‘It worried people all the time’: How Trump’s handling of secret documents led to the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search

When it finally dawned on Donald Trump in the twilight of his presidency that he wouldn’t be living at the White House for another four years, he had a problem: He had barely packed and had to move out quickly.

West Wing aides and government movers frantically tossed documents and other items into banker boxes that were shipped to a storage room at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida along with other, previously packed records set aside by Trump, sometimes erratically so, according to two sources with knowledge of Trump’s move and records issues.

There, in that Mar-a-Lago room, some of the boxes contained documents with sensitive materials that the federal government appears to consider so important to national security that FBI agents Monday took the unprecedented step of executing a search warrant at the home of a former president to seize them. The records comprised 11 sets of classified documents, including some that were labeled secret and top secret, according to a property receipt from the search.

Trump’s style of handling White House documents has been described by people who worked for him as slapdash and ad hoc, contributing to the debacle he now faces. He was known to rip up records that aides would have to retrieve from trash cans or from the floor and tape back together, according to former aides and multiple reports.

“It worried people all the time,” John Bolton, one of Trump’s former national security advisers, recalled in an interview.

“Trump had a habit of grabbing intelligence documents,” said Bolton, who has been a sharp critic of the former president. “God knows what he did with it.”

The criminal investigation into how sensitive records moved from the White House to Trump’s beachfront club writes a new chapter of his political biography. It’s a story of his impulsive instincts and disregard for established rules or norms that repeatedly created trouble for him in office and now may jeopardize the 2024 election bid that he could launch at any time.

Three separate criminal investigations swirl around the former president: the records case, the probe concerning his role in the attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, and his effort to nullify Biden’s victory in Georgia, a crucial swing state.

In the run-up to Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump acted as if he had won the election — he hadn’t — and did little to ensure a smooth transition, according to the source familiar with Trump’s move who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the records investigation.

The source said that it was only after Jan. 6 — two weeks before Biden’s swearing-in — that he began to make serious preparations to vacate the White House. And the process was a mess.

“It was a chaotic exit,” this source said. “Everyone piled everything — staff, the White House movers — into the moving trucks. When they got to Mar-a-Lago, they piled everything there in this storage room, except for things like the first lady’s clothes. Everything in a box went there.”

“He didn’t care. He didn’t care about the boxes. He was in a dark place at the time, if you remember. He didn’t even unpack things,” the source continued. “Over time, the staff moved them back in. If you had brought him into that storeroom, and asked, ‘Which are your presidential papers?’ he couldn’t tell you.”

But Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in national security law, said the search warrant executed by the FBI raises a question as to whether Trump knew he had sensitive documents and was keeping them from the federal government.

“Whether he was obstructing or whether it was Trump being Trump is the big unknown,” Moss said.

According to advisers, confidants and former aides, Trump is a “pack rat” who tends to leave the actual packing to underlings. At the end of the day, they clear his desk of paperwork — notes, scribbles, newspaper clippings, printed-out-emails, the new tree alignment for a golf course, a new grill for Mar-a-Lago — and the contents are placed in a box on the floor.

When filled, the box is removed by an aide and stored elsewhere. When he travels, an aide sometimes brings boxes along.

It was no different when he was president: Trump would board Air Force One or his Marine One helicopter, and his body man or valets would be toting boxes packed with briefing papers he’d ripped from binders, random papers that someone might have handed him, press clippings, defense memoranda, daily intelligence briefings or other classified material, according to former White House aides.

“They cover the gamut of everything,” a former White House aide who witnessed the spectacle said, declining to comment on the record because of the federal investigation.

Another former White House aide said that Trump was never much concerned about record management.

“He’d have no awareness,” this person said. “When he was done with a piece of paper, he’d rip it up and throw it on the ground. That was his way of saying he’s done … [but] the narrative [that] he was ripping up documents like he was his own personal shredding machine is not accurate — he’d rip it in half, not usually into a thousand pieces.”

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