The National Archives responded to Maloney’s letter and said it "has identified items marked as classified national security information within the boxes" Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

The letter – signed by David Ferriero, the national archivist – said that "because NARA identified classified information in the boxes, NARA staff has been in communication with the Department of Justice."

April 7

April 7

Department of Justice plans to investigate handling of records

The Justice Department moved to investigate the handling of White House documents sent to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

“The Committee does not wish to interfere in any manner with any potential or ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice,” Maloney wrote.

“However," she said, "the Committee has not received any explanation as to why the Department is preventing NARA from providing information to the Committee that relates to compliance with the [Presidential Records Act], including unclassified information describing the contents of the 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago.”

FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Andres Leiva/Palm Beach Post
May 12

May 12

Jury subpoena, Justice Department interviews 

The Justice Department began conducting interviews, and a federal grand jury issued a subpoena in relation to its investigation of the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, The Washington Post and New York Times reported. Both moves indicated that the Justice Department investigation would move forward, potentially causing legal or political consequences for Trump or his allies, the Post said. 

June 8

June 8

DOJ sends Trump lawyers a letter saying Mar-a-Lago isn't secure

Justice Department lawyers warned Trump’s legal team that rooms at Mar-a-Lago holding sensitive material were not secure and should be made more impenetrable, an affidavit justifying the Mar-a-Lago search revealed. 

“It appears that since the time classified documents were removed from the secure facilities at the White House and moved to Mar-a-Lago on or around January 20, 2021, they have not been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location,” reads the DOJ's June 8 letter to Trump's attorneys.

"Accordingly, we ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that all of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (along with any other items in that room) be preserved in that room in their current condition until farther (sic) notice," the letter continues.

June 

June 

Trump served subpoena at Mar-a-Lago home

Two months before federal agents searched Trump’s Florida estate on Aug. 8, the former president was served with a subpoena seeking sensitive government documents that investigators believed he’d stored there after he left the White House, a person familiar with the matter told USA TODAY.

July 26

July 26

Attorney General Merrick Garland vows to pursue charges against "anyone" criminally responsible for Jan. 6 riot

Attorney General Merrick Garland left the door open for the Justice Department to investigate the former president, whose supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to try to disrupt the congressional confirmation of Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election.

“No person is above the law in this country,” Garland said. “I can’t say it any more clearly than that. There is nothing in the principles of prosecution and any other factors which prevent us from investigating anyone – anyone – who is criminally responsible for an attempt to undo a democratic election.”

Former President Donald Trump's home at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Former President Donald Trump's home at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/AP
Aug. 8

Aug. 8

FBI searches Trump's Mar-a-Lago home

Trump announced the search on his Florida property in an email from his Save America political action group, saying that “this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate.”

“They even broke into my safe,” he said in his statement, though he didn't elaborate.

Legal experts told USA TODAY that any search would need to be authorized by a judge after finding evidence of probable cause that a crime had been committed.

The former president said the search, which USA TODAY confirmed was part of a federal investigation into allegations Trump removed classified documents from the White House when he left office, two people familiar with the search said, was meant to hurt him politically.

Aug. 11

Aug. 11

DOJ seeks to unseal Mar-a-Lago search warrant

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department asked a federal court in South Florida to unseal a search warrant and property receipt related to a search of the former president’s home.

Garland, who confirmed he personally signed off on the warrant said a federal court authorized the search “upon the required finding of probable cause.” The search was in accordance with Department of Justice policy and procedures, Garland said, adding that "the department does not take such a decision lightly.”

The motion came “in light of the former president’s public confirmation” as well as “the substantial public interest in this matter," Garland said. The Justice Department argued the court should unseal the search warrant, attachments and property receipt “absent objection from the former president.”

Trump says he won't object to release

Trump said he would not oppose the Florida federal court unsealing the search warrant that authorized FBI agents to search his Mar-a-Lago home.

“Not only will I not oppose the release of the documents,” Trump said in a statement late Thursday, “I am going a step further by encouraging the immediate release of those documents.”

An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on August 17, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. ORG XMIT: 2600077 (Via OlyDrop)
An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on August 17, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. ORG XMIT: 2600077 (Via OlyDrop) GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST
Aug. 12

Aug. 12

Mar-a-Lago search warrant made public

A federal judge unsealed the warrant Aug. 12 when the Justice Department, after conferring with Trump's attorneys, formally asserted the former president did not object to making the search warrant public.

The warrant showed Trump is under investigation for possibly breaking three federal laws: removal or destruction of records, obstructing an investigation, and violating the Espionage Act. 

Some 20 boxes of items were retrieved from Mar-a-Lago that included 11 sets of classified documents, according to a property receipt released with the warrant. 

Several of the items had vague descriptors like binders of photos, a handwritten note, information about the “President of France” and the executive grant of clemency for Trump ally Roger Stone. But others were marked as top secret, with one set of documents deemed “Various classified/TS/SCI documents,” an abbreviation for “top secret/sensitive compartmented information."

Read the full warrant here

Aug. 23

Aug. 23

Trump lawyers seek halt of Mar-a-Lago document inquiry, requestsspecial master to oversee review

Trump’s lawyers filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the continued review of classified documents taken from his Mar-a-Lago estate in August until a special master or third party can be appointed to ensure that possibly privileged material is shielded from scrutiny, according to court documents.

The lawsuit cast the search in stark political terms, describing the government's search warrant as overly broad because it authorized FBI agents to seize "boxes of documents merely because they are physically found together with other items purportedly within the scope of the warrant" and accusing Attorney General Merrick Garland of using the criminal justice system to alter the political landscape.

Aug. 24

Aug. 24

Biden makes first public remarks on search

President Joe Biden said he had “zero” advance notice before federal agents executed the search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, his first public comments on the search. 

“I didn’t have any advanced notice – none, zero, not one single bit,” Biden said after making remarks on a student loan debt relief plan.

Topper for Trump affidavit analysis
Topper for Trump affidavit analysis Photo: AP. Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/USA Today
Aug. 26

Aug. 26

Mar-a-Lago search affidavit unsealed with redactions

The redacted affidavit justifying the search of Trump’s Florida property, made public Aug. 26, gave insight into the origin and depth of the Justice Department’s investigation into the former president’s handling of classified documents. 

The affidavit revealed that highly classified information was included in the 15 boxes of documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago earlier in the year, which spurred the Justice Department to launch its probe. Among those documents were records relating to clandestine human sources – some of the most guarded information in U.S. intelligence. Information in that category is usually locked away in highly secure government facilities.

It was also revealed in the affidavit that several rooms at Trump’s resort where documents were stored where “not currently authorized locations for the storage of classified information” or national defense information.

Contributing: Janet Loehrke and Ramon Padilla 

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