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New details from Mar-a-Lago investigation show how Trump handled classified documents

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, former President Trump has claimed that he completely cooperated with investigators. The Justice Department says in a new court filing that that is just not true. The department also provided new details on the high-profile investigation. And joining us now with more details is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK. So this new document that the Justice Department just filed in court is something like 36 pages long. What is in there?

LUCAS: A lot. And this document gives us really the most detailed look yet into the government's long running efforts to get back from Trump classified materials and other presidential records that were taken to Mar-a-Lago after he left office. Remember, Trump was supposed to turn all the government documents that ended up at Mar-a-Lago over to the National Archives back in January. But the FBI learned that more classified documents were still at the Florida estate.

And so in May, it got a grand jury subpoena for any documents that remain there. In response, Trump attorneys say they did a thorough search of Mar-a-Lago, including a storage room where boxes were kept, and that they gathered together all of the remaining classified documents. And then when a senior Justice Department official and FBI agents visited Mar-a-Lago in June, Trump's lawyers handed over one red weld envelope double wrapped in tape. That envelope contained 38 classified documents, including some that were marked top secret. And they said that was everything.

CHANG: Thirty-eight classified documents, one envelope. So Trump's representatives said that that was everything. But then the FBI heard from witnesses that there were still more classified materials there?

LUCAS: That's right. The department says the FBI had evidence that government documents were likely concealed and removed from that storage room where they were being held and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation. And remember, one of the crimes the FBI is investigating here relates to obstruction. And when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on August 8, agents found more highly classified documents. The department says some of those documents were so sensitive that even the FBI agents and DOJ attorneys needed additional security clearances before they could review them.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: The department notes that the FBI recovered twice as many classified documents in a couple of hours at Mar-a-Lago as Trump's attorneys did in weeks of their, quote-unquote, "diligent search" there. And the department says that casts doubt on the extent of Trump's cooperation.

CHANG: OK. I want to talk about a particular photo, because in its filing, the Justice Department, including this photo that shows classified documents found in Trump's office at Mar-a-Lago. And these documents were clearly marked secret and top secret, which seems pretty important. Can you talk a little more about this photo?

LUCAS: Right. It says a couple of things. One, it makes clear that there's no way to argue that there could be any confusion that these were classified documents. They have bright red or yellow cover sheets with secret or top secret in bold red letters on them. On top of that, the government says classified materials were found in Trump's desk drawer mixed in with other documents. Now, I spoke with David Laufman. He used to lead the Justice Department's counterintelligence division. And he says the fact that classified documents were just mixed in with Trump's personal effects matters because it makes it reasonable to infer that Trump had a personal interest in keeping those classified documents even in the face of a grand jury subpoena. Here's Laufman.

DAVID LAUFMAN: I think some of the additional factual revelations in the filing make stronger the government's potential criminal case against the former president of the United States for unlawful retention of national defense information, as well as his potential complicity in obstruction of justice.

LUCAS: In other words, the new details here suggest Trump's legal peril may be greater than we previously knew.

CHANG: So what's next in these proceedings?

LUCAS: Well, there's a hearing tomorrow in federal court in Florida on Trump's request for an independent special master to review the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago for potentially privileged reasons. The Justice Department opposes that. It says there's no legal basis for it, and it says the FBI has already gone through everything that was taken at Mar-a-Lago.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.