WASHINGTON — He first said he was “working and cooperating with” government agents who he said had improperly entered his home. Then, when the government revealed that the FBI, during its search, had recovered nearly a dozen sets of documents that were marked classified, it suggested that agents had planted evidence.
Ultimately, his aides claimed he had a “standing order” to declassify documents leaving the Oval Office for his residence, and that some of the material was protected by attorney-client and executive privilege.
These are the ever-changing explanations former President Donald J. Trump and his aides have given about what FBI agents found last week in a search of his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach , Florida.
Mr Trump and his allies have cast the search as a partisan assault as they widen conflicting arguments over his handling of sensitive documents and fail to answer a question at the heart of the federal probe: why he kept documents, some still marked classified , to an unsecured Florida resort when officials had sought for a year to get them back?
The often contradictory and unsupported defenses perpetuated by Mr. Trump and his team from the FBI search are following a familiar playbook of the former president. He has used it for decades, but most visibly when he faced the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians and during his first impeachment trial.
In both cases, he claimed victimization and mixed some facts with a storm of misleading statements or falsehoods. His lawyers denied that he had linked his administration’s withholding of vital military aid to Ukraine to Mr. Trump to investigate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.
When information contradicting that defense emerged in a forthcoming book by former national security adviser Mr. Trump, John R. Bolton, lawyers for Mr. Trump went on to insist that he had not linked the aid to the investigations, but that if he had, it would not have been an impeachable crime.
Of the multiple investigations Trump currently faces, including a state investigation in Georgia and two federal grand jury investigations, all related to his efforts to cling to power at the end of his presidency, as well as civil investigations and related criminal charges in New York. to his company: The federal investigation into his handling of sensitive documents taken from the White House has emerged as one of the most potentially damaging.
A search warrant made public on Friday revealed that federal agents had recovered top-secret documents when they searched Mr Trump’s Florida residence earlier this week as part of an investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws
Among the 11 sets of documents taken were some marked “classified/TS/SCI,” short for “secret/sensitive compartmentalized information,” according to an inventory of materials seized in the search. This type of document can only be viewed in secure facilities. The document inventory included other materials, some described as “confidential.”
More coverage of the FBI Search of Trump’s Home
The startling revelation underscored the seriousness of the Justice Department’s investigation months after the National Archives and Records Administration said it had discovered classified information in documents that Mr. Trump had retained after leaving office.
“What he does not have the right to do is to have the documents; they are not theirs,” said Jason R. Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives for more than a decade. “There should be no presidential records at Mar-a-Lago, whether classified or unclassified or subject to executive privilege or subject to attorney-client privilege.”
Documents covered by executive privilege must be kept within the government.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Mr Trump used Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified material, as seen in a Justice Department investigation into her email practices in 2015 and 2016, as political fodder during his first campaign . He is considering another national campaign in 2024, and questions about whether he mishandled the nation’s secrets could be problematic for him, even without an investigation.
After National Archives officials tried for several months to retrieve material from Mr. Trump released 15 boxes of documents in January. The following month, the National Archives confirmed the discovery of the classified information and referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
In the months that followed, officials learned that Mr. Trump still had additional material at Mar-a-Lago that some of his advisers urged him to turn over.
Trump described the delivery of the 15 boxes as “an ordinary, routine process.” But administrations have been required to turn over documents to the National Archives before leaving office for more than 40 years, as part of the Presidential Records Act that was created in response to President Richard M. Nixon’s attempt of taking his documents and recordings with him after resigning in disgrace.
Kash Patel, a former Trump administration official, later justified his handling of the documents by saying Mr Trump had declassified them before he left office, a claim echoed by the former president this week.
In an appearance on Fox News Friday night, right-wing writer John Solomon, one of Trump’s representatives to interact with the National Archives, read a statement from the former president’s office claiming that Trump had a “standing order” during his presidency that “documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to the residence were deemed declassified at the time he removed them.”
This statement would not resolve the investigation. Two of the laws referred to in the search warrant executed this week criminalize the taking or concealment of government records, regardless of whether they have anything to do with national security. And the laws against taking material with restricted national security information do not depend on whether the material is technically classified.
Mr. Bolton, who served as the third national security adviser to Mr. Trump for 17 months, said he had never heard of the standing order that Mr. Trump claimed to have in force. It is, he said, “almost certainly a lie.”
“I was never informed of any such order, procedure or policy when I came in,” Mr. Bolton, adding that he had never been informed of it while working there and had never heard of such a thing since. “If I were to say something like that, you should remember it, so people know it exists,” he said.
In addition, he noted, secure facilities were built to view sensitive material at Trump clubs in Florida and New Jersey, where he often spent weekends as president, meaning the documents would not have to be declassified. . And if they were declassified, said Mr. Bolton, would be considered subject to public records requests.
He continued: “When someone starts making up lies like this, it shows a real level of desperation.”
The claim that documents kept at the Florida residence were declassified also undermined a claim one of Trump’s lawyers made in June. In a written statement, the attorney’s team said all material marked classified and stored at Mar-a-Lago had been returned to the government.
This week, Trump again accused the Justice Department of acting as a tool for his political opponents, a familiar tactic for a former president who had repeatedly tried to politicize the department during his four years in office. In describing the FBI as corrupt, Mr. Trump suggested his agents had planted incriminating material at Mar-a-Lago during the search and demanded they return documents he said were protected by executive privilege.
Those politically motivated accusations led Attorney General Merrick Garland to defend the bureau’s officers during brief remarks earlier this week. The unverified accusations of Mr. Trump also came as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin last week warning of an increase in threats against federal law enforcement following the search of Mar-a-Lago, including general appeals to a “civilian.” war’ or ‘armed rebellion’.