Affidavit Cites Trump’s Refusal to Return Secret Documents

When the F.B.I. descended on Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald J. Trump’s home and club in Florida, on Aug. 8 and carted off several boxes of sensitive documents, it was only after government officials had spent more than a year using various — and far less invasive — means of trying to secure the materials or get them back.

The redacted affidavit released on Friday and previous disclosures about the course of the effort to identify and retrieve any official material Mr. Trump improperly held on to after leaving the White House make it clear that the National Archives and the Justice Department had worked to try to resolve the matter without resorting to a step as confrontational as seeking and carrying out a court-ordered search warrant.

Archivists provided lists of missing items. Letters were exchanged, and lawyers conducted negotiations. A delegation of Justice Department officials traveled to Mar-a-Lago in June, where they were greeted briefly by Mr. Trump. Only after officials came to believe that Mr. Trump and his team were not being fully forthcoming did the Justice Department decide this summer to escalate.

As early as May 2021, the National Archives sent an email to a group of lawyers who had worked with Mr. Trump, asking for their “immediate assistance” in retrieving more than two dozen boxes of the former president’s records, including some of his correspondence with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and a letter that President Barack Obama had left for Mr. Trump on his first day in office.

In the email, the top lawyer at the archives, Gary M. Stern, said that his agency had never received the materials even though Mr. Trump’s top White House lawyer had determined that they should have been turned over.

The archives “continued to make requests” to Mr. Trump and his legal team to return the documents until about late December 2021, according to the affidavit. A few weeks later, on Jan. 18 the affidavit said, the archives finally received 15 boxes of materials from Mar-a-Lago.

When the archives conducted a preliminary review of the materials, officials discovered that among the newspapers, magazines and presidential correspondence were “a lot of classified records,” some of them marked with labels like top secret or sensitive compartmented information, the affidavit said.

At that point, the archives informed the Justice Department about their discovery, prompting officials there to ask the White House for permission to let the F.B.I. take a look at the materials so that federal agents and the intelligence community could examine them, according to a letter the archives sent to M. Evan Corcoran, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, in May.

In the letter, the archives repeated concerns, first aired by the Justice Department, that there were “important national security interests in the F.B.I. and others in the intelligence community getting access to these materials.”

But the security assessment was delayed, the letter said, because Mr. Corcoran and other lawyers for Mr. Trump were negotiating for time to ascertain whether any of the documents were shielded by executive privilege. The F.B.I. was finally able to look at the documents and conduct its own review, from May 16 to May 18, after the archives, the Justice Department and the White House all agreed that Mr. Trump could not assert executive privilege over the materials.

Around the same time — on May 11 — Mr. Trump’s office received a grand jury subpoena seeking the return of any “documents bearing classification markings” that he still had in his possession, according to a lawsuit the former president filed seeking the appointment of an independent arbiter to review the material. On June 3, the lawsuit said, Mr. Trump and his lawyers met with federal prosecutors at Mar-a-Lago, and they retrieved more documents and inspected a storage room at the estate where Mr. Trump had been keeping the material.

Five days after the Mar-a-Lago visit, the Justice Department sent one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers a letter, warning that the private club did not have “a secure location authorized for the storage of classified information” and that documents had not been “handled in an appropriate manner” since Mr. Trump had left the White House. The letter asked the lawyer to secure the storage room and to ensure that all of the boxes moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago “be preserved in that room in their current condition until further notice.”

Even that was not the end of the government’s attempts to make sure that the classified documents were secure. On June 22, prosecutors subpoenaed the Trump Organization for Mar-a-Lago’s security footage, which included a well-trafficked hallway outside the storage area.

And the inquiry is apparently continuing.

The newly released affidavit said that federal agents had “not yet identified all potential criminal confederates nor located all evidence related to its investigation.”