Ever since FBI agents executed a search warrant on Aug. 8 to obtain White House records from Mar-a-Lago, the private club and residence of former President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump has been trying to paint himself as the victim of “political persecution.”
In an initial statement, in which he declared that Mar-a-Lago was “currently under siege, raided and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” Trump charged that the search was nothing more than “prosecutorial misconduct, the weaponization of the Justice System, and an attack by Radical Left Democrats who desperately don’t want me to run for President in 2024, especially based on recent polls, and who will likewise do anything to stop Republicans and Conservatives in the upcoming Midterm Elections.”
In an effort to refute this claim — which sparked outrage among Trump supporters and quickly triggered a rash of violent threats against FBI agents — Attorney General Merrick Garland moved to unseal the FBI’s search warrant, which was “was authorized by a federal court upon the required finding of probable cause," and the property receipt detailing the items seized during the search.
But Trump has continued to cry politics.
In an Aug. 22 court filing calling for an independent special master to be appointed to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago, attorneys for the former president echoed his suggestion that the FBI search was politically motivated.
“Politics cannot be allowed to impact the administration of justice,” reads the motion filed in Florida federal court. It goes on to describe Trump as the “clear frontrunner” in the 2024 Republican presidential primary and general election “should he decide to run,” and adds that “his endorsement in the 2022 midterm elections has been decisive for Republican candidates.”
Over the weekend, after the Justice Department released a redacted version of the affidavit used to secure a warrant for the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump took to his social media site Truth Social to reiterate his claim that the “unprecedented, unnecessary, and unannounced FBI/DOJ Raid” of his Florida estate “was done for political purposes just prior to the Midterm Elections (and 2024, of course!).”
Viewed in a vacuum, Trump’s claims about the timing of the raid — amid a contentious congressional primary season and roughly three months ahead of the 2022 midterms — could sound credible. But the FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, while unprecedented, was not an isolated event. Rather, it was the culmination of a months-long investigation.
In the weeks since the search, details revealed in unsealed court records and news reports about the types of records believed to be in the former president’s possession — and the long, drawn-out effort to recover them — seem to directly undermine Trump’s claim that politics was the driving factor.
“Media reports suggest that the department went out of its way to get the cooperation of Trump and his lawyers in the return of the documents,” Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor, told Yahoo News. “As the subjects of white collar investigations regularly find, when cooperation is not forthcoming or the government cannot rely on counsel’s representations of compliance, search warrants [will] be sought and obtained.”
Here’s a timeline of events that led up to the Aug. 8 search at Mar-a-Lago, based on court records and other reporting that has since come to light.
May 2021: The National Archives notifies Trump’s attorneys about missing White House records
Conversations between the Trump White House and the National Archives regarding the transfer of presidential records, as is required by the Presidential Records Act, reportedly began back in late 2020, before Trump left the White House — along with boxes of materials — for Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 20, 2021.
But according to the New York Times, the National Archives’ general counsel first reached out to the former president’s attorneys in May 2021 after it was discovered that Trump’s original correspondence with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and a letter from former President Barack Obama were missing.
This kicked off several months of back-and-forth in which the National Archives sought, unsuccessfully, to retrieve the missing documents from the former president.
December 2021: Trump gets a warning
After National Archives officials warned Trump’s team that continued refusal to comply with the Presidential Records Act could result in a referral to the Justice Department or Congress, Trump’s attorneys told the National Archives that they found 12 boxes of documents at Mar-a-Lago.
January 2022: 15 boxes of documents are taken from Mar-a-Lago to the National Archives
After the back-and-forth, the National Archives and Records Administration arranged for the removal of 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago, their contents including documents and other items. The National Archives issued a statement on Jan. 31 about Trump’s handling of materials, writing, "Some of the Trump presidential records received by the National Archives and Records Administration included paper records that had been torn up by former President Trump."
The organization concluded, "The Presidential Records Act requires that all records created by presidents be turned over to the National Archives at the end of their administrations."
February 2022: The National Archives refers the matter to the Justice Department
After receiving the 15 boxes and other reconstructed records that Trump had torn up, the National Archives asked the Justice Department to look into whether the former president had violated any laws in his handling of documents. At the time, both the National Archives and Justice Department declined to comment, and it was unclear whether the FBI would actually investigate or just look to retrieve the classified documents.
May 16-18, 2022: The FBI reviews the content of the 15 boxes
According to the affidavit, agents reviewed the 15 boxes removed from Mar-a-Lago in January and found that 14 contained classified information. According to the redacted FBI affidavit, there were 184 unique documents with classification markings, including 67 marked as confidential, 92 marked as secret and 25 marked as top secret. The FBI said some of the documents were marked "HCS," referring to clandestine human sources, or intelligence personnel, and “SI,” which is information derived from monitoring foreign communication channels. The affidavit alleges that “several of the documents also contained what appears to be [Trump’s] handwritten notes.”
Late May 2022: Trump is subpoenaed by a grand jury
After investigators began looking into concerns from the National Archives, Trump quietly received a grand jury subpoena seeking more documents, which led to a June visit from federal law enforcement to Mar-a-Lago.
Early June 2022: Justice Department officials visit Mar-a-Lago
Following the grand jury subpoena, DOJ counterintelligence Chief Jay Bratt and FBI agents visited Mar-a-Lago in early June to collect additional documents and inspected a storage room in the basement, where some White House materials were being kept. During that visit, one of Trump’s attorneys reportedly signed a written statement saying that, to the best of their knowledge, all remaining classified material from the White House had been returned.
After the June visit, Bratt sent Trump’s attorneys a letter saying that “Mar-a-Lago does not include a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information,” and asked that the storage room be secured and any other White House material being kept at Mar-a-Lago be preserved in that room.
Trump has insisted that his team complied with the FBI’s request by installing a lock on the storage room door which, he says, agents broke during the Aug. 8 search.
Late June 2022: FBI interviews Trump staff, reviews Mar-a-Lago security footage
The New York Times reported that, after the June visit to Mar-a-Lago, Justice Department officials “used a subpoena to obtain surveillance footage of the hallway outside a storage room at Mar-a-Lago and saw something that alarmed them.” They also interviewed a number of Trump’s current staff, including at least one witness who indicated that more material might remain at the residence,” according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Aug. 5, 2022: Judge approves the search warrant
A federal judge in Florida approved a warrant to search Trump’s Palm Beach property after the Justice Department filed a 38-page affidavit, giving the FBI two weeks to conduct the search. A redacted version of that document, released on Aug. 26, stated that prosecutors had probable cause to believe that additional classified documents or presidential records “subject to record retention requirements” would be found at Mar-a-Lago, and that there was also probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction would be found on the premises.
In a separate, also heavily redacted memo released along with the affidavit last week, the Justice Department explained that a substantial portion of the affidavit “must remain sealed to protect the safety and privacy of a significant number of civilian witnesses, in addition to law enforcement personnel.”
Aug. 8, 2022: FBI agents execute the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago
The unsealed property receipt of items recovered during the raid revealed that FBI agents removed 11 sets of classified documents, including some labeled secret and top secret. Top secret information is legally defined as national security information whose unauthorized disclosure could cause “exceptionally grave” damage to U.S. interests.
The unsealed filings also show that some documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago were marked “SCI” or “sensitive compartmented information,” a special designation applied to particularly sensitive national secrets requiring additional security clearance.
“We know from the redacted affidavit and from the search warrant inventory that Mr. Trump had highly classified documents at his home,” Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and FBI official, told Yahoo News. “Those documents do not belong to him, he had no right to keep them, they were not properly secured, and the information in them — in the wrong hands — could harm the nation. It is really that simple.”
Trump and some of his allies have since tried to argue that the former president did, in fact, have a right to keep the documents by claiming that, as president, Trump had a “standing order” to declassify documents that were taken from the Oval Office to the White House residence.
While presidents do have the authority to declassify documents, there is a procedure for doing so that Trump does not appear to have followed. What’s more, the claim that Trump had a standing declassification order has been widely disputed by members of his own administration. CNN spoke to 18 former Trump administration officials who said they had never heard of any such order, some calling the claim “nonsense” and “bullshit.”
Even if Trump did, in fact, declassify all of the documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago, it might not make a difference. Legal experts have pointed out that none of the criminal provisions listed in the FBI’s search warrant as the basis of their investigation have anything to do with whether or not the materials in question were classified.