Former President Donald Trump sought to cut a deal with the National Archives to trade records he took from the White House to Mar-a-Lago late last year for "sensitive" documents about the FBI investigation of his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia, according to The New York Times.
The exchange never happened but Trump floated the idea to his aides. The National Archives had pressed Trump to return the documents stored at his Florida estate, but Trump spent a year and a half delaying their requests. He was upset with the National Archives' unwillingness to hand over the documents that ostensibly backed his claims in the Russia probe, per the Times.
Upon entering the White House, Trump formed a habit of bringing documents back to his bedroom, according to the report. Halfway through his term, tracking files in the White House became an obstacle and, by his third year, some documents ended up in places where they should not have been, according to individuals familiar with the situation who spoke with the Times.
At the end of his presidency, White House counsel Pat Cipollone called for Trump to return documents that "had piled up in boxes in the White House," according to archives officials the Times reported.
The top lawyer for the National Archives, Gary Stern, also demanded that Trump return the classified files from Mar-a-Lago in a letter in 2021.
"It is also our understanding that roughly two dozen boxes of original presidential records were kept in the residence of the White House over the course of President Trump's last year in office and have not been transferred to NARA, despite a determination by Pat Cipollone in the final days of the administration that they need to be," Stern wrote.
Throughout the year, Stern continued to press Trump's team to have him hand over the boxes. He even spoke with the former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and three lawyers who worked in the White House counsel's Office.
At the end of last year, as Stern pushed for Trump to return the documents, Trump told Meadows that the boxes he took from the White House merely contained newspaper clippings and personal items.
Even such documents seen by Trump while in office were considered presidential records, the Archives informed Trump's team. Still, Trump did not return any boxes.
Ex-White House advisor Eric Herschmann also told Trump near the end of last year that he could encounter "significant legal problems" if he didn't return the records, according to the Times.
Trump repeatedly told his advisors that the boxes were "mine" but ultimately agreed to go through the files in December 2021, per the Times. Stern was later told the boxes were ready to be retrieved
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Trump's representatives had not informed Stern that the boxes included classified files. When the Archives' personnel started opening the boxes in a room that was not suitable for handling secret material, they quickly moved the boxes to specially secured areas, according to the Times.
Soon after, the agency informed the Justice Department that classified materials may have been mishandled, which led federal authorities to open an investigation into the former president.
Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen reacted to the New York Times report describing the whole issue as "absolutely crazy" on MSNBC on Sunday.
"The fact that we have to sit there, and play this game with a former president of the United States? 'I want my documents back?' He's not entitled to them," Cohen said. The longtime Trump fixer argued that anyone else would be in jail "in 24 hours" if they did what Trump is accused of.
"He's playing the art of the deal, where he says 'I will trade you this for that,' -- this is beyond unheard of," he said.
Former U.S. attorney Joyce White Vance told MSNBC that the report strengthens the DOJ's case for a possible indictment.
"Whether it's technically extortion, whether it is some other misconduct, nothing about this is seemly for a former president," she said. "He's not entitled to engage in a back-and-forth court to get materials he wants but is not entitled to. This deserves the highest level of scrutiny from the Justice Department and, increasingly its more an issue of when, not if, there will be a prosecution."
New York University Law Professor Ryan Goodman tweeted that the report will "significantly strengthen the criminal case — and are the type of aggravating factors that push DOJ toward indictment."
Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who served on special counsel Bob Mueller's team, agreed that the report was "damning" evidence against the former president.
"Those are incredibly damning statements that go directly to knowledge and intent," he told MSNBC. "And you can be sure that the DOJ prosecutors are doing what I'm doing, which is listening to this. This is making it that much easier to prove the only element that could pose any real difficulty for the Department of Justice in bringing a case [against] the Mar-a-Lago documents."
Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks called the former president "delusional" for thinking he could exchange the Mar-a-Lago documents for the information on the Russia probe.
"My suspicion is they do not exist," she told MSNBC on Monday. "So, let's take that first. Secondly, you cannot steal something to barter. It does go back to what happened in Ukraine where he was trying to say, okay, I'll give you what you're legally entitled to, the funding, if you do this terrible thing for me and make up something about Joe Biden. That is not how America is supposed to be doing business. That is illegal in every aspect."
Trump, who has long called the Department of Justice's investigation into his campaign ties to Russia a "hoax", is now under a different investigation by the department. This time, the DOJ is looking into whether Trump broke three federal laws including the Espionage Act when it comes to his handling of classified information.
about Trump's legal battle