4 days before the tip of the Trump presidency, a White House aide peered into the Oval Office and was startled, if not exactly surprised, to see the entire president’s personal photos still arrayed behind the Resolute Desk as if nothing had modified — guaranteeing the ultimate hours can be a frantic dash mirroring the prior 4 years.
In the world often called the outer Oval Office, boxes had been brought in to pack up desks utilized by President Donald J. Trump’s assistant and private aides. But documents were strewn about, and the boxes stood nearly empty. Mr. Trump’s private dining room table off the Oval Office was stacked high with papers until the tip, because it had been for his entire term.
Upstairs within the White House residence, there have been, nevertheless, a couple of signs that Mr. Trump finally realized his time was up. Papers he had accrued in his last several months in office had been dropped into boxes, roughly two dozen of them, and never sent back to the National Archives. Aides had even retrieved letters from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and given them to him in the ultimate weeks, in accordance with notes described to The Recent York Times.
Where all of that material ended up is just not clear. What is apparent, though, is that Mr. Trump’s haphazard handling of presidency documents — a chronic problem — contributed to the chaos he created after he refused to just accept his loss in November, unleashed a mob on Congress and set the stage for his second impeachment. His unwillingness to let go of power, including refusing to return government documents collected while he was in office, has led to a potentially damaging, and fully avoidable, legal battle that threatens to engulf the previous president and a few of his aides.
Although the White House counsel’s office had told Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s last chief of staff, that the roughly two dozen boxes price of fabric within the residence needed to be turned back to the archives, no less than a few of those boxes, including those with the Kim letters and a few documents marked highly classified, were shipped to Florida. There they were stored at various points over the past 19 months in several locations inside Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only club, home and office, in accordance with several people briefed on the events.
Those actions, together with Mr. Trump’s protracted refusal to return the documents in Florida to the National Archives, prompted the Justice Department to review the matter early this 12 months. This month, prosecutors obtained a warrant to look Mar-a-Lago for remaining materials, including some related to sensitive national security matters. The investigation is energetic and expanding, in accordance with recent court filings, as prosecutors look into potentially serious violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice.
Many questions on the mishandling of the documents result in Mr. Trump, who often treated the presidency as a personal business. But people in his orbit also highlight the role of Mr. Meadows, who oversaw what there was of a presidential transition. Mr. Meadows assured aides that the harried packing up of the White House would follow requirements in regards to the preservation of documents, and he said he would make efforts to make sure that the administration complied with the Presidential Records Act, in accordance with people conversant in those conversations.
But because the clock ticked down, Mr. Trump focused on pushing through last-minute pardons and largely ignoring the transition he had tried to forestall.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump didn’t reply to a request for comment. Mr. Trump himself has denounced the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago as a “witch hunt.” His office has said he had a “standing order” that materials faraway from the Oval Office and brought to the White House residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them, although not one of the three potential crimes cited within the F.B.I. search warrant depend upon whether removed documents are classified.
A lawyer for Mr. Meadows declined to comment.
Flouting Records Rules
In his final speech as president, Mr. Trump declared, “We weren’t an everyday administration.”
His statement was indisputably accurate. From his first hours in office, Mr. Trump had all the time taken a proprietary view of the presidency, describing government documents and other property — even his staffers — as his own personal possessions. “They’re mine” is how he often put it, former aides said.
But that was not the case. Under the Presidential Records Act, the law that strictly governs the handling of records generated within the Oval Office, every document belonged to taxpayers. Whether it was top security briefing materials, reams of unclassified documents routinely uploaded to a secure server in Pennsylvania or notes that Mr. Trump routinely ripped up or flushed down the bathroom — all were government property to be assessed and, usually, transferred as a part of the nation’s history to the National Archives.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers and aides were well versed within the records act, even when Mr. Trump routinely flouted it. Donald F. McGahn II, Mr. Trump’s first White House counsel, instituted a protocol for the correct handling of materials and gave presentations on the law to staffers, former officials said. After the 2020 election, White House officials held conversations in regards to the undeniable fact that someone needed to retrieve documents that Mr. Trump had accrued within the residence over many months, in accordance with former officials.
By the tip of the administration, the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and his deputy, Patrick F. Philbin, were keenly aware that Mr. Trump’s handling of documents was a possible problem, in accordance with people of their orbit.
Nevertheless it is unclear how much bandwidth either man needed to cope with the difficulty. Mr. Trump was on contentious terms with Mr. Cipollone after the election, and sometimes berated the lawyer for objecting to his attempts to subvert Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, in accordance with former officials.
More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home
Adding to the disarray was the absence of the White House staff secretary, Derek Lyons, who managed paperwork inside the manager complex but had stepped down on Dec. 18, 2020. That left Mr. Meadows, a former House member with no significant executive experience before joining Mr. Trump’s staff, accountable for overseeing a transition process the president wanted no a part of.
Mr. Meadows’s immediate predecessors in that role — President Barack Obama’s last chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and President George W. Bush’s final chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten — had created teams to wash West Wing offices of anything that belonged to the archives and made the stewardship of presidency records a priority.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Meadows took the identical measures, former aides said. But within the administration’s final weeks, the White House emailed all of its offices detailed instructions about returning documents and cleansing out their spaces. Mr. Meadows followed up on those notes and encouraged offices to comply, in accordance with an individual conversant in those conversations.
Mr. Meadows also assured White House staff members that he would talk over with Mr. Trump about securing records, including ones stashed within the residence, in accordance with two individuals with knowledge of the situation.
No matter whether Mr. Meadows followed through on those guarantees, by early 2021, after Mr. Trump had left the White House, officials with the archives realized they were missing significant material.
