A dozen boxes of presidential records stored in then-President Donald Trump’s White House residence were not returned to the National Archives and Records Administration in the final days of his term, according to an email from the agency’s top lawyer.
“It is also our understanding that roughly two dozen boxes of original presidential records were kept in the White House Residence during President Trump’s last year in office and have not been transferred to NARA,” Gary Stern, the agency’s chief counsel, wrote to Trump lawyers in May 2021, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.
The email shows NARA officials were concerned about Trump keeping dozens of boxes of official records before he left the White House. Concerns grew as Trump repeatedly refused to return the records. It also showed that Trump’s lawyers were concerned about him taking the documents and agreed to return the boxes, while he kept the documents.
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The previously unreported email, sent 100 days after the former president left office with the subject line “Need for Assistance re Presidential Records,” illustrates the myriad efforts Archives officials made to have documents including classified material returned over an 18-month period, culminating in an FBI raid this month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.
Trump designated Cipollone as one of his Archives representatives. Cipollone’s spokeswoman declined to comment.
Stern doesn’t say how he knew Trump had the boxes. During Trump’s final days in office, he consulted another lawyer, but without success. “I also raised this concern with Scott in the final weeks,” Stern writes, referring to Trump lawyer Scott Gast.
Stern requests the documents via email.
Gast didn’t comment. Trump’s spokesman didn’t immediately comment. Archives didn’t comment.
Stern’s email to Trump’s lawyers is sometimes pleading. Gast and two longstanding Cipollone deputies receive the email, but not Cipollone.
Stern mentions at least two high-profile documents that the Archives knew were missing at the time: letters from Kim Jong Un and Obama at the start of Trump’s presidency.
“We know things are really chaotic,” Stern stated. “… All presidential records must be obtained and accounted for.
Stern didn’t say in the email what was in the White House crates. The previous president wanted Trump and Kim’s correspondence “right before the conclusion of the administration,” he said.
Stern wrote that the originals were put in a binder for the president in January 2021, but never returned to NARA.
Stern urged Trump advisors to return the records throughout the fall of 2021, according to people familiar with the exchanges. Stern told Trump officials that the Archives would soon have to alert Congress, and Stern didn’t want to escalate, these people claimed.
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Trump sent 15 boxes of documents to the Archives in early 2022, and officials urged his crew to continue searching the oceanfront club. After discovering hundreds of pages of secret material in the returned boxes, they forwarded the situation to the Justice Department.
FBI officials stormed Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 following extensive interviews with Trump associates and took 11 sets of sensitive records after executing a search warrant.
The Post has reported on the former president’s habit of taking official documents to his White House residence. Former White House staffers described sending boxes of jumbled materials to Trump’s residence at his request.
Trump and his advisers said there was a standing declassification order for all documents taken to the residence, but former administration officials said they knew of no such order. Trump has told friends he didn’t return the documents because they were his own property.