Timeline: The government’s efforts to get sensitive documents back from Trump
Washington — Efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration to retrieve materials taken by former President Donald Trump at the end of his administration have spanned more than a year and a half, resulting in an extraordinary filing by the Justice Department in late August alleging efforts were “likely taken to obstruct” a federal investigation into the missing records.
The submission by the Justice Department came in response to a request by Trump for a federal judge to appoint a third party to review documents seized by the FBI in its Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s South Florida home. The judge granted Trump’s request on Sept. 5, saying she would name a “special master” to review the material for privileged information. Raymond Dearie, a veteran federal judge from New York, was named to the position on Sept. 15.
In their earlier 36-page filing, federal prosecutors provided the most detailed look yet at the attempts by the Archives and Justice Department to retrieve the materials taken from the White House and brought to Mar-a-Lago, some of which contained classified and national defense information, they said.
The Justice Department is investigating Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, as well as possible obstruction of the probe, prosecutors have said. The former president has claimed he and his representatives cooperated with officials trying to retrieve the records and alleges he declassified the materials at issue, though the accounts of FBI agents and prosecutors contradict those assertions.
Legal proceedings surrounding the search and the investigation continue. Here’s a look at the events that have transpired over the course of the government’s attempts to get back the documents, gleaned from recent court filings, government records and media reports.
Jan. 14: Six days before the presidential transition, movers are photographed wheeling boxes out of the White House complex and placing them on nearby trucks.
Jan. 18: CBS Miami reports moving trucks are observed at Mar-a-Lago.
Jan. 19: Trump tells the Archives that he has designated Mark Meadows, Pat Cipollone, Pat Philbin, Scott Gast, Steven Engel and Michael Purpura, who served in his administration either within the White House or Justice Department, as his representatives to handle matters pertaining to records from his presidency.
May 6: The Archives requests that Trump turn over missing records, and continues to ask for the documents until late December.
December: A Trump representative informs the Archives they located 12 boxes of material at Mar-a-Lago and the agency arranges for them to be securely brought back to Washington. Archives officials say they “did not visit or ‘raid’ the Mar-a-Lago property.”
Jan. 18: Fifteen boxes of records, some containing classified material, are retrieved from Mar-a-Lago by Archives representatives.
Jan. 31: The Archives says in a statement that some of Trump’s presidential records it received included “paper records that had been torn up by” the former president.
“As has been reported in the press since 2018, White House records management officials during the Trump Administration recovered and taped together some of the torn-up records,” the agency said. “These were turned over to the National Archives at the end of the Trump Administration, along with a number of torn-up records that had not been reconstructed by the White House.”
The Archives notes that under the Presidential Record Act, all records created by presidents must be handed over to the agency at the end of their administrations.
Feb. 7: The Archives confirms that in mid-January, it arranged for the 15 boxes containing presidential records to be transported from Mar-a-Lago to the agency. It says Trump’s representatives are “continuing to search” for more records that belong to the Archives and notes that under federal law, they should’ve been transferred from the White House at the end of the Trump administration.
Feb. 9: The Archives’ Office of the Inspector General sends a referral to the Justice Department requesting it investigate Trump’s handling of records. The referral notes a preliminary review of the 15 boxes taken from Mar-a-Lago indicated they contained newspapers, printed news articles, photos, notes, presidential correspondence and “a lot of classified records.”
“Of most significant concern was that highly classified records were unfoldered, intermixed with other records, and otherwise unproperly [sic] identified,” the referral stated.
Feb. 18: David Ferriero, then-archivist of the United States, sends a letter to House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney informing her some of the boxes retrieved by the Archives in mid-January contained items marked as classified national security information, and asked Trump’s representatives to continue searching for any additional presidential records that had not been transferred to the Archives.
Ferriero tells Maloney that because the Archives identified classified information in the boxes, its staff had been in communication with the Justice Department.
April 11: The White House Counsel’s Office formally transmits a request that the Archives provide the FBI access to the 15 boxes retrieved from Mar–a-Lago for its review.
April 12: The Archives says it communicated with Trump’s “authorized representative” about the 15 boxes of seized records and told his attorney Evan Corcoran about the Justice Department’s “urgency” in needing access to them. The agency also advises Trump’s counsel it intended to provide the FBI with the documents the next week.
Corcoran later requests the Archives delay the disclosure to the FBI to April 29.
April 29: The Justice Department’s National Security Division tells Corcoran that there are “important national security interests in the FBI and others in the intelligence community getting access to these materials.”
More than 100 documents with classification markings totaling more than 700 pages were among the materials in the boxes retrieved by the Archives from Mar-a-Lago, according to the Justice Department, some of which include the “highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program materials.”
The department adds that access to the documents is necessary “for purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation.”
On that day, Trump’s attorney requests another delay before the records are given to the FBI and says if the extension was not granted, his letter serves as a “protective assertion of executive privilege.”
May 10: Acting Archivist Deborah Steidel Wall informs Corcoran in a letter that there is “no basis” for the former president to make a “protective assertion of executive privilege,” and she therefore would not honor Trump’s “protective” claim of privilege.
Wall also tells Corcoran that the Archives would provide the FBI access to the records taken from Mar-a-Lago as early as May 12.
May 11: The Justice Department obtains a grand jury subpoena seeking “any and all” documents bearing classification markings that are in Trump’s possession at Mar-a-Lago. The subpoena sets a May 24 deadline for the requested records to be turned over and for Trump’s custodian of records to appear in federal district court in Washington.
In a separate letter from Jay Bratt to Evan Corcoran, Bratt thanks him for “agreeing to accept service” of the subpoena and says Trump’s custodian of records may comply with the subpoena by handing over the responsive documents to the FBI. He also notes the custodian will have to provide a sworn certification that the documents “represent all responsive records.”
May 16-18: FBI agents conduct a preliminary review of the 15 boxes retrieved from Mar-a-Lago and find classified documents in 14 of them. The trove includes: 184 documents bearing classification markings, including 67 marked confidential, 92 marked secret and 25 marked top secret.
May 24: Trump’s lawyer asks for an extension for complying with the subpoena, and the government ultimately pushes back the date to June 7.
May 25: Corcoran tells the Justice Department in a letter that Trump has the absolute authority to declassify documents.
June 2: Corcoran reaches out to the Justice Department and requests FBI agents retrieve the documents that are responsive to the May 11 subpoena from Mar-a-Lago.
June 3: Three FBI agents and Bratt, the Justice Department counterintelligence chief, travel to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the materials in response to the subpoena, and try to find a resolution to the Archives’ dispute with the former president.
Trump’s attorney and custodian of records are present and turn over one large envelope, “double-wrapped in tape,” that contains documents. Neither asserts that Trump declassified the records or asserted claims of executive privilege, federal prosecutors said in a filing detailing the encounter.
The custodian of records for Trump’s post-presidential office signs a certification attesting that a “diligent search” was conducted of boxes moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago to locate documents covered by the grand jury subpoena and that “any and all responsive documents” were provided with the certification.
Trump’s lawyer says all records brought from the White House to Mar-a-Lago are stored in a single location, a storage room on the premises, and that there are no other records stored in private office space or other locations on the property. Additionally, he represents that all available boxes were searched.
FBI agents and Bratt are given access to the storage room, which contains boxes containing “clothing and personal items” of Trump and first lady Melania Trump, according to Trump’s lawsuit.
But the Justice Department says government personnel were prohibited from opening or looking inside any boxes that remained in the storage room, “giving no opportunity for the government to confirm that no documents with classification markings remained.”
The FBI goes on to review the documents contained in the envelope and finds 38 unique documents bearing classification markings, including five documents marked confidential, 16 marked secret and 17 marked top secret.
June 8: Bratt sends a letter to Trump’s team warning that “Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information” and asking the room be secured.
Trump’s attorneys acknowledge receipt of the letter a day later. Trump directs his staff to place a second lock on the door to the storage room, he says in his lawsuit.
June 19: Trump designates Kash Patel, a former Pentagon official, and John Solomon, a conservative commentator, as his “representatives for access to Presidential records,” in a letter to the Archives.
June 24: Federal investigators issue a subpoena for security-camera footage at Mar-a-Lago, and Trump’s team complies, turning over the footage to the U.S. government. (On Sept. 7, the Justice Department said the grand jury subpoena for Mar-a-Lago’s security cams was issued on June 24, and not June 22, as Trump’s lawsuit had stated.)
The department says that prior to seeking the warrant, the FBI “uncovered multiple sources of evidence” indicating classified documents were still at Mar-a-Lago, despite the sworn certification made June 3.
Federal prosecutors say the FBI also “developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”
The search warrant approved by the judge allows the FBI to search the “45 Office,” which is Trump’s office space at Mar-a-Lago, as well as all storage rooms and other rooms used or available to Trump and his staff where boxes could be stored.
Aug. 8: The Justice Department executes the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago beginning around 10 a.m. At least two of Trump’s lawyers, Christina Bobb and Lindsey Halligan, are present, and Bobb signs a receipt listing the property seized by the FBI at 6: 19 p.m.
Among the items taken by agents are Trump’s passports, which are later returned. The Justice Department says in its later filing that, consistent with the parameters of the search warrant, “the government seized the contents of a desk drawer that contained classified documents and governmental records commingled with other documents,” which included two official passports.
“The location of the passports is relevant evidence in an investigation of unauthorized retention and mishandling of national defense information; nonetheless, the government decided to return those passports in its discretion,” federal prosecutors write in the filing.
During execution of the warrant, the government seizes 33 boxes, containers or items of evidence from both the storage room and Trump’s office. An investigative team reviewing the materials finds that 13 boxes or containers contain documents with classified markings, including more than 100 unique documents with classification markings. Three documents marked classified are located in desks in Trump’s office, prosecutors said, and 76 more were found in the storage room.
A partially redacted photo included in the Justice Department filing shows some documents recovered from Trump’s office had colored cover sheets indicating their classification status. The records range from “CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET information, and certain documents included additional sensitive compartments that signify very limited distribution,” the Justice Department says.
Aug. 11: Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers a statement about the search and reveals he personally approved the decision to seek the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department also moves to unseal the warrant amid requests from media companies, including CBS News, for the magistrate judge to also unseal the underlying affidavit laying out the reasons for the search.
The Archives also issues a statement refuting claims by Trump about former President Barack Obama’s handling of records. The agency says it “assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”
Aug. 15: The Justice Department returns Trump’s passports to his lawyers. A Trump spokesman tweets an email that confirms the FBI used a filter team to screen out evidence that was seized but not responsive to the warrant.
Aug. 18: The federal magistrate judge who approved the search warrant application holds a hearing about requests to make public the underlying affidavit and asks the Justice Department for potential redactions, to be submitted a week later.
Aug. 22: Trump files a lawsuit against the Justice Department asking for the appointment of a special master to review the seized records. The request comes more than two weeks after the initial search.
Aug. 24: The acting archivist sends a letter to staff addressing the investigation, characterizing their agency as “fiercely non-political” and refuting claims of harboring political motivations.
Aug. 25: The Justice Department submits a redacted version of the underlying search warrant affidavit. Finding the submission satisfactory, the magistrate judge orders its release a day later.
Separately, in a letter to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines confirms the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence are facilitating a classification review of relevant materials seized. The intelligence office will also review risks to national security.
Aug. 27: U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, presiding over Trump’s request for a third party to review the seized items, issues a preliminary order indicating she is likely to appoint a special master.
Aug. 29: The Justice Department informs Cannon that the filter teams, acting separately from the investigative teams, had completed their search for potentially privileged material in the seized records.
