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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The final days of the Trump White House: Chaos and scattered papers

President Donald Trump meets with President Vladimir Putin at the the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018. Throughout his presidency, Trump remained obsessed with the F.B.I.’s inquiry into his 2016 campaign’s potential ties to Russia.

By Maggie Haberman, Katie Benner and Glenn Thrush

Four days before the end of the Trump presidency, a White House aide peered into the Oval Office and was startled to see the president’s personal photos still arrayed behind the Resolute Desk — guaranteeing that the final hours would be a frantic dash.

In the area known as the outer Oval Office, boxes had been brought in to pack up desks used by President Donald Trump’s assistant and personal aides. But the boxes stood nearly empty. The table in Trump’s private dining room was stacked high with papers until the end.

In the White House residence, there were a few signs that Trump had realized his time was up. Papers had been dropped into boxes, roughly two dozen of them, and not sent back to the National Archives. Aides had even retrieved letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and given them to Trump in the final weeks, according to notes described to The New York Times.

Where all of that material ended up is not clear. What is plain, though, is that Trump’s refusal to return government documents collected while he was in office has led to a potentially damaging, and entirely avoidable, legal battle that threatens to engulf the former president and some of his aides.

Although the White House counsel’s office had told Mark Meadows, Trump’s last chief of staff, that the roughly two dozen boxes’ worth of material in the residence needed to be turned back to the archives, at least some of those boxes, including those with the Kim letters and some documents marked highly classified, were shipped to Florida. There they were stored at various points inside Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s members-only club, home and office, according to several people briefed on the events.

Those actions, along with Trump’s protracted refusal to return the documents in Florida to the National Archives, prompted the Justice Department to review the matter early this year. This month, prosecutors obtained a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago for remaining materials, including some related to sensitive national security matters. The investigation is active and expanding, according to recent court filings, as prosecutors look into potentially serious violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice.

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment. Trump has denounced the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago as a “witch hunt.” His office has said he had a “standing order” that materials removed from the Oval Office and taken to the White House residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them, although none of the three potential crimes cited in the FBI search warrant depend on whether removed documents are classified.

A lawyer for Meadows declined to comment.

Trump’s lawyers and aides were well versed in the Presidential Records Act, the law that strictly governs the handling of records generated in the Oval Office, even if Trump routinely flouted it. Donald McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, instituted a protocol for the proper handling of materials and gave presentations on the law to staff members, former officials said. After the 2020 election, White House officials held conversations about the fact that someone needed to retrieve documents that Trump had accumulated in the residence, according to former officials.

By the end of the administration, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy, Patrick Philbin, were keenly aware that Trump’s handling of documents was a potential problem, according to people in their orbit.

But it is unclear how much bandwidth either man had to deal with the issue. Trump often berated Cipollone for objecting to his attempts to subvert Joe Biden’s victory, according to former officials.

Meadows’ immediate predecessors — President Barack Obama’s last chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and President George W. Bush’s final chief of staff, Joshua Bolten — had created teams to scrub West Wing offices of anything that belonged to the archives.

It is unclear whether Meadows took the same measures, former aides said. But in the administration’s final weeks, the White House emailed all of its offices instructions about returning documents. Meadows followed up on those notes and encouraged offices to comply, according to a person familiar with those conversations.

Meadows also assured White House staff members that he would talk to Trump about securing records, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

But by early 2021, after Trump had left the White House, officials with the archives realized they were missing significant material.

They reached out to, among others, Scott Gast, who had been a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office under Trump, and Philbin.

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 Trump by Obama.

Archives officials also asked Gast and Philbin about the roughly two dozen boxes that had been in the residence during the administration’s final days. Philbin responded that he would work to get them in the hands of the archives and reached out to Meadows, who said he would help make it happen, according to former officials.

But archives officials did not get what they wanted until they traveled to Mar-a-Lago and retrieved 15 boxes of material this past January. Subsequently, archives officials told Trump’s team that they had identified social media records that had not been preserved, and that they had learned White House staff members had not preserved official business they had conducted on their personal electronic messaging accounts.

They referred the matter to the Justice Department. In the spring, Philbin and Gast were questioned by the FBI about the boxes; Cipollone was also interviewed at some point. A grand jury was formed.

In June, one of Trump’s lawyers signed a statement asserting that all relevant documents with classified markings from the boxes that had been requested had been returned. The Justice Department would later file an affidavit to a federal judge in Florida, revealing that the department believed possible crimes had been committed, precipitating the search Aug. 8 at the club.

If Trump or Meadows needed a paradigm for the appropriate handling of government documents, they needed to look no further than Vice President Mike Pence’s office.

Two of Pence’s senior aides — Marc Short, his chief of staff, and Greg Jacob, his counsel — oversaw the indexing and boxing up of all of his government papers, according to three former officials with knowledge of the work.

Their goal: ensuring that Pence left office without a single paper that did not belong to him, one of the officials said.

When Biden arrived in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day, he found a letter waiting for him in a drawer from Trump. The new president remarked that Trump had been more gracious in the letter than he had anticipated.

It was one of Biden’s first records that will have to be turned over to the archives.

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