DOJ says docs at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate were 'likely concealed and removed' to 'obstruct' FBI probe

The Justice Department said Tuesday that government documents recovered from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate were “likely concealed and removed” from a storage room as part of an effort to “obstruct the government’s investigation” into the potential mishandling of classified materials.

Details about evidence of obstruction were among several revelations contained in a 36-page court filing that the department submitted in Florida federal court late Tuesday night. The government had been ordered to respond to Trump’s recent request for a court-appointed special master to review documents that the FBI seized during its recent search of Mar-a-Lago.

A photo of documents scattered on the floor.
Documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence. (Department of Justice)

The filing sheds new light on what FBI agents recovered during the unprecedented Aug. 8 search of Trump’s private club and residence — and offers a more detailed timeline than has been publicly known of the events that led up to it.

It describes how Trump and his attorneys repeatedly failed to return presidential records, including dozens of classified documents, that had been removed from the White House following the end of his term in January 2021 — even after receiving a grand jury subpoena in May 2022.

In particular, the filing contains new details about a June 3 meeting at Mar-a-Lago between Justice Department officials and representatives for the former president, who provided the officials with additional documents that they said, in a signed certification letter, had been located following a “diligent search” of boxes from the White House, in response to the grand jury subpoena. The certification letter, part of which is included in Tuesday night’s filing, states that “any and all documents” that had been found responsive to the subpoena had been turned in on June 3.

However, federal prosecutors, led by DOJ counterintelligence chief Jay Bratt, wrote in Tuesday’s filing that “over one hundred unique documents with classification markings” were recovered during the execution of the search warrant on Aug. 8. “That is, more than twice the amount produced on June 3, 2022, in response to the grand jury subpoena ... were seized.”

In addition to 33 boxes or containers of evidence obtained during the search, prosecutors noted that three classified documents were found in the desks in Trump’s office.

“That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the ‘diligent search’ that the former President’s counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter,” prosecutors wrote.

A police officer outside a gated entrance at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate.
A police officer outside Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 9, the day after the FBI’s search of Trump’s home. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) (TNS)

Two weeks after agents executed the search warrant at his Palm Beach, Fla., home, Trump filed a motion on Aug. 22 in Florida federal court demanding that a special master be appointed to oversee the review of evidence in order to determine whether any of the materials may be protected under attorney-client privilege.

After ordering Trump to clarify several discrepancies in his initial filing, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, of Florida’s Southern District, ordered the Justice Department to file a public response to Trump’s request by Tuesday, along with additional sealed details about the items seized at the former president’s residence and the status of the department’s review of those items.

Cannon had granted the government permission to file up to 40 pages, twice the court’s regular 20-page limit for motions, after the Justice Department filed a motion requesting additional space to “adequately address the legal and factual issues raised by” Trump’s filings.

Prosecutors used the filing as an opportunity to “correct the incomplete and inaccurate narrative set forth in” Trump’s filings, noting that Cannon, the judge overseeing the special master request, is not the same judge who authorized the FBI’s warrant to search Mar-a-Lago.

The Justice Department argued that the court shouldn’t appoint a special master but that if it did, there should be limits that include a joint list of proposed candidates submitted by Sept. 7 and a deadline of Sept. 30 for their review, stating that “the volume of material at issue is not large.” The filing said that due to the nature of the documents, the special master needs to already possess a Top Secret/SCI security clearance.

Heavily redacted pages from the FBI search warrant affidavit for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Heavily redacted pages from the FBI search warrant affidavit for Mar-a-Lago. (Photo illustration: Mario Tama/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

While Trump has claimed that he has declassified the documents, prosecutors wrote that during law enforcement’s June visit to Mar-a-Lago “neither counsel nor the custodian asserted that the former President had declassified the documents or asserted any claim of executive privilege. Instead, counsel handled them in a manner that suggested counsel believed that the documents were classified.”

The filing added that while the FBI and the Justice Department attorney were able to visit the storage room, Trump’s counsel “explicitly prohibited” them from “opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room, giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained.”

Trump now has until 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday to formally respond to the Justice Department’s latest filings before the judge will consider his request for a special master at a hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. on Thursday.

In a series of responses posted Wednesday morning to his account on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump accused the FBI of throwing documents “haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see” during the search. Trump added “Lucky I Declassified” in reference to the documents. But while presidents do have the authority to declassify documents, there is a procedure for doing so that Trump does not appear to have followed. More than a dozen Trump administration officials told CNN they had never heard of an order, some calling the claim “nonsense” and “bullshit.”

Trump is set to speak at a rally for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz on Saturday night and promised he would have “Much, Much to say.”

Cannon, a Trump appointee, indicated over the weekend that she had “preliminary intent” to appoint an independent attorney, or special master, to review the seized documents and filter out any materials that may be protected by attorney-client privilege.

In a court filing on Monday, the Justice Department said it had already “identified a limited set of materials that potentially contain attorney-client privileged information” and is in the process of addressing any potential privilege disputes.

Monday’s filing also noted that the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, are “are currently facilitating a classification review of materials recovered pursuant to the search,” and that the ODNI is “leading an intelligence community assessment of the potential risk to national security that would result from the disclosure of these materials.”