WASHINGTON — For the 15 boxes of documents — some classified and marked “top secret” — the long journey from former President Donald Trump’s gilded Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida, to a secure facility in the Washington, D.C., area began last summer, when the National Archives and Records Administration reached out to Trump’s team to alert them that some high-profile documents from his presidency appeared to be missing.
But it was not until the end of the year that the boxes were finally readied for collection, according to two people familiar with the logistics, one of whom described the ordeal as “a bit of a process.”
At one point, Archives officials threatened that, if Trump’s team did not voluntarily produce the materials, they would send a letter to Congress or the Justice Department revealing the lack of cooperation, according to a third person familiar with the situation.
“At first it was unclear what he was going to give back and when,” said one these people, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of a sensitive situation.
Trump was noticeably secretive about the packing process, and top aides and longtime administrative staffers did not see the contents, the people said.
Finally, on Jan. 17, a contractor dispatched by the Archives arrived at Mar-a-Lago to load the boxes into a truck and transport them a thousand miles north, eventually landing at a sensitive compartmented information facility — known as a SCIF — in the greater Washington area. Trump’s assistant had been looped in on the emails handling the logistics, and both Trump’s team and the National Archives described the in-person handover as amicable. Trump said in a statement it was “without conflict” and “very friendly.”
“This unfortunate attempt by the media to twist a story, along with the help of anonymous sources, is just another sensationalized distraction of an otherwise uneventful effort to persevere the legacy of President Trump and a good faith effort to ensure the fulfillment of the Presidential Records Act,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement Saturday. “Sadly, the business of ‘news’ has become reliant on the next manufactured Trump ‘investigation,’ and so here we are. It’s a disgrace.”
The tale of these 15 boxes — and the material contained within — underscores how defiantly and indiscriminately Trump violated the records law, which requires that the White House preserve all written communication related to a president’s official duties and then turn it over to the National Archives. Instead, starting in his presidency and continuing into his post-presidency, documents both classified and mundane — as well as official gifts, which are governed by similarly stringent rules — were treated with the same disregard and enveloped in the same chaos that characterized his term in office.
A trucking administrator at Bennett, a Georgia transportation firm that handles a lot of government contracts, said that under traditional circumstances, shipment of these sorts of materials would be handled through a secure transfer — including GPS tracking of the vehicle and a team trained to handle sensitive information.
But it remains unclear what protocols were followed because, as one person familiar with the transfer said, “Nothing about this is normal.” Officials have not identified what company handled the Mar-a-Lago shipment.
“He would roll his eyes at the rules, so we did, too,” said Stephanie Grisham, the former Trump White House press secretary who has become an outspoken Trump critic following the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. “We weren’t going to get in trouble because he’s the president of the United States.”
Grisham, the author of “I’ll Take Your Questions Now: What I Saw at The Trump White House,” recalled one instance when she expressed concern about violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in some forms of political activity. Grisham said that Trump told her: “Who’s the boss of the Hatch Act? It’s me. So say whatever you want.”
That cavalier attitude about the rules extended to Trump’s treatment of documents, which he routinely ripped up and threw away, forcing aides to retrieve them and send to the White House Office of Records Management to be taped back together to comply with the Presidential Records Act.
Trump had a ripping process so distinctive that several aides instantly recalled it — two large, clean tears that left paper in quarters — and the remnants were strewn on desks, in trash cans and on floors, from the Oval Office to Air Force One. As president, Trump also regularly retired to his private residence with reams of official documents, often leaving them to pile up until records staff came searching for them.
When the Archives sent a tranche of documents to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, some of them had been ripped up and taped back together. And some no longer existed at all; when the committee requested certain documents focused on Trump’s campaign to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election results, some of the relevant materials had already been shredded, according to a former senior administration official.
A forthcoming book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman also reports that while Trump was president, White House residence staff from time to time found clumps of paper clogging a toilet, leading them to believe that Trump was flushing documents.
Trump was warned by his first two chiefs of staff — Reince Priebus and John F. Kelly — about complying with the records act, as well as by Donald McGahn, his White House counsel.
