Key moments in the nearly 19 months between Donald Trump’s leaving the White House and the FBI’s searching his Florida home on Aug. 8
The Aug. 8 search yielded more than 100 classified and 11,000 unclassified documents, which have become part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the possible mishandling of classified information, as well as possible hiding, tampering or destruction of government records.
Here is the story of the government’s efforts to retrieve its documents from Mar-a-Lago, starting shortly after Trump left the White House.
January 2021-January 2022: Retrieving the first set of boxes
Jan. 20: Donald Trump leaves office after a chaotic transition in which he tried to overturn the results of the presidential election. Boxes of records that White House Counsel Pat Cipollone had decided should go to the National Archives instead are shipped to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club and residence.
May 6: National Archives and Records Administration contacts Trump’s team to say some high-profile presidential documents appear to be missing. “We know things are very chaotic, as they always are in the course of a one-term transition,” Gary Stern, the agency’s chief counsel writes to Trump lawyers. “But it is absolutely necessary that we obtain and account for all presidential records.”
Over the next several months, archives officials repeatedly ask for the missing records and Trump resists returning them.
September: Archive officials engage with former deputy White House Counsel Pat Philbin, who indicates he has communicated with former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows about the documents, said a person familiar with the conversations, who like some others have spoken on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
December: A Trump lawyer informs the archives that aides have identified some of the missing documents, including correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Trump had once touted as “love letters,” and a National Weather Service map of Hurricane Dorian that Trump had altered with a black Sharpie in a widely mocked attempt to claim he had not been wrong about the storm’s path. According to the person, the lawyer indicates that Trump assistant Molly Michael would assist with the handoff of documents to the archives.
Jan. 17, 2022: An archives contractor arrives at Mar-a-Lago to load 15 boxes into a truck and transport them 1,000 miles north. Among the gifts, mementos and papers sent back were the notable items the archives had requested, including a letter President Barack Obama left for Trump, part of an Inauguration Day tradition in which the outgoing president leaves a warm missive for his successor. Trump had overseen the packing process himself with great secrecy, declining to show some items even to top aides, said a person familiar with the process.
Jan. 18, 2022: According to an affidavit filed later in support of the Aug. 8, 2022, search of Mar-a-Lago, 15 boxes of records arrive at the archives.
February through May 10, 2022: An investigation begins
Feb. 9: On opening the boxes, archives officials find documents clearly marked classified, intermingled with printouts of news articles, mementos and items. They make a formal referral asking the Justice Department to investigate the possible mishandling of classified records.
Feb. 18: The archivist of the United States alerts Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, to the classified material and the referral. Maloney says Congress will investigate.
Feb. 24: Maloney sends a letter to the archives requesting more information on the documents.
February-March: The FBI interviews archives personnel to learn more about the return of the 15 boxes. Discussion begins about how the FBI can review the documents in those boxes in keeping with the requirements of the 1970s-era Presidential Records Act.
April 12: Stern emails Trump representatives Philbin and John Eisenberg to say that, in keeping with the records act, the White House has asked for the Justice Department and FBI to be given access to the returned documents. Stern indicates that he plans to allow the FBI to begin reviewing the documents the following week, and offers Trump’s representatives a chance to do so, as well, at the archive’s secured facility.
April: Although Philbin and Eisenberg both have the proper security clearances to review the documents, each tells Trump’s team that they do not wish to become further involved in the document dispute, people familiar with the matter have said. These people said neither man had participated in the packing process at Mar-a-Lago, and the duo were surprised to hear there were documents marked classified found in the boxes. Trump hires a new lawyer to deal with the issue, Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor who was representing former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon in an contempt of Congress case. Trump hires Corcoran after being introduced to him on a conference call, without ever meeting him in person, people familiar with the matter said.
April 29: The Justice Department’s National Security Division emails Corcoran, explaining that its lawyers understand there were at least 100 classified documents in the returned boxes, some of which have “the highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program (SAP) materials.” The Justice Department indicates a desire to access the documents as part of an “ongoing criminal investigation” and “to assess potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.”
April 29: Corcoran emails the archives asking for additional time to review material in the returned boxes “in order to ascertain whether any specific document is subject to privilege,” and then to consult with Trump “so that he may personally make any decision to assert a claim of constitutionally based privilege.” Executive privilege is usually invoked to shield communications from Congress or the courts, not from one part of the executive branch to another. But in his email, Corcoran says that if more time is not provided, the letter should be considered “a protective assertion of executive privilege made by counsel for the former President.”
April and May: The FBI conducts interviews with witnesses in Trump’s orbit, including Philbin. These sessions clinch suspicions that additional classified material remains at Mar-a-Lago, people familiar with the investigation have said.
May 5: Former Trump adviser Kash Patel gives an interview to the pro-Trump news outlet Breitbart, claiming that any material returned to the archives in January with classification markings had been declassified by Trump. “It’s information that Trump felt spoke to matters regarding everything from Russiagate to the Ukraine impeachment fiasco to major national security matters of great public importance — anything the president felt the American people had a right to know is in there and more,” he says.
