White House files under scrutiny in Trump search
By Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess and Adam Goldman
The search of former President Donald Trump’s home in Florida on Monday by the FBI continued to rock Washington and, more broadly, American politics, amid a swirl of questions about what led the Justice Department to take such a stunning step.
The search came after an earlier visit this spring to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Palm Beach, Florida, by federal agents — including a Justice Department counterintelligence official — to discuss materials Trump had improperly taken with him when he left the White House.
Trump was briefly present for that earlier visit, as was at least one of his attorneys, according to people familiar with the situation.
Those materials contained many pages of classified documents, according to a person familiar with their contents. By law, presidential materials must be preserved and sent to the National Archives when a president leaves office. It remained unclear what specific materials agents might have been seeking Monday or why the Justice Department and the FBI decided to go ahead with the search now.
Trump had delayed returning 15 boxes of material requested by officials with the National Archives for many months, only doing so in January when the threat of action to retrieve them grew. The case was referred to the Justice Department by the archives early this year.
In carrying out the search, federal agents broke open a safe, Trump said.
The search marked the latest remarkable turn in the long-running investigations into Trump’s actions before, during and after his presidency — and even as he weighs announcing another candidacy for the White House.
It came as the Justice Department has stepped up its separate inquiry into Trump’s efforts to remain in office after his defeat at the polls in the 2020 election and as the former president also faces an accelerating criminal inquiry in Georgia and civil actions in New York.
Trump has long cast the FBI as a tool of Democrats who have been out to get him, and the search set off a furious reaction among his supporters in the Republican Party and on the far right of American politics.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House, suggested that he intended to investigate Attorney General Merrick B. Garland if Republicans took control of the House in November. A delegation of House Republicans was scheduled to travel to Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a dinner with him Tuesday night.
Aggressive rhetoric was pervasive on the right as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning.
“This. Means. War,” the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump outlet, wrote in an online post that was quickly amplified by a Telegram account connected to Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime political adviser.
The FBI would have needed to convince a judge that it had probable cause that a crime had been committed, and that agents might find evidence at Mar-a-Lago, to get a search warrant. Proceeding with a search on a former president’s home would almost surely have required signoff from top officials at the bureau and the Justice Department.
The search, however, does not mean prosecutors have determined that Trump committed a crime.
Despite the historic and politically incendiary nature of the search, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has made any public comment or explained the basis for its action, in line with their policies of not discussing ongoing investigations.
Trump was in the New York area at the time of the search. “Another day in paradise,” he said Monday night during a telephone rally for Sarah Palin, who is running for a congressional seat in Alaska.
Eric Trump, one of his sons, told Fox News that he was the one who informed his father that the search was taking place, and he said the search warrant was related to presidential documents.
Donald Trump, who campaigned for president in 2016 criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s practice of maintaining a private email server for government-related messages while she was secretary of state, was known throughout his term to rip up official material that was intended to be held for presidential archives. One person familiar with his habits said that included classified material that was shredded in his bedroom and elsewhere.
The search was at least in part for whether any records remained at the club, a person familiar with it said. It took place Monday morning, the person said, although Trump said agents were still there many hours later.
“After working and cooperating with the relevant Government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate,” Trump said, maintaining it was an effort to stop him from running for president in 2024. “Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries.”
“They even broke into my safe!” he wrote.
Trump did not share any details about what the FBI agents said they were searching for.
Aides to President Joe Biden said they were stunned by the development and learned of it from Twitter.
In January of this year, the archives retrieved 15 boxes Trump took with him to Mar-a-Lago from the White House residence when his term ended. The boxes included material subject to the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all documents and records pertaining to official business be turned over to the archives.
The items in the boxes included documents, mementos, gifts and letters. The archives did not describe the classified material it found other than to say that it was “classified national security information.”
Because the National Archives “identified classified information in the boxes,” the agency “has been in communication with the Department of Justice,” David S. Ferriero, the national archivist, told Congress at the time.
Federal prosecutors subsequently began a grand jury investigation, according to two people briefed on the matter. Prosecutors issued a subpoena this year to the archives to obtain the boxes of classified documents, according to the two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The authorities also made interview requests to people who worked in the White House in the final days of Trump’s presidency, according to one of the people.
In the spring, a small coterie of federal agents — including at least one involved in counterintelligence — visited Mar-a-Lago in search of some documents, according to a person familiar with the meeting.