Government documents that Mr. Trump had accumulated were with him in roughly two dozen boxes in the White House residence. They were to go to the National Archives, but at least some ended up in Florida.
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By Maggie Haberman, Katie Benner and Glenn Thrush
WASHINGTON — Four days before the end of the Trump presidency, a White House aide peered into the Oval Office and was startled, if not exactly surprised, to see all of the president’s personal photos still arrayed behind the Resolute Desk as if nothing had changed — guaranteeing the final hours would be a frantic dash mirroring the prior four years.
In the area known as the outer Oval Office, boxes had been brought in to pack up desks used by President Donald J. Trump’s assistant and personal aides. But documents were strewn about, and the boxes stood nearly empty. Mr. Trump’s private dining room table off the Oval Office was stacked high with papers until the end, as it had been for his entire term.
Upstairs in the White House residence, there were, however, a few signs that Mr. Trump finally realized his time was up. Papers he had accumulated in his last several months in office had been dropped into boxes, roughly two dozen of them, and not sent back to the National Archives. Aides had even retrieved letters from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and given them to him in the final weeks, according to notes described to The New York Times.
Where all of that material ended up is not clear. What is plain, though, is that Mr. Trump’s haphazard handling of government documents — a chronic problem — contributed to the chaos he created after he refused to accept his loss in November, unleashed a mob on Congress and set the stage for his second impeachment. His unwillingness to let go of power, including refusing to return government documents collected while he was in office, has led to a potentially damaging, and entirely avoidable, legal battle that threatens to engulf the former president and some of his aides.
Although the White House counsel’s office had told Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s last chief of staff, that the roughly two dozen boxes worth of material in the residence needed to be turned back to the archives, at least some of those boxes, including those with the Kim letters and some documents marked highly classified, were shipped to Florida. There they were stored at various points over the past 19 months in different locations inside Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only club, home and office, according to several people briefed on the events.
Those actions, along with Mr. Trump’s protracted refusal to return the documents in Florida to the National Archives, prompted the Justice Department to review the matter early this year. This month, prosecutors obtained a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago for remaining materials, including some related to sensitive national security matters. The investigation is active and expanding, according to recent court filings, as prosecutors look into potentially serious violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice.
Many questions about the mishandling of the documents lead to Mr. Trump, who often treated the presidency as a private business. But people in his orbit also highlight the role of Mr. Meadows, who oversaw what there was of a presidential transition. Mr. Meadows assured aides that the harried packing up of the White House would follow requirements about the preservation of documents, and he said he would make efforts to ensure that the administration complied with the Presidential Records Act, according to people familiar with those conversations.
But as the clock ticked down, Mr. Trump focused on pushing through last-minute pardons and largely ignoring the transition he had tried to forestall.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump himself has denounced the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago as a “witch hunt.” His office has said he had a “standing order” that materials removed from the Oval Office and taken to the White House residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them, although none of the three potential crimes cited in the F.B.I. search warrant depend on whether removed documents are classified.
A lawyer for Mr. Meadows declined to comment.
Flouting Records Rules
In his final speech as president, Mr. Trump declared, “We were not a regular administration.”
His statement was indisputably accurate. From his first hours in office, Mr. Trump had always taken a proprietary view of the presidency, describing government documents and other property — even his staffers — as his own personal possessions. “They’re mine” is how he often put it, former aides said.
But that was not the case. Under the Presidential Records Act, the law that strictly governs the handling of records generated in the Oval Office, every document belonged to taxpayers. Whether it was top security briefing materials, reams of unclassified documents automatically uploaded to a secure server in Pennsylvania or notes that Mr. Trump routinely ripped up or flushed down the toilet — all were government property to be assessed and, in most cases, transferred as part of the nation’s history to the National Archives.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers and aides were well versed in the records act, even if Mr. Trump routinely flouted it. Donald F. McGahn II, Mr. Trump’s first White House counsel, instituted a protocol for the proper handling of materials and gave presentations on the law to staffers, former officials said. After the 2020 election, White House officials held conversations about the fact that someone needed to retrieve documents that Mr. Trump had accumulated in the residence over many months, according to former officials.
By the end of the administration, the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and his deputy, Patrick F. Philbin, were keenly aware that Mr. Trump’s handling of documents was a potential problem, according to people in their orbit.
But it is unclear how much bandwidth either man had to deal with the issue. Mr. Trump was on contentious terms with Mr. Cipollone after the election, and often berated the lawyer for objecting to his attempts to subvert Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, according to former officials.
More Coverage of the F.B.I. Search of Trump’s Home
Adding to the disarray was the absence of the White House staff secretary, Derek Lyons, who managed paperwork inside the executive complex but had stepped down on Dec. 18, 2020. That left Mr. Meadows, a former House member with no significant executive experience before joining Mr. Trump’s staff, responsible for overseeing a transition process the president wanted no part of.
Mr. Meadows’s immediate predecessors in that role — President Barack Obama’s last chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and President George W. Bush’s final chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten — had created teams to scrub West Wing offices of anything that belonged to the archives and made the stewardship of government records a priority.
It is unclear whether Mr. Meadows took the same measures, former aides said. But in the administration’s final weeks, the White House emailed all of its offices detailed instructions about returning documents and cleaning out their spaces. Mr. Meadows followed up on those notes and encouraged offices to comply, according to a person familiar with those conversations.
Mr. Meadows also assured White House staff members that he would talk to Mr. Trump about securing records, including ones stashed in the residence, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
Regardless of whether Mr. Meadows followed through on those promises, by early 2021, after Mr. Trump had left the White House, officials with the archives realized they were missing significant material.
They reached out to, among others, Scott Gast, who had been a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office under Mr. Trump, and Mr. Philbin. The two men, along with Mr. Meadows and four other Trump officials, had been appointed by Mr. Trump on his last full day in office to work with the National Archives.
The archivists were particularly insistent about getting back the missing correspondence from the North Korean leader and a letter left on the Resolute Desk for Mr. Trump by Mr. Obama, both of significant historical value.
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