And in 2020, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ripped up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address after he delivered it, Trump seemed to exhibit at least some awareness of the Presidential Records Act, incorrectly claiming Pelosi had committed a crime.
“I thought it was a terrible thing when she ripped up the speech,” Trump said at the time. “First of all, it’s an official document. You’re not allowed. It’s illegal what she did. She broke the law.”
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Archives officials — suspecting Trump may have violated laws dealing with the handling of government documents — asked the Justice Department to examine the issue. It is unclear whether the department will launch a full investigation, but the query prompted discussions between federal law enforcement officials about whether they should investigate Trump for a possible crime, though such a prosecution would face a high legal bar.
Trump’s haphazard treatment of documents, including sensitive ones, continued throughout his administration, right up until his frenzied and begrudging departure.
Trump — who spent the weeks after Election Day furiously working to overturn the results of a free and fair election — procrastinated packing to leave until the very last minute. His obsession with falsely claiming the election was stolen also made his staff reluctant to broach the question of packing with him, fearful that doing so would draw his ire, said one former White House official, speaking anonymously to share details of private conversations.
Ultimately, Trump arrived at Mar-a-Lago with the array of documents and other items that should have been turned over to the Archives. In a statement, the Archives said Trump’s representatives have said they are “continuing to search” for documents that belong to the government.
As Trump settled into his post-presidency, officials from the Archives realized that they had never received certain prominent documents from his White House — some of them totems of the many scandals and controversies that clouded his four years in office.
Among the gifts, mementos, and papers that were sent back: Correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which Trump had once touted as “love letters”; a letter that President Barack Obama left for Trump, part of an Inauguration Day tradition in which the outgoing president leaves a warm missive for his successor; and a National Weather Service map of Hurricane Dorian, which Trump had altered with a black Sharpie in a widely-mocked attempt to claim he had not been wrong about the storm’s path.
Grisham said she believes that Trump deliberately kept certain keepsakes, regardless of the Presidential Records Act. “He was beyond proud of those Kim Jong Un letters,” she said. “He talked about them all the time, showed them to people all the time. He took those letters because he wanted them.”
Trump also brought with him to Mar-a-Lago a number of gifts he had received while president — a concern aides had flagged in the final weeks of his administration, because gift rules dictate that most such presents also need to be given to the archives.
A model of an Air Force One redesign he had proposed — repainting the baby-blue plane with bold hues of red, white and blue — now sits on a coffee table in the middle of his members-only club’s sumptuous lobby room.
In his private Mar-a-Lago office, Trump has displayed a miniature replica of one of the black slats from the wall he promised to build at the nation’s southern border, and which became a rallying cry for him and his conservative base.
Also hanging there is a high-quality laser print of “The Republican Club” by artist Andy Thomas, which depicts a trim-looking Trump — clad in his signature red tie, drinking a Diet Coke — chatting with former Republican presidents; the painting was gifted to him by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and previously hung in the West Wing. On a different part of the wall sits another large photo — of Marine One hovering in front of Mt. Rushmore, when the former president visited there to celebrate the Fourth of July — that previously hung in the hallway of the West Wing.
“The Clintons had to return gifts, and there were lots of presidents who didn’t write anything down, or not keeping emails, but I don’t know of a story since 1978 of a president leaving with this much material,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “I can’t give you someone worse than Trump.”
As the boxes’ journey came to a close, Trump advisers scrambled to do damage control. They have asked the Archives to dispute the spate of recent reporting on the myriad ways Trump ignored the Presidential Records Act and to declare that Trump has done nothing wrong, according to two people familiar with the entreaties, speaking anonymously to share details of private discussions.
But so far, the Archives has declined.
“We pursue the return of records — Presidential or federal — whenever we learn that records have been improperly removed or have not been appropriately transferred to official accounts,” Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero wrote in a note to employees this past week. “Whether through the creation of adequate and proper documentation, sound records management practices, the preservation of records, or their timely transfer to the National Archives at the end of an administration, there should be no question as to the need for both diligence and vigilance.”
The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Alice Crites contributed to this report.