“Incredible negligence”: More classified docs found at Trump's Mar-a-Lago — months after FBI search

Special counsel Jack Smith's investigators suspect a "shell game with classified documents," CNN reports

Published February 24, 2023 12:21PM (EST)

Donald Trump | Mar A Lago (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Mar A Lago (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Months after the Justice Department combed through former President Donald Trump's private estate in Mar-a-Lago, another box containing a handful of classified records mysteriously turned up, despite several rounds of searches of the property by federal agents and aides, people familiar with the matter told The Guardian and CNN on Friday. 

Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigators have spent the past few weeks interviewing a Trump aide who copied classified materials from the box in question, using her phone to transfer them to a laptop. The aide gave a voluntary interview, and prosecutors then subpoenaed the password to the laptop, which she provided, one of the sources told CNN. 

The classified documents in the box were found in December, after the Department of Justice instructed Trump's legal team to conduct yet another search at the Florida resort. 

According to people familiar with the search efforts, there was a confusing chain of events that led to the box's discovery. Its contents were uploaded to the cloud, then emailed to a Trump employee, then moved to a secondary offsite location, and finally sent back to a Mar-a-Lago bridal suite that is now Trump's office. The room it ended up in had been searched by the FBI just weeks earlier. 

Trump's lawyers turned over the box and a laptop containing its scanned contents to the special counsel, but prosecutors are asking why it wasn't handed over to the Justice Department weeks earlier, and whether Trump had any knowledge of its movements, sources told CNN. 

Smith is now zeroing in on the box as a part of his investigation into the mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, people familiar with the line of questioning from federal prosecutors told the outlet. 

They say the haphazard handling of documents that ended up online and on computers, as well as in several different physical locations, could further implicate Trump in the case. 

One person who is familiar with the box's movements and the investigation into it told CNN that federal investigators are suspecting a "shell game with classified documents." They also said Trump's daily instructions to staff, and even his movements, are an important part of prosecutors' questioning.

In an interview with CNN earlier this month, Trump attorney Tim Parlatore said that the aide did not see the classified markings on the documents. 

"After we did the search in December and found within this box of thousands that there were a couple of pages that had a little marking at the bottom, which we turned over, after that, we found out that she had scanned the box so that it would be digitized," Parlatore said. 

"She had no idea that there was any classification markings on anything," he added. "And as soon as we found out about that, we called up the DOJ to let them know and immediately provided them access to it."

In the fall of 2021, a longtime Trump staffer at the White House and Mar-a-Lago sent the box to a lower-level Trump aide employed by the former president since he left office. The staffer requested that copies of presidential schedules in the box be scanned. 

The aide then took the box to the Mar-a-Lago "tennis cottage," where she worked. There was no scanning machine available for her to use, so she used an Adobe application on her phone to turn the documents into scanned files, and uploaded them onto a Trump-owned laptop, people familiar with the matter told CNN. 

She scanned thousands of pages of documents over several days, but the sources say she didn't notice there were classified documents among the records. After the whole box was scanned in November 2021, it was then moved to an office in downtown Palm Beach, Florida that is funded by the General Services Administration, the people told the outlet.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

The box stayed there despite Trump's team giving 15 boxes worth of classified documents and other federal records to the National Archives in January 2022. The Justice Department subpoenaed the return of all classified documents to the DOJ in May 2022, and Trump's team later handed over additional documents to federal investigators who came to Mar-a-Lago to tour the space and reclaim more records in June. 

Mar-a-Lago was searched once again by the FBI in August while Trump was at his golf club in New Jersey. They found more than a hundred marked classified records in certain rooms at the club, including the bridal suite where boxes were kept. 

The box was kept at the Palm Beach office at that time, but after Trump returned to Mar-a-Lago with his aide last fall, it was brought to the bridal suite, people close to the matter said. 

After requests from the Justice Department in November, Trump's legal team hired two people to search four more locations for classified documents. These included: Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump Tower in New York, a storage unit in Florida and the Palm Beach office where the box was stored for a year.

In those searches, two more classified documents were discovered in the storage unit, which Trump's team handed over to prosecutors. They then asserted in writing that they had searched all of the former president's properties and sent all classified documents to prosecutors, hoping it would put an end to their concerns. 

Trump's lawyers said that the FBI had already searched Mar-a-Lago in August, but the Justice Department ordered them to do an additional search of the property themselves, or Trump would be found in contempt. It was during that December search that the box was finally discovered, people familiar with the search efforts told CNN. 

"When the team found the box, it was initially believed that the FBI had simply missed it during the search warrant. But upon further investigation, the legal team discovered that an aide had moved it as part of her job function," one source told the outlet.

The box, at that time, had already been moved into a closet within the suite where Trump campaign memorabilia was kept, the sources said. His lawyers then handed over the box to the Justice Department. 

In the past few weeks, prosecutors have gained grand jury testimony from the two people hired by Trump's team to search his properties last fall, and are now pursuing further answers from the former president's lawyers. 

Noah Bookbinder, a former federal corruption prosecutor and president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called out Trump's handling of the documents on Friday. 

"There has been a consistent pattern of both incredible negligence and intentional misconduct with Donald Trump's presidential records and classified documents at Mar-a-Lago," he wrote. "This latest chapter fits the pattern."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

MORE FROM Samaa Khullar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Donald Trump Jack Smith Mar-a-lago Politics