May 10: Acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall informs Corcoran that the Biden White House has deferred the privilege question to her. She says she has consulted with archives lawyers and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and has found Trump’s privilege claims unconvincing. The FBI review, which she says has been delayed at the request of Trump’s team, will soon proceed, Steidel Wall says in a letter.
May 11-Aug. 8: A subpoena — and a court-approved search
May 11: According to a court filing by Trump’s lawyers, the custodian of his records receives a grand jury subpoena seeking all “documents bearing classification markings” that are still in Trump’s possession. The filing indicates that in response, Trump asked his aides to look for documents marked classified, even if he believed they had been declassified.
May 16 to 18: The FBI conducts a preliminary review of the material held at the archives, according to an affidavit that would be filed several weeks later in support of the request for a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago. Agents find 184 documents with classification markings: 67 marked confidential, 92 marked secret and 25 documents marked top secret. They include: HCS, FISA, ORCON, NOFORN, and SI — acronyms that refer to, among other things, the government systems used to protect intelligence gathered from secret human sources, the collection of information through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and intelligence that cannot be shared with foreign allies. Some documents contain what appear to be Trump’s handwritten notes.
May 24: An original deadline set by the Justice Department for complying with its grand jury subpoena. According to an Aug. 30 court filing, Corcoran requested an extension — the department refused at first but then extended the deadline until June 7. At no time did Corcoran argue that the subpoena was invalid or the documents sought were protected by executive privilege or had been declassified, the court filing from the Justice Department said.
May 25: Corcoran sends a letter to Jay Bratt, chief of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, saying that Trump had returned the boxes to the archives in January as part of “a voluntary and open process.” He claims that statutes governing the handling of classified material do not apply to Trump, who he says had the right to declassify anything. “Any attempt to impose criminal liability on a President or former President that involves his actions with respect to documents marked classified would implicate grave constitutional separation-of powers issues,” the letter says. It does not state that the archive documents had been declassified.
Spring: Around this time, members of Trump’s legal team conduct what they characterized as a thorough search of documents still held at Mar-a-Lago, attorney Christina Bobb would later say in interviews. “The legal team had done a very through search. We turned over everything that we found,” Bobb told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham. “It’s my understanding based on very good belief, based on a thorough investigation, that there was nothing there.”
June 3: Bratt and three FBI agents meet with Bobb and Corcoran at Mar-a-Lago and receive the documents gathered in response to the May 11 subpoena. Trump’s lawyers later write in a court filing that the group is greeted in the dining room by Trump, who tells the lawyers to give Bratt and his agents anything they need. The filing indicates that Bratt tours a storage area where documents were stored. Bobb later tells The Washington Post that Bratt opened some of the boxes and flipped through the material inside. In its Aug. 30 court filing, the Justice Department disputed that, telling a judge that Trump’s lawyer “explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room.” The filing indicates that the custodian of the records signed a written statement certifying: “Based upon the information that has been provided to me, I am authorized to certify, on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump, the following: a. A diligent search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida; b. This search was conducted after receipt of the subpoena, in order to locate any and all documents that are responsive to the subpoena; c. Any and all responsive documents accompany this certification.” The Post has reported that Bobb signed the document.
The Justice Department says later that Bratt was given a single folder that analysis shows includes 38 unique documents bearing classification markings, including five documents marked as confidential, 16 documents marked as secret and 17 documents marked as top secret.
June 8: Bratt emails Corcoran asking that any documents still at Mar-a-Lago be kept in the storage room and not disturbed. “As I previously indicated to you, Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” he writes. “As such, 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. 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 further notice,” he wrote.
June 9: Corcoran responds: “I write to acknowledge receipt of this letter,” according to the search-warrant affidavit.
June 8 to June 22: FBI interviews members of Trump’s “personal and household staff,” Trump’s lawyers have said.
June 19: Trump writes to the National Archives, designating Patel and conservative journalist John Solomon “as my representatives for access to Presidential records of my administration.”
June 24: According to the government, the Trump Organization, which owns Mar-a-Lago, receives a subpoena for surveillance video from the property.
Aug. 5: Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart approves the FBI’s request for a search warrant.
Aug. 8: FBI agents in casual clothes and without their guns spend nearly nine hours at Mar-a-Lago searching the club’s storage room, Trump’s residential suite and offices. According to a property receipt they leave behind, they collected more than two dozen boxes of documents, including 11 sets of documents with classification markings. A more detailed accounting in a later court filing indicates the FBI seized more than 100 documents marked classified, from the confidential to top secret level. Seventy-six were found in the storage room. Others were found in Trump’s office, including three documents found in the drawers of desks. In addition, more than 11,000 government documents without classification markings were seized, along with 48 empty folders with “CLASSIFIED” banners, 42 empty folders labeled “Return to Staff Secretary/Mili[t]ary Aide” and around 20 gift items or articles of clothing.
Jacqueline Alemany, Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Perry Stein contributed to this report.