US-v-Trump: where the hunt for documents may go next

The first federal indictment of former president Donald Trump, unsealed by special counsel Jack Smith on June 9, details 37 counts of charges related to mishandling of government documents at his Palm Beach golf resort, Mar-a-Lago. It is written as a “speaking” indictment — laying out the circumstances of the accusation in great detail, beyond what is strictly necessary. But perhaps the indictment’s most important revelation is what it is silent on.

It tells several overlapping stories: of Trump’s attempts to hide documents from investigators; of Trump showing secret government information to guests at his golf club; and a narrative about the movement of such information from ballroom, to shower, to storage, and to another golf resort in another state — along with a running tally of boxes and documents returned.

While the indictment was filed in South Florida, the narrative is not confined to that region. It starts in Washington, DC, at the end of Trump’s presidential term. And it takes a few sojourns to Bedminster New Jersey, to Trump’s golf resort there. The story at these venues, as told, is incomplete. Did the transport of government documents to Mar-a-Lago count as theft, as it would if it happened after noon on Jan. 20, when Trump was no longer president? What happened to the boxes and documents taken to Bedminster? Much like a novel or film may end on a mystery to whet the appetite for a sequel, this indictment appears to be written with a sequel in the works.

The movement of boxes: a graphical look

The graphic below shows how the sensitive material spread through Trump’s resorts over the course of more than a year and half since the end of Trump’s presidency. Each icon or number links to specific lines in the indictment where the detail comes from. The last row highlights the event on which the indictment ends: the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. The material at Bedminster, with a red box around it, as far as we know, has not been searched by the FBI.


The narrative in the indictment begins on Jan 20, 2021 — the day Trump’s presidency ended. According to the allegations, Trump himself directed staff in the packing of boxes to take to Mar-a-Lago. Mixed with personal items, the boxes also contained “hundreds” of classified documents. The indictment leaves unsaid whether the taking occurred before 12 noon on that day, at which time Trump was still the president, or after.

In subsequent months, Trump’s personal staff at Mar-a-Lago managed the storage of the boxes that had been brought over from the White House, finding places around the estate to stash them. These places included the stage of a ballroom and tucked around a shower and toilet in a bathroom. In May 2021, Trump directed the storage room to be cleared in what appears to be intended as a permanent place for the boxes.

The main staff members who managed the movement of boxes were Waltine Nauta, Trump’s valet, who was charged on June 8 along with Trump for lying to the FBI about his knowledge of the movement of boxes. The other is only referred to as “Employee 2”. We know from public reporting that this is Molly Michael, Trump’s executive assistant.

Both Nauta and Michael are depicted as being in charge of the wellbeing of the boxes. At one point, Michael refers to them as Trump’s “beautiful mind” paper boxes, which appears to be a reference to the mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.’s obsession with his papers, as shown in a recent film based on his biography.

At another point Nauta texts Michael a picture of boxes spilled over.

“Oh no oh no,” Michael texts back, and then, “sorry potus had my phone.” Some have speculated that the reason prosecutors highlight this sequence of texts is to show that it was Trump being dismayed about the paper spill, texting using Michael’s phone.

The prosecutors’ apparent access to the texts on Michael’s phone shows that she is cooperating with prosecutors, experts have said. According to a report by the NYT, she left Trump’s employment at the end of last summer. This was around the time the FBI Mar-a-Lago investigation was heating up.

The NARA phase

Throughout 2021, the effort to retrieve government records from Trump was pursued by the National Archives (NARA).

On May 6, Gary Stern, NARA’s general counsel, wrote a letter to a group of Trump lawyers, Patrick Philbin, Mike Purpura, and Scott Gast, pleading with them to have Trump return records, some of which they knew were missing, such as Obama’s letter to Trump and his correspondence with North Korea’s leader. Unbeknownst to anyone in the US government, in that same month, some boxes containing government records made their way to Trump’s golf resort at Bedminster.

At Bedminster, prosecutors allege, Trump showed sensitive documents to visitors who were not authorized to see them.

Alex Cannon, a Trump campaign lawyer, became NARA’s point of contact after this point. In his quoted communications with Michael, where he is shown facilitating a return of boxes at the end of the year, he is titled “Trump Representative 1.”

Trump eventually did return 15 boxes, on Jan. 17, 2022. But, as seen in the table above, he silently retained 65 more. In the stretch from November to January 2021 he personally curated the set to return. Nauta and Michael coordinated bringing boxes from the storage room to Pine Hall, which is outside the residence. Using words like “knocked out” and “working on”, the texts show that Trump is looking through boxes himself.

The FBI investigation

It was only in early February 2022, after NARA found that the returned set of boxes contained 197 classified documents, that the matter was referred to the FBI. This began a new phase in the government’s increasingly urgent attempts to get the documents back.

The FBI opened an investigation on March 30, 2022. A Grand Jury was initiated on April 26, 2022. Both dates are shown in the detailed timeline below.

According to reporting by the Washington Post, an intense dispute developed between the DOJ officials, led by Jay Bratt, and the FBI officials who would go on to lead the search of Mar-a-Lago. By early May, the DOJ officials were convinced that Trump was deliberately hiding documents, thus wanted to search Mar-a-Lago without consent and without warning, much like Gen. Petreus’s house had been searched a decade earlier. However, FBI officials were inclined to more deference.

Eventually, the DOJ officials gave way, choosing to pend the search in favor of a subpoena. The Grand Jury issued a subpoena on May 11, 2022. It required the “Office of Donald J. Trump” to return all documents in his custody bearing classified markings.

But Bratt and the other DOJ officials who had wanted to escalate sooner were vindicated, as apparent from Trump’s response to the subpoena.

Memorialized by Trump’s newly-hired attorney Evan Corcoran, Trump allegedly tried to rope in his attorneys in the lie that he did not possess any more classified documents. When this ploy did not work, he permitted Corcoran to search the storage room, but only after secretly removing certain boxes. In the table above, this can be seen in the week between May 24 to June 2: 64 boxes were brought up to Trump’s residence to Pine Hall, reviewed, and only 30 were returned back to the storage room for Corcoran to search. Some more boxes were taken to Bedminster.

In the 30 remaining boxes in the storage room, Corcoran found 38 more classified documents to hand over to Bratt on June 3 in response to the subpoena.

Unbeknownst to the attorneys, the 38 documents were by no means a full response to the subpoena. Christina Bobb, another Trump attorney, signed a certification as the designation “custodian of records” that they had fully complied with the subpoena. This was false. She was not the custodian of records, had no knowledge of the search, nor were all responsive documents returned — apparently without her knowledge.

The raid and continued searches

Surveillance footage obtained by prosecutors of the period leading up to the June 3 handover of documents showed movement of boxes in and out of the storage room. This provided justification for a surprise search of Mar-a-Lago on August 8. A further 102 classified documents were seized, from the storage room and Trump’s office.

The narrative in the indictment ends with the August 8 search. But the hunt for documents has continued since, in a protracted period of court ordered searches, and renewed subpoenas with ever greater specificity. These are shown in the timeline below.

In October of last year, prosecutors informed the Trump team that they were aware of further missing documents. Judge Beryl Howell at the DC district court ordered further searches to fully comply with the subpoena of May 2022. A search was conducted by a security-cleared forensics team, overseen by Trump attorney Timothy Parlatore, in three Trump properties: Bedminster, Trump Tower in Manhattan, and a storage facility in West Palm Beach.

The search found two additional classified documents at the storage facility in November.

Jack Smith was appointed as special counsel to head the Mar-a-Lago and Jan 6 investigations into Trump on Nov. 18.

Further searches have been carried out during Smith’s tenure. In mid-December, an additional search of Mar-a-Lago ordered by Judge Howell turned up four more classified documents in a box containing presidential schedules. That month, on Dec. 22, attorney Parlatore testified to the grand jury that he had been given free rein to have Trump properties searched.

Despite that assertion, in January of this year, more classified material was found: in a laptop used by a receptionist. Another subpoena later in January specifically asked for a folder marked “Classified Evening Briefing“. This was found in Trump’s bedroom, supposedly shielding a nightlight.

In mid-March, in yet another subpoena — the most recent as far as has been publicly reported — the prosecutors asked for all material relating to Gen. Milley. This indicates that by mid-March, prosecutors on Smith’s team had managed to obtain recordings of Trump showing the Iran war plan document at Bedminster in 2021, bringing it up as a means of discrediting the critiques Gen. Milley has made of Trump since leaving office.

So far, the Iran war plan document, last heard from in Bedminster, has not turned up in any of the searches.

This sequence is shown in the timeline below, with the known missing document boxed in red.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email