WASHINGTON — First, he said he was “working and collaborating with” government agents who he believes had entered his home inappropriately. When the government revealed that the FBI had recovered nearly a dozen documents marked as classified during its search, it suggested the agents had planted evidence.
Finally, his aides claimed he had a “standing order” to release documents that had left the Oval Office before his stay, and some of the material was protected by attorney-client privilege and executive privilege.
Those are the varying statements that former President Donald J. Trump and his aides have made about what FBI agents found last week during a search of his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida.
Mr Trump and his allies have labeled the search a partisan attack, while reinforcing conflicting arguments over the handling of sensitive documents and failing to answer a question central to the federal inquiry: why did he keep documents, some of which still remain. marked as classified, at an unsecured Florida resort, when officials had been searching for a year to retrieve them?
The often conflicting and unsupported defenses Mr. Trump and his team have maintained since the FBI search follow a well-known playbook of the former president. He has used it for decades, but most visibly when faced with the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Russians in 2016 and during his first impeachment trial.
In both cases, he claimed victimhood and mixed some facts with a plethora of misleading statements or falsehoods. His lawyers denied that he linked his administration’s withholding of essential military aid to Ukraine to Mr. Trump’s desire to investigate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.
When information contradicting this defense emerged in a book by Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s attorneys switched to insist that he had not linked the aid to the investigation, but had that if he had, it would not have been a criminal offence.
Of the multiple investigations Trump is currently facing, including a state investigation in Georgia and two federal grand jury investigations, all related to his attempts to stay in power at the end of his presidency, as well as civil and criminal investigations in New York in connection with his company – the federal investigation into his handling of sensitive documents extracted from the White House has emerged as one of the most potentially damaging.
A search warrant released Friday revealed that federal agents recovered top-secret documents when they searched Mr. Trump’s Florida home earlier this week as part of an investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws.
Among the 11 sets of documents seized, some were marked “classified/TS/SCI” – short for “top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information,” according to an inventory of materials seized during the search. These types of documents are only intended to be viewed in secure facilities. The inventory of documents contained other material, some of which were described as “confidential.”
More coverage of the FBI search into Trump’s home
The stunning revelation highlighted the seriousness of the Justice Department’s investigation, months after the National Archives and Records Administration said it had discovered classified information in documents Mr. Trump kept after he left office.
“What he has no right to is possession of the documents; they are not his,” said Jason R. Baron, a former director of litigation at the National Archives for more than a decade. “There should be no presidential files at Mar-a-Lago, whether classified or unclassified or subject to executive privilege or subject to attorney-client privilege.”
Documents that fall under administrative law are intended to be kept within the government.
A spokesman for Mr Trump did not respond to a message asking for comment.
Mr. Trump used Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified material, as evidenced by a Justice Department investigation into her email practices in 2015 and 2016, as political fodder during his first campaign. He’s considering a new national campaign for 2024, and questions about whether he’s mishandled the country’s secrets could be problematic for him, even if there’s no investigation.
After officials at the National Archives tried for several months to retrieve material from Mr. Trump, he turned over 15 boxes of documents in January. The following month, the National Archives confirmed the discovery of the classified information and referred the matter to the Justice Department.
In the months that followed, officials learned that Mr. Trump still had additional material in Mar-a-Lago that some of his advisers urged him to part with.
Mr Trump described the handing over of the 15 boxes as “an ordinary and routine process”. But administrations have been required to submit documents to the National Archives for more than 40 years before leaving office, as part of the Presidential Records Act enacted in response to President Richard M. Nixon’s attempt to transfer his documents and recordings. to take after resigning in disgrace.
Kash Patel, a former Trump administration official, then justified the handling of the documents by saying that Mr Trump released them before leaving office — a claim echoed by the former president this week.
In a Fox News appearance Friday night, right-wing writer John Solomon, one of Mr. Trump’s representatives for interaction with the National Archives, read a statement from the former president’s office claiming that Mr. was instructed” during his presidency that “documents removed from the Oval Office and brought to the residence were deemed to have been released at the time he removed them.”
That claim would not resolve the investigation. Two of the laws referenced in the search warrant issued this week criminalize stealing or concealing government documents, regardless of whether they had anything to do with national security. And laws against carrying material with limited national safety information do not depend on whether the material is technically classified.
Bolton, who was Trump’s third national security adviser for 17 months, said he had never heard of the standing order Trump’s office claimed to have. It is, he said, “almost certainly a lie.”
“When I came in, I was never informed of any such order, procedure or policy,” Bolton said, adding that he was never told about it while he was working there, and that he had never heard of anything like it after that. “If he said something like that, you should remember it so people would know it existed,” he said.
In addition, he pointed out, Mr Trump’s clubs in Florida and New Jersey, where he often spent weekends as president, had secured facilities for viewing sensitive material, meaning they didn’t have to be released. And if released, Bolton said, they would be considered subject to public record requests.
He continued: “When someone starts making up such lies, it shows a real level of desperation.”
The claim that the documents held at the Florida residence were released also undermined a claim made by one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers in June. In a written statement, the team of lawyers said all material marked as classified and stored at Mar-a-Lago had been returned to the government.
This week, Mr. Trump again accused the Justice Department of acting as a tool for its political opponents, a familiar tactic for a former president who had repeatedly attempted to politicize the Department during his four years in office. Mr. Trump described the FBI as corrupt and suggested that its agents placed incriminating material in Mar-a-Lago during the search, and demanded that they return documents that he said were protected by executive powers.
Such allegations of political motivation prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to defend the agency’s agents during brief remarks earlier this week. Trump’s unverified allegations also came when the FBI and Department of Homeland Security released an intelligence bulletin last week warning of an increase in threats against federal law enforcement following the Mar-a-Lago search, including general calls for a ‘civil war’ or ‘armed uprising’.