Documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago were among government’s most classified, letter shows
In the letter, posted on a Trump-aligned journalist’s website, the National Archives pushed back on Trump’s privilege claims.
The May 10 letter showed that the National Archives and Records Administration and federal investigators had grown increasingly alarmed about potential damage to national security caused by the warehousing of these documents at Mar-a-Lago. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
08/23/2022 01:09 AM EDT
Updated: 08/23/2022 01:10 PM EDT
The National Archives found more than 700 pages of classified material — including “special access program materials,” some of the most highly classified secrets in thegovernment — in 15 boxes recovered from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in January, according to correspondence between the National Archivist and his legal team.
The May 10 letter — posted late Monday on the website of John Solomon, a conservative journalist and one of Trump’s authorized liaisons to the National Archives to review papers from his presidency — showed that NARA and federal investigators had grown increasingly alarmed about potential damage to national security caused by the warehousing of these documents at Mar-a-Lago, as well as by Trump’s resistance to sharing them with the FBI.
These records included 700 pages of classified material, according to the letter, sent by National Archivist Debra Wall to Trump’s attorney, Evan Corcoran, and it doesn’t include records recovered by the Justice Department and FBI during a June meeting and the Aug. 11 search of the Mar-a-Lago premises.
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Wall’s letter describes earlier correspondence in which Trump’s team objected to disclosing the contents of the 15 boxes to the FBI.
“As you are no doubt aware, NARA had ongoing communications with the former President’s representatives throughout 2021 about what appeared to be missing Presidential records, which resulted in the transfer of 15 boxes of records to NARA in January 2022,” Wall wrote. “In its initial review of materials within those boxes, NARA identified items marked as classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials.”
NARA aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, and Corcoran could not immediately be reached.
The letter also revealed that an assessment of threats to national security posed by Trump’s possession of the documents was already underway, well before members of Congress were informed.
Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have already asked the intelligence community to provide such an assessment, and the broader entity on Capitol Hill that’s privy to the most sensitive national security secrets has asked to view the documents themselves.
U.S. officials in the national security community expressed shock and concern at the former president’s cavalier treatment of classified material. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said they were astonished at the “recklessness” of the move.
It’s an “affront” to “those people who’ve spent their lives protecting and enforcing a rules-based order only to have someone come along and use his special access to unlawfully collect and retain highly classified documents,” the person said.
It can take up to a decade to declassify certain information, said one former defense official who still holds a security clearance, so the fact that Trump took hundreds of pages of classified material is “one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.”
“There’s no gray area here. I’m just appalled,” the person said.
The correspondence alsoshows that even though NARA retrieved the 15 boxes in January, Justice Department and FBI investigators didn’t see their contents until May, after extended negotiations with Trump’s representatives. The letter also shows that in the interim, DOJ asked President Joe Biden to authorize NARA to provide the records to investigators despite an effort by Trump to claim executive privilege over the records.Wall indicated she had rejected Trump’s claim because of the significance of the documents to national security.
“NARA informed the Department of Justice about that discovery, which prompted the Department to ask the President to request that NARA provide the FBI with access to the boxes at issue so that the FBI and others in the Intelligence Community could examine them,” Wall wrote.
Biden, according to Wall, then delegated the privilege decision to her, in consultation with the Justice Department.
Wall noted that typical restrictions on access to presidential records carve out an exception for incumbent administrations. And she described an April 29 letter from DOJ’s National Security Division describing their pursuit of these documents: “There are important national security interests in the FBI and others in the Intelligence Community getting access to these materials.”
“Access to the materials is not only necessary for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation, but the Executive Branch must also conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps,” according to the DOJ letter. “Accordingly, we are seeking immediate access to these materials so as to facilitate the necessary assessments that need to be conducted within the Executive Branch.”
Wall indicated that Archives had notified Trump on April 12 of the FBI’s “urgency” to review the documents but delayed transmitting them at the behest of Trump’s team.
“It has now been four weeks since we first informed you of our intent to provide the FBI access to the boxes so that it and others in the Intelligence Community can conduct their reviews,” Wall wrote. “ Notwithstanding the urgency conveyed by the Department of Justice and the reasonable extension afforded to the former President, your April 29 letter asks for additional time for you to review the materials in the boxes ‘in order to ascertain whether any specific document is subject to privilege,’ and then to consult with the former President ‘so that he may personally make any decision to assert a claim of constitutionally based privilege.’”
Wall said she consulted with the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel and had decided not honor that request.
“The question in this case is not a close one,” she wrote.
“The Executive Branch here is seeking access to records belonging to, and in the custody of, the Federal Government itself, not only in order to investigate whether those records were handled in an unlawful manner but also, as the National Security Division explained, to ‘conduct an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these materials were stored and transported and take any necessary remedial steps.’”
It was reported earlier this month that some of the documents in Trump’s possession related to nuclear weapons and “special access program” materials, as Wall’s letter reveals. But at the time, Trump’s GOP allies held their fire until they could hear directly from NARA.
At least one Republican lawmaker noted that this specific scenario would be problematic.
“I mean, if he had actual special access programs — do you know how extraordinarily sensitive that is? That’s very, very sensitive. If that were actually at his residence, that would be a problem,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.