Meet Trump's cast of record keepers, who have taken on significance amid Mar-a-Lago probe
The aides tasked with handling Donald Trump's presidential records over the years included White House lawyers and later, a political acolyte.
- Trump White House lawyers Don McGahn and Pat Cipollone have been in charge of the records at times.
- Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, others were designated the day before Trump left office.
- The job typically doesn't make headlines, but the records probe at Mar-a-Lago has drawn spotlight.
But former President Donald Trump's present and former record keepers are in the national public spotlight now that a Department of Justice investigation found classified records in Trump's Mar-a-Lago mansion roughly a year and a half after he left office, and months after his attorneys assured investigators the documents had been handed over.
As the investigation continues amid a court battle over the FBI search that turned up some of the missing top-secret documents, at least two of Trump's former record keepers have been interviewed by the FBI about the findings. Neither they nor any of the other Trump record keepers have been accused of doing anything improper.
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Separately, two testified as witnesses before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters who tried to block certification of Joe Biden's presidential election victory and keep Trump in office.
During and after Trump's one-term presidency, he designated several White House attorneys – and later, a conservative reporter and a political acolyte – to oversee records required to be submitted to the National Archives and Records Administration under the Presidential Records Act.
Here's a look at the people who have served as Trump's official record keepers:
Don McGahn, Stefan Passantino and Ann Donaldson
McGahn, who served as Trump’s first White House counsel, was designated by the president to serve as the guardian of presidential records, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, memo directed to David Ferriero, who then served as the U.S. archivist.
The designation also extended to McGahn’s deputies at the time, Stefan Passantino, and Ann Donaldson, as Trump’s representatives “with authority to exercise discretion or authority granted to me for the protection and disposition of the Presidential Records of my Presidency and, upon my death or disability."
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Less than a week later, McGahn’s office issued a memo informing White House staffers of their responsibility to care for the records – including a warning.
“At all times, please keep in mind that presidential records are the property of the United States,” the Feb. 22, 2017 directive stated. “You may not dispose of presidential records. When you leave … employment, you may not take any presidential records with you. You also may not take copies of any presidential records without prior authorization from the Counsel's office. The willful destruction or concealment of federal records is a federal crime punishable by fines and imprisonment."
McGahn, Passantino and Donaldson did not respond to messages seeking interviews.
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Editor of the conservative media outlet Just the News, John Solomon represented an untraditional selection when he was granted special access to presidential records through a June 19 Trump directive.
Solomon has said the access was provided “solely in my capacity as a reporter.”
“I did not access the documents in Florida, seek to access them or have anything to do with them or the dispute surrounding them,” he said in a statement on the Just the News website, referring to the classified documents recovered during the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.
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Solomon said his access is limited to documents related to an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia that were declassified at the end of the administration.
More recently, Solomon’s organization first disclosed a May 10 letter from the National Archives notifying Trump’s lawyers of the urgent Justice Department investigation into handling of classified documents. The letter specifically referred to 700 pages of classified documents that had been transferred to the archives from Mar-a-Lago in January and were among 15 boxes of records returned at the time.
Solomon told USA TODAY that the letter was obtained from confidential sources and not as a special designee to access Trump records.
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Patel is an attorney and former federal prosecutor, as well as a Trump adviser who served as chief of staff to former acting Department of Defense Secretary Christopher Miller during the closing stage of the Trump administration. Trump designated Patel with Solomon as his representative for dealing with the National Archives about Trump administration records.
Patel did not respond to USA TODAY messages. However, he provided comments about the documents in a series of video interviews.
In a Breitbart interview posted May 5, Patel said; “Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves,” Breitbart reported.
“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified. I was there with President Trump when he said, ‘We are declassifying this information.'”
Experts say constitutional powers authorizing a president to declassify documents don't apply to records classified as top-secret or higher - the classifications stamped on many of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago.
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The heavily redacted FBI affidavit for the search warrant of Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Florida cited Patel's comments to Breitbart.
In a July 4 livestream on the Benny Show, Patel appeared to acknowledge the documents were not declassified and blamed unnamed "cronies" for stopping the declassification process.
None of the documents in question has been released publicly.
Although Trump and Patel have claimed that Trump declassified the records in question, current lawyers for the former president have not raised that argument during the current court battle.
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A Republican and former House member from North Carolina, Meadows served as Trump's final White House chief of staff. He was among several White House aides whom Trump designated as "my representatives in all respects that pertain to the records of my Presidency" in a Jan. 19, 2021, letter to the archivist of the National Archives and Records Administration. Meadows could not be reached for comment.
Pat Cipollone and Patrick Philbin
Pat Cipollone was Trump's final chief White House counsel, and Patrick Philbin was a deputy counsel. They were among the seven people designated as Trump's representative for the records in the January 2021 letter to the National Archives.
Cipollone and Philbin were interviewed by federal agents as part of the Department of Justice investigation of classified records held at Mar-a-Lago, a person familiar with the matter told USA TODAY in mid-August.
Cipollone also testified in July before the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Cipollone and Philbin declined to comment, through a spokesperson.
A former Trump White House deputy counsel, John Eisenberg also was designated as a records representative in the former president's January 2021 letter. Eisenberg served as the White House counsel on national-security issues.
He directed that a recording of the July 25, 2019, phone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden's family be placed on a secure server used for classified information, according to former National Security Council aide Lt. Col Alexander Vindman. Vindman testified about the sequence of events during a 2019 Trump impeachment hearing.
After the National Archives in April prepared to let the FBI review classified records that had been returned from Mar-a-Lago to the agency, Trump allies sought people with the requisite national security clearances needed to review the documents, The Washington Post reported.
The Trump allies approached Eisenberg and Philbin for the task, but both declined, the Post report said. Eisenberg did not respond to an interview request.
Another former Trump White House deputy counsel, Scott Gast also was designated by Trump as his records representative in January 2021.
Gary Stern, the chief counsel of the National Archives, emailed Gast and Cipollone in May about concerns presidential records located in Trump's White House residence before the end of his term had not been turned over to the agency, The Washington Post reported.
The report also said that Stern wrote in the email that he “had also raised this concern with Scott in the final weeks" of Trump's presidency.
In May 2021, Gast sent Stern a note saying that Trump would return the former president's correspondence with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, and asked how to proceed, The New York Times reported.
Gast did not respond to an interview request left at his law office.
A former White House deputy counsel, Purpura was also designated as a records representative in Trump's January 2021 letter. He was part of the legal team that represented Trump during the former president's first impeachment proceeding.
A May 2021 email to Purpura and other Trump lawyers from Stern, the National Archives general counsel, said the agency had discovered that the original correspondence between Trump and Kim Jong-un and a letter that former President Barack Obama had left at the White House for Trump were missing, The New York Times reported.
Purpura did not respond to an interview request.
Engel served as U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel during the Trump administration. He also was among the seven people Trump designated in January 2021 as his representative for the handling of records.
Engel appeared as a witness during a June 2022 hearing by the House committee examining the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
He and others testified that they threatened to resign if Trump fired acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replaced him with Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark. Clark supported legal arguments for overturning the 2020 election results.
Engel did not respond to an interview request.