Trump workers moved Mar-a-Lago boxes a day before Justice Dept. came for documents
May 25, 2023 Updated Thu., May 25, 2023 at 9:07 p.m.
Two of Donald Trump’s employees moved boxes of papers the day before FBI agents and a prosecutor visited the former president’s Florida home to retrieve classified documents in response to a subpoena – timing that investigators have come to view as suspicious and an indication of possible obstruction, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump and his aides also allegedly carried out a “dress rehearsal” for moving sensitive papers even before his office received the May 2022 subpoena, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors in addition have gathered evidence indicating that Trump at times kept classified documents in his office in a place where they were visible and sometimes showed them to others, these people said.
Taken together, the new details of the classified-documents investigation suggest a greater breadth and specificity to the instances of possible obstruction found by the FBI and Justice Department than has been previously reported. It also broadens the timeline of possible obstruction episodes that investigators are examining – a period stretching from events at Mar-a-Lago before the subpoena to the period after the FBI raid there on Aug. 8.
That timeline may prove crucial as prosecutors seek to determine Trump’s intent in keeping hundreds of classified documents after he left the White House, a key factor in deciding whether to file charges of obstruction of justice or of mishandling national security secrets. The Washington Post has previously reported that the boxes were moved out of the storage area after Trump’s office received a subpoena. But the precise timing of that activity is a significant element in the investigation, the people familiar with the matter said.
Grand jury activity in the case has slowed in recent weeks, and Trump’s attorneys have taken steps – including outlining his potential defense to members of Congress and seeking a meeting with the attorney general – that suggest they believe a charging decision is getting closer. The grand jury working on the investigation apparently has not met since May 5, after months of frenetic activity at the federal courthouse in Washington. That is the panel’s longest hiatus since December, shortly after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to lead the probe and coinciding with the year-end holidays.
Smith also is investigating Trump’s efforts to block the results of the 2020 election. And the former president – who is again a candidate for the White House – has been indicted in New York on charges of falsifying business records and is under investigation for election-related matters in Fulton County, Georgia.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in each case. “This is nothing more than a targeted, politically motivated witch hunt against President Trump that is concocted to meddle in an election and prevent the American people from returning him to the White House,” Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, wrote in a statement. “Just like all the other fake hoaxes thrown at President Trump, this corrupt effort will also fail.”
Cheung accused prosecutors of showing “no regard for common decency or key rules that govern the legal system,” and he claimed that investigators have “harassed anyone and everyone who works (for), has worked (for), or supports Donald Trump.”
“In the course of negotiations over the return of documents, President Trump told the lead DOJ official, ‘anything you need from us, just let us know,’” he continued. “That DOJ rejected this offer of cooperation and conducted a raid on Mar-a-Lago proves that the Biden regime has weaponized the DOJ and FBI.”
A spokesman for Smith declined to comment. Justice Department officials have previously said they conducted the search only after months of efforts to retrieve all classified documents at Mar-a-Lago were unsuccessful.
Of particular importance to investigators in the classified-documents case, according to people familiar with the probe, is evidence showing that boxes of documents were moved into a storage area on June 2, just before senior Justice Department lawyer Jay Bratt arrived at Mar-a-Lago with agents. The June 3 visit by law enforcement officials was to collect material in response to the May 2022 grand jury subpoena demanding the return of all documents with classified markings.
John Irving, a lawyer representing one of the two employees who moved the boxes, said the worker did not know what was in them and was only trying to help Trump valet Walt Nauta, who was using a dolly or hand truck to move a number of boxes.
“He was seen on Mar-a-Lago security video helping Walt Nauta move boxes into a storage area on June 2, 2022. My client saw Mr. Nauta moving the boxes and volunteered to help him,” Irving said. The next day, he added, the employee helped Nauta pack an SUV “when former president Trump left for Bedminster for the summer.”
The lawyer said his client, a longtime Mar-a-Lago employee whom he declined to identify, has cooperated with the government and did not have “any reason to think that helping to move boxes was at all significant.” Other people familiar with the investigation confirmed the employee’s role and said he has been questioned multiple times by authorities.
Irving represents several witnesses in the investigation, and his law firm is being paid by Trump’s Save America PAC, disclosure reports show. A lawyer for Nauta, Stanley Brand, declined to comment.
Investigators have sought to gather any evidence indicating Trump or people close to him deliberately withheld any classified papers from the government.
On the evening of June 2, the same day the two employees moved the boxes, a lawyer for Trump contacted the Justice Department and said officials there were welcome to visit Mar-a-Lago and pick up classified documents related to the subpoena. Bratt and the FBI agents arrived the following day.
Trump’s lawyers gave the officials a sealed envelope containing 38 classified documents and a signed attestation that a “diligent search” had been conducted for the documents sought by the subpoena and that all relevant documents had been turned over.
As part of that visit, Bratt and the agents were invited to visit the storage room where Trump aides said boxes of documents from his time as president were kept. Court papers filed by the Justice Department say the visitors were told by Trump’s lawyers that they could not open any of the boxes in the storage room or look at their contents.
When FBI agents secured a court order to search Mar-a-Lago two months later, they found more than 100 additional classified documents, some in Trump’s office and some in the storage area.
In a court filing in August explaining the search, prosecutors wrote that they had developed evidence that “obstructive conduct” took place in connection with the response to the subpoena, including that documents “were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room.”
Prosecutors also have gathered evidence that even before Trump’s office received the subpoena in May, he had what some officials have dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for moving government documents that he did not want to relinquish, people familiar with the investigation said.
The term “dress rehearsal” was used in a sealed judicial opinion issued earlier this year in one of several legal battles over the government’s access to particular witnesses and evidence, some of the people said. It was used to describe an episode when Trump allegedly reviewed the contents of some, but not all, of the boxes containing classified material, these people said.
At the time, Trump and his legal team were engaged in a back-and-forth with the National Archives and Records Administration over whether he had taken from the White House records and property that were supposed to stay with the government. That dispute over presidential records is what ultimately led to the discovery of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago – some of them highly sensitive, including information about a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities; Iran’s missile system; and intelligence gathering aimed at China.
The former president, the people familiar with the situation said, told aides he wanted to make sure he could keep papers that he considered his property.
That dress rehearsal episode is one of several instances in which investigators see possible ulterior motives in the actions of Trump and those around him. Lawyers for Trump and some of those witnesses, however, have argued in recent months that prosecutors are viewing the sequence of events in too suspicious a light. They say Smith’s team has unfairly dismissed claims that people were not trying to hide anything from the government but simply were carrying out what they considered to be routine and innocent tasks of serving their boss.
Prosecutors separately have been told by more than one witness that Trump at times kept classified documents out in the open in his Florida office, where others could see them, people familiar with the matter said, and sometimes showed them to people, including aides and visitors.
Depending on the strength of that evidence, such accounts could severely undercut claims by Trump or his lawyers that he did not know he possessed classified material.
The people familiar with the situation said Smith’s team has concluded the bulk of its investigative work in the documents case and believes it has uncovered a handful of distinct episodes of obstructionist conduct.
One of those suspected instances of obstruction, the people said, occurred after the FBI search on Aug. 8. They did not provide further details, but the Guardian has previously reported that in December, Trump’s lawyers found a box of White House schedules, including some that were marked classified, at Mar-a-Lago. In that instance, a junior aide apparently moved the box from a government-leased office in nearby West Palm Beach.
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