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In filings, Justice Department rebuts Trump's claims on Mar-a-Lago search

This image contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on Aug. 30, and redacted by in part by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the Aug. 8 search by the FBI of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Department of Justice
This image contained in a court filing by the Department of Justice on Aug. 30, and redacted by in part by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the Aug. 8 search by the FBI of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Updated August 31, 2022 at 11:01 AM ET

When the U.S. attorney general appeared before television cameras this month to discuss the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago, Merrick Garland said his Justice Department "will speak through its court filings and its work."

The careful former judge, whose voice sometimes fails to rise above the din in Washington, is speaking loudly this time — in legal briefs spurred by former President Donald Trump's demands.

In a late-night filing this week, prosecutors blasted what they called "wide ranging meritless accusations leveled against the government." And then, in 36 pages, they proceeded to set the record straight on the unprecedented search of the home of a former president.

Countering Trump's claims

Trump and his political allies have been claiming he declassified government secrets uncovered in an office, storage room and desk at the Mar-a-Lago resort. But government lawyers said at no time in the months-long tug of war to retrieve the papers had Trump's lawyers made the argument he declassified the documents.

Rather, at a hand-off in June 2021, an unnamed Trump lawyer gave the visitors from the Justice Department a batch of papers in "a single Redweld envelope, double-wrapped in tape," suggesting the attorney believed they were classified, the Justice Department filing said.

Another Trump ally, described in the court papers as the custodian of the records, signed a letter to authorities certifying that Trump had conducted a "diligent search" for other materials sought by the National Archives and prosecutors. The letter said "all responsive documents" were included and that Trump had kept "no copy, written notation or reproduction."

Based on the boxes of top secret and even more highly classified papers the FBI extracted during its search Aug. 8, that too, proved false. The Justice Department said during its June visit that Trump's representatives barred them from looking through boxes in the storage room, giving them no chance to substantiate the claims. By August, they were armed with a court-approved search warrant.

"That the FBI, in a matter of hours, recovered twice as many documents with classification markings as the 'diligent search' that the former President's counsel and other representatives had weeks to perform calls into serious question the representations made in the June 3 certification and casts doubt on the extent of cooperation in this matter," authorities wrote.

Possible obstruction of justice

The most striking new details about the investigation involve possible obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said they developed evidence, perhaps through a combination of civilian witnesses and video footage they subpoenaed from Mar-a-Lago, that government records "were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation."

Ultimately, the FBI seized 33 boxes of evidence during its August search, including papers with colored cover sheets clearly indicating their levels of classification to anyone who looked — important evidence if prosecutors ultimately proceed with a criminal case over obstruction or unlawful retention of information related to the national defense.

Some of the materials were so highly classified that FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers involved in the investigation required additional clearances before they could review the papers.

The Justice Department said in its new filing that agents also found top secret documents commingled in a desk drawer along with Trump's passports, which they decided to return, batting back public statements by Trump on social media that the FBI "stole" them.

Near the end of his concise, on-camera statement about the Mar-a-Lago search this month, the attorney general pledged that "more information will be made available in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time."

The Justice Department is due back in court Thursday, to discuss Trump's bid for an independent special master.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.