Aug. 30: The Justice Department submits a 36-page response to Trump’s request for a special master, calling it “unnecessary,” and reveals they have evidence that Trump’s team might have obstructed their investigation.
Aug. 31: Trump claims in a post to Truth Social, his social media site, that he declassified the records displayed in the redacted FBI photo.
“Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see. Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!” he writes.
Federal prosecutors, however, asserted in their filing that Trump’s representatives never “asserted that the former president had declassified the documents or asserted any claim of executive privilege.”
Separately, Trump’s legal team file a 19-page reply to the Justice Department’s opposition to the appointment of a special master. The former president’s lawyers again urge Cannon to tap a third party to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago and criticize the execution of the search warrant as “unprecedented, unnecessary, and legally unsupported.”
“Left unchecked, the DOJ will impugn, leak, and publicize selective aspects of their investigation with no recourse,” they write.
Federal prosecutors have argued sensitive records taken from Trump’s property belong to the government and should’ve been returned to the Archives at the end of his administration in January 2021. But Trump’s lawyers counter in their filing that the “notion that presidential records would contain sensitive information should have never been cause for alarm.”
They also argue the Archives should have made a “good faith effort” with Trump to recover the records, though the agency has made public numerous letters indicating their apparent willingness to work with the former president’s team to retrieve the materials brought to Mar-a-Lago.
Sept. 1: U.S. District Judge Aileen Connor orders the release of a detailed list of the property seized during the FBI’s Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago, while reserving judgment on whether to appoint an outside party to review the documents.
The Department of Justice told the court that investigators have already looked at the seized records and said the criminal investigation is ongoing and active.
The newly released receipt of collected items lists multiple government documents and photographs with classified markings — including secret and top secret — and multiple empty folders, also with classification markings.
The sensitive documents and government property are listed in a way that indicated they were in containers mixed with more personal items, like magazines, newspapers, gifts and articles of clothing. The Justice Department is investigating whether Trump mishandled classified materials after leaving the White House.
The detailed list released by the court can be seen here.
Sept. 5: Cannon approves Trump’s request to appoint a special master to review the records seized by the FBI during its search at Mar-a-Lago. She also orders the government to temporarily stop reviewing and using the recovered documents for its investigation “pending completion of the special master’s review or further court order.”
But Cannon allows the government to continue reviewing and using the materials seized for “purposes of intelligence classification and national security assessments.”
In her 24-page order, she sets a Sept. 9 deadline for the Justice Department and Trump’s lawyers to “meaningfully confer” and submit a joint filing that includes a list of proposed candidates to serve as special master, along with a proposed description of the mechanics of the review.
Sept 8: The Justice Department notifies the court that it intends to appeal Cannon’s decision authorizing the appointment of a special master to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Federal prosecutors also ask Cannon to partially lift her ruling to allow investigators to continue reviewing 103 documents taken from Mar-a-Lago marked “confidential,” “secret” or “top secret.”
They argue in court papers the classification markings “establish on the face of the documents that they are government records,” not Trump’s personal records and warn that the government and broader public will suffer what they view as “irreparable harm” if the materials cannot be reviewed and used in the criminal investigation into the former president’s handling of sensitive records.
Sept. 9: Federal prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers put forth two candidates apiece to serve as special master to review the documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago, meeting the deadline set forth by Cannon in her Sept. 5 order.
The Justice Department recommends retired judges Barbara Jones, who served in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and Thomas Griffith, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
Trump’s legal team suggests Raymond Dearie, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and Paul Huck, Jr., former general counsel to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Sept. 12: Trump’s lawyers urge Cannon to continue to block federal investigators from using the 103 sensitive documents taken by the FBI and reject the Justice Department’s request to lift part of her Sept. 5 order.
In a 21-page court filing, the former president’s legal team calls the federal probe into his handling of sensitive records “unprecedented and misguided” and say there is “no indication any purported ‘classified records’ were disclosed to anyone.”