They reached out to, amongst others, Scott Gast, who had been a lawyer within the White House Counsel’s Office under Mr. Trump, and Mr. Philbin. The 2 men, together with Mr. Meadows and 4 other Trump officials, had been appointed by Mr. Trump on his last full day in office to work with the National Archives.
The archivists were particularly insistent about getting back the missing correspondence from the North Korean leader and a letter left on the Resolute Desk for Mr. Trump by Mr. Obama, each of great historical value.
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Archives officials also asked Mr. Gast and Mr. Philbin in regards to the roughly two dozen boxes that had been within the residence through the Trump administration’s final days. Mr. Philbin responded that he would work to get them within the hands of the archives and reached out to Mr. Meadows, who said he would help make it occur, in accordance with former officials.
But archives officials didn’t get what they wanted until they traveled to Mar-a-Lago and retrieved 15 boxes of fabric in January 2022. Subsequently, archives officials told Mr. Trump’s team that that they had identified social media records that had not been preserved, and that that they had learned White House staff members had not preserved official business that they had conducted on their personal electronic messaging accounts.
They referred the matter to the Justice Department. Within the spring each Mr. Philbin and Mr. Gast were questioned by the F.B.I. in regards to the boxes; Mr. Cipollone was also interviewed sooner or later. A grand jury was formed.
In June, one in every of Mr. Trump’s lawyers signed an announcement asserting that each one relevant documents with classified markings from the boxes that had been requested — by then they were stored in a basement area at Mar-a-Lago — had been returned. The Justice Department would later file an in depth affidavit to a federal judge in Florida, revealing that the department believed possible crimes had been committed, precipitating the search on Aug. 8 on the club.
Declassifying F.B.I. Materials
One in every of the few robust discussions about government documents at the tip of the Trump administration focused on Crossfire Hurricane, the F.B.I. investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russian officials. While that inquiry, which began in 2016, didn’t ultimately accuse Mr. Trump of criminal behavior, he remained obsessive about it throughout his term.
In Mr. Trump’s last weeks in office, Mr. Meadows, with the president’s blessing, prodded federal law enforcement agencies to declassify a binder of Crossfire Hurricane materials that included unreleased information in regards to the F.B.I.’s investigative steps and text messages between two former top F.B.I. officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who had sharply criticized Mr. Trump of their private communications through the 2016 election.
The F.B.I. apprehensive that releasing more information could compromise the bureau, in accordance with people conversant in the talk. Mr. Meadows dismissed those arguments, saying that Mr. Trump himself wanted the data declassified and disseminated, they said.
Just three days before Mr. Trump’s last day in office, the White House and the F.B.I. settled on a set of redactions, and Mr. Trump declassified the remainder of the binder. Mr. Meadows intended to present the binder to no less than one conservative journalist, in accordance with multiple people conversant in his plan. But he reversed course after Justice Department officials identified that disseminating the messages between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page could run afoul of privacy law, opening officials as much as suits.
None of those documents, or every other materials pertaining to the Russia investigation were believed to be within the cache of documents recovered by the F.B.I. through the search of Mar-a-Lago, in accordance with an individual with knowledge of the situation.
Mr. Trump’s final hours in office were largely consumed by pardons. On the evening of Jan. 19, 2021, he pardoned Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief campaign strategist who had been indicted by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for defrauding Mr. Trump’s supporters.
The following morning, during his last minutes in office, he pardoned Albert J. Pirro Jr., the previous husband of the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who in 2000 had been convicted of tax evasion and conspiracy and sentenced to 29 months in prison.
Amid the pardons, many or the entire boxes in Mr. Trump’s residence were shipped off — it is just not clear precisely when or by what means — to Mar-a-Lago.
Letter for Biden
If Mr. Trump or Mr. Meadows needed a paradigm for the suitable handling of presidency documents, they needed to look no further than Vice President Mike Pence’s office.
Two of Mr. Pence’s senior aides — Marc Short, his chief of staff, and Greg Jacob, his counsel — oversaw the indexing and boxing up all of his government papers, in accordance with three former officials with knowledge of the work.
Their goal: ensuring that Mr. Pence left office with no single paper that didn’t belong to him, one in every of the officials said.
That was consistent with the record-keeping actions of the Obama administration, a process that was overseen by Dana Remus. She returned to the White House at 10 a.m. on Mr. Biden’s Inauguration Day to satisfy Mr. Cipollone in her latest capability because the incoming president’s counsel.
The meeting was short, and set a pattern of amiable conversations between the 2 lawyers over the following 12 months, in accordance with people conversant in their interactions.
There have been no comparable interactions between Mr. Meadows and Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff.
After weeks of rebuffing Mr. Klain’s invitations to satisfy in person, Mr. Meadows told Mr. Klain to come back to his big corner office — soon to be Mr. Klain’s office — at 10 a.m. on Inauguration Day, after Mr. Trump was set to depart. When Mr. Klain arrived, nobody was inside. Mr. Klain waited until someone got here to get him, saying that Mr. Meadows was within the basement, within the Situation Room. They finally met at 10:45 a.m.
“I’m sorry this meeting is late. I only have a couple of minutes to satisfy with you,” Mr. Meadows said, explaining that Mr. Trump had departed late for his final trip to Joint Base Andrews, in accordance with an individual with knowledge of the situation.
That afternoon, Mr. Biden arrived within the Oval Office and located a letter waiting for him in a drawer from Mr. Trump. It was two large pages, with Mr. Trump’s distinctive handwriting visible to an aide watching Mr. Biden read it. The brand new president remarked that Mr. Trump had been more gracious within the letter than he had anticipated.
It was one in every of Mr. Biden’s first records that could have to be turned over to the archives.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting.