As the story acknowledges, it’s not that this concern came out of nowhere. There has been countless evidence, not only that Trump tried to cover up the documents for over a year, but that the Justice Department suspected there might be more even shortly after the search.
It is worth consulting the excellent timeline that my colleague Rosalind S. Helderman made.
The first thing to note is that Trump has clearly opposed handing over any documents. The back-and-forth with the National Archives dates back to the spring of last year, and Trump spent the following months resisting his demands. Trump then turned over 15 boxes in January, and he handed over another set in June after a subpoena. In the August Mar-a-Lago search, agents were able to view the documents Trump had, but only in parts of the property the search warrant allowed them to venture.
The second is that, despite all this, there is ample evidence that Trump and his advisers have falsely claimed — and that Trump himself attempted to have his lawyers falsely claim — that all such documents had been handed over:
- The most notable example is an affidavit signed by Trump attorney Christina Bobb in June, when Trump’s legal team handed over some documents. It said a “diligent search was being conducted” and that “all relevant documents accompany this certification.”
- The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany and Josh Dawsey also reported this week that in early 2022, Trump had asked his attorney Alex Cannon to tell the records that all materials sought by the agency had been returned. But Cannon refused. Trump later released a public statement not claiming that everything had been returned.
- Alemany, Dawsey and Helderman reported last month that Pat Philbin, former deputy counsel for the Trump White House, had given the records a similar assurance as early as September 2021. Philbin said former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows had told him nothing of the material Trump took was sensitive or classified, and that Trump had only 12 boxes of news clippings.
Philbin’s language – ie citing Meadows – and Cannon’s refusal both point to the prospect that Trump’s own lawyers do not fully trust the people they deal with. And part of that could be that Trump hasn’t been very forthcoming. For example, in recent weeks, The Post reported that when some documents were handed over in January, Trump personally supervised the packing of the boxes “and did so with great secrecy, refusing to show some items even to top employees.”
Third, there’s something else the Times reported in his story Thursday night: that one of Trump’s more recently installed attorneys, Christopher Kise, advised him to hire a forensics team to voluntarily search for additional documents. Trump was reportedly on board initially, but was later talked out of it.
A fourth is that Trump’s document retention habits were notoriously bad, including shredding documents and allegedly putting them in the toilet — and that haphazard treatment expanded The Post to classified documents this week. We already know that the secret documents found in Mar-a-Lago were mixed with all kinds of other documents. And even if you don’t believe Trump is intentionally withholding additional White House documents, the prospect is that some may have been destroyed or lost.
The final key point is that the Department of Justice has been pointing in this direction for some time now.
Questions about possible other documents first surfaced after a district court unlocked an inventory of documents seized during the August search. The most notable addition: the presence of 48 folders that were described as “empty folders with ‘CLASSIFIED’ banners.”
While it was not clear whether those folders contained documents seized during the search or handed over elsewhere, it suggested that the documents could be traced to specific folders and help determine whether everything had been handed over. (File officials had previously described “unfolded” classified documents as matters of “highest importance”.)
Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department made it clear that the prospect of unreturned documents was a priority. A week after the inventory list was released, the Justice Department said in a lawsuit it needed access to the seized materials to determine whether materials stored in the folders “might have been lost or compromised.” It also cited “attempts to identify the existence of additional classified records that are not properly stored.”
In another appeals court filing, it reiterated the need for the documents and said it would review them.”can lead to identification of other missing records.”
That could have been interpreted as a ploy to gain access to the documents, pushing forward a worst-case scenario and daring judges to deprive them of the records needed to investigate. But the Justice Department has reportedly raised the issue with Trump’s own lawyers — stating it so directly that it believed Trump hadn’t returned everything — is taking things to another level.
And one that doesn’t seem like a huge piece, if the past is a precedent.