Lawyers for the former president also write that he had “broad authority” to declassify documents and, as a former president, has an “unfettered right” to access presidential records under the Presidential Records Act. The controversy surrounding the records, they tell the court, is a “document storage dispute that has spiraled out of control.”
“[T]he government wrongfully seeks to criminalize the possession by the 45th president of his own presidential and personal records,” Trump’s attorneys claim.
In a separate filing to the court, the former president’s lawyers also object to the Justice Department’s two special master candidates, Jones and Griffith. They do not detail their reasons for opposing the proposed contenders and tell the court “it is more respectful to the candidates from either party to withhold the bases for opposition from a public, and likely to be widely circulated, pleading.”
Trump’s lawyers ask the court for permission to express their objections to Jones and Griffith only if the judge “specifies a desire to obtain and consider that information.”
Separately, the Justice Department urges the court to select Jones, Griffith or Dearie, one of Trump’s candidates, as special master, citing their experience on the federal bench and engagement in “relevant areas of law.”
“Judges Jones, Griffith, and Dearie each have substantial judicial experience, during which they have presided over federal criminal and civil cases, including federal cases involving national security and privilege concerns,” the Justice Department lawyers write.
Federal prosecutors tell the court that they “respectfully oppose” the appointment of Huck, the second of Trump’s two special master contenders, because he lacks the experience shared by the other three proposed picks.
Sept. 15: Cannon appoints Dearie to serve as the special master to vet the documents seized by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago for personal items and documents, as well as material that may be potentially subject to claims of attorney-client or executive privileges.
In her appointing order, Cannon sets a Nov. 30 deadline for Dearie to complete his review and says Trump is responsible for the fees and expenses stemming from the special master’s work. She instructs Cannon and the parties, the Justice Department and Trump, to “prioritize, as a matter of timing, the documents marked as classified.”
In a separate order, Cannon rejects federal prosecutors’ request to allow its investigators to regain access to the roughly 100 documents marked classified. In her 10-page order, the judge refuted two of the premises outlined by the Justice Department in its motion: that the roughly 100 documents at the center of the request are classified records and that Trump could not have a “possessory interest in any of them,” and that Trump does not have a plausible claim of privilege as to any of these records.
“The court does not find it appropriate to accept the government’s conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party in an expedited and orderly fashion,” she writes.
Sept. 16: Justice Department lawyers ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to lift part of Cannon’s order barring investigators’ from using the roughly 100 documents marked classified for investigative purposes.
Sept. 20: Trump’s lawyers tell the 11th Circuit in a filing it should turn down the Justice Department’s request to regain access to the tranche of sensitive records, again claiming the government has “criminalized a document dispute.” They also say the Justice Department has not proven the documents at the crux of the dispute are classified.
But in a late-night reply to Trump’s filing, federal prosecutors call the former president’s efforts to raise questions about the records’ classification status a “red herring.”
Separately, Dearie meets for the first time with Justice Department lawyers and Trump’s legal team in federal court in Brooklyn and appears skeptical of the former president’s objection to providing him with information regarding any potential declassification of the sensitive records.
The former president’s lawyers argue in a letter to Dearie that doing so would force Trump to “fully and specifically disclose a defense to the merits of any subsequent indictment without such a requirement being evident in the district court’s order.”
Sept. 21: A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit grants the Justice Department’s request to allow its investigators to regain access to the roughly 100 documents bearing classification markings.
“For our part, we cannot discern why [Trump] would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings,” Judges Robin Rosenbaum, Britt Grant and Andrew Brasher write in their 29-page unanimous opinion. “Classified documents are marked to show they are classified, for instance, with their classification level.”
The judges — Grant and Brasher were appointed by Trump, and Robinson was tapped by former President Barack Obama — also call the questions about declassification a “red herring” and write there is no evidence in the record before them that the sensitive materials were declassified.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.