Former President Donald Trump hired people to search four properties after being directed by a federal judge to look harder for any classified material still in his possession, and they found at least two documents with classified markings inside a sealed box in one of the locations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Trump’s search team discovered the documents at a federally run storage site in West Palm Beach, Florida, the person said, prompting his lawyers to notify the Justice Department about them.
The New York Times reported in October that Justice Department officials had told the former president’s lawyers that they believed he might have more classified materials that were not returned in response to a subpoena issued in May. The FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Florida, in August for additional classified documents and other presidential records.
People close to Trump had said earlier Wednesday that no classified material had been found during the searches, a claim that was later proved incorrect. The Washington Post first reported on the locating of the two additional documents, as well as the searches of the properties.
After the warning from the Justice Department, a debate ensued among Trump’s lawyers about whether to bring in an independent firm to conduct a search.
The discovery of the documents at the storage unit, maintained by the federal General Services Administration, came during a series of wider searches that were completed around Thanksgiving and conducted at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey; at Trump Tower in New York; and in a storage closet at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the events.
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, said in a statement that the former president and “his counsel continue to be cooperative and transparent, despite the unprecedented, illegal and unwarranted attack against President Trump and his family by the weaponized Department of Justice.”
The department is investigating the former president’s handling of thousands of government documents, including more than 300 classified ones, that were taken from the White House at the end of his term and were found at Mar-a-Lago. Prosecutors are also seeking to determine whether Trump obstructed the government’s repeated efforts to retrieve the materials.
When the Justice Department warned that it believed Trump still had documents in his possession, a lawyer whom he had hired a short time earlier, Christopher M. Kise, suggested along with other lawyers working for Trump that they engage an outside firm, according to people familiar with the events.
A cadre of other Trump lawyers were resistant to the idea; among them was Boris Epshteyn, a communications adviser who has positioned himself as an in-house counsel on some of Trump’s legal entanglements. The dispute led to Kise’s standing in Trump’s circle diminishing for weeks, according to several people close to the former president.
More recently, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of U.S. District Court in Washington, who oversees grand jury investigations, directed Trump’s lawyers to essentially search more carefully for any remaining documents. Other lawyers in Trump’s circle took on the issue and hired a firm, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
But while the Justice Department had continued to have questions about documents that might remain at Mar-a-Lago — and while some people close to Trump believed another search warrant might be executed — a person familiar with the discussions among federal officials said there was no recent probable cause by which to obtain a warrant for Bedminster or Trump Tower.
The National Archives repeatedly asked last year about the status of some materials that it should have received, such as correspondence with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, as well as about two dozen boxes that were deemed presidential records at the end of Trump’s term.
Archives officials contacted several people to try to facilitate the return of the documents, including former White House Counsel’s Office lawyers working as Trump’s representatives with the agency. The former president maintained to several advisers that the boxes were filled with news clippings and personal effects; archives officials explained that news clippings can be considered presidential records.
Alex Cannon, a lawyer who had worked with Trump in various capacities, became involved in fall 2021 and tried to help archives officials retrieve the material.
Cannon warned others in Trump’s circle not to go through the boxes themselves because it was unclear what was in them, and people might require security clearances. At one point, as Trump sought National Archives documents related to the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Russian officials, he proposed that his lawyers suggest a trade with the agency: what he sought in exchange for the documents he had.
The lawyers declined to engage that suggestion, and Cannon continued to try to push for the documents’ return to the archives.
Eric Herschmann, a lawyer who had worked as a top adviser in the Trump White House, had an informal conversation with Trump. People familiar with the discussion characterized it as Herschmann speaking as a friend and urging the former president to return the boxes, suggesting that he could be subject to legal trouble by keeping them, especially if they contained classified material.
That possibility became reality in January, after archives officials retrieved boxes that Trump had gone through over several days last December. The officials opened the boxes and discovered a number of classified documents. The Justice Department became involved.
When Cannon raised the prospect with Trump that officials were uncertain that they had everything returned, the former president told him to tell the officials that he had given everything back, according to people briefed on the matter. Cannon refused to do so and soon stopped being involved.
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