FBI probes “secret” docs at Mar-a-Lago — suggesting a "criminal investigation" is already underway

“This is a big deal,” government watchdog group says as DOJ blocks House investigators from reviewing the documents

By Igor Derysh

Published April 8, 2022 9:35AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The FBI is investigating how classified White House materials ended up at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home, according to the Washington Post and New York Times.

The Justice Department has "begun taking steps" to investigate Trump's removal of presidential records, including classified documents that were labeled "top secret," according to the Post. The FBI, which is leading the effort, is in the "preliminary stages" of the probe, according to the Times.

The National Archives said in February that it had reached out to the Justice Department after discovering "classified national security information" in 15 boxes with White House documents, mementos and gifts that had been improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago. The DOJ instructed the National Archives not to share details about the materials with the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating the matter as well, suggesting that a "criminal investigation might be underway," according to the Times.

"This is a BIG deal," the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said on Twitter. The group sent a letter to the DOJ in February alleging that Trump "likely violated criminal law" with his handling of government records, including reports that he tore up official documents that had to be taped back together.

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It's unclear whether the Justice Department has begun to review the materials in the boxes or whether investigators have interviewed anyone involved in moving them. But it is keeping the materials under wraps, drawing the ire of House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who accused the department of "interfering" with her panel's probe of the documents.

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday, Maloney called on the DOJ to allow the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to fully cooperate with the House probe into Trump's likely violations of the Presidential Records Act.

"By blocking NARA from producing the documents requested by the Committee, the Department is obstructing the Committee's investigation," Maloney wrote. "The Committee does not wish to interfere in any manner with any potential or ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice. However, the Committee has not received any explanation as to why the Department is preventing NARA from providing information to the Committee."

Trump's team previously denied that he mishandled government records.

"It is clear that a normal and routine process is being weaponized by anonymous, politically motivated government sources to peddle Fake News," Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in February.


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But the investigation could put Trump under FBI scrutiny once again after the years-long Justice Department investigation into the former president's 2016 campaign and its ties to Russian election interference efforts. The FBI also investigated Trump for obstruction of justice after he fired former FBI Director James Comey.

The FBI in these types of cases would "typically look at an array of scenarios, including whether the classified material was mishandled or inadvertently disclosed, and it could examine whether a foreign adversary might have gotten access," according to the Times.

The report also noted that the decision to open such a sensitive investigation would have required the approval of top FBI officials, including the National Security Division.

It's unclear what role Trump played, if any, in taking the materials from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and it is not likely that Trump is personally is the target of the probe at the moment, according to the Times, which noted that the FBI also did not target anyone individually in its probe of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server. But the FBI would be interested in learning who had access to the documents, who packed the boxes and who transported them to Florida. Assessing Trump's role in the matter could be complicated, the report added, because while in office as president he had the power to declassify any information he wanted. Trump throughout the 2016 campaign repeatedly attacked Clinton for mishandling sensitive information.

The House Oversight probe is also investigating reports of "White House employees or contractors finding paper in a toilet in the White House, including the White House residence," under the Trump administration, the committee said. Earlier reports suggested that Trump regularly tore up White House records, leading the administration to assemble a team tasked with taping the papers back together. A recent book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman also reported that staffers found wads of printed paper clogging a White House residence toilet, raising suspicions that Trump had tried to flush them.

Trump also faces federal scrutiny over his role in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The House committee investigating that event is considering seeking an interview with Trump, according to NBC News. And the Justice Department in recent months has expanded its criminal investigation with subpoenas targeting Trump World "VIPs" and exploring whether administration officials or members of Congress were involved in the planning of the rally that preceded the riot or "any attempt to obstruct, influence, impede or delay" the certification of election results.

Garland has faced increasing frustrations from Democrats over the Justice Department's handling of Trump-related matters. The Times last week reported that President Biden has been frustrated with Garland's unwillingness to "take decisive actions over the events of Jan. 6" and has privately told his inner circle that he believes Trump was a "threat to democracy and should be prosecuted."

Tensions boiled over during a recent Jan. 6 committee hearing, where members roundly took turns calling for Garland to step up.

"Attorney General Garland," said panel member Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., "do your job so we can do ours."

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Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's Deputy News and Politics Editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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