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The FBI seized hundreds of documents from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, after more than a year of back-and-forth communication with the federal government.
Trump has argued that he had the right to have those documents and challenged the Justice Department’s seizure of them. Those challenges failed.
A special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland is investigating whether Trump broke any laws by possessing the documents and whether anyone obstructed their return to the government.
Garland has also appointed a special counsel to investigate whether anyone wrongly handled classified documents found in President Joe Biden’s Delaware home and in a Washington, D.C., office he occupied after his vice presidency. (PolitiFact is also tracking developments in the Biden classified documents case.)
Some details about Trump’s documents remain unknown, including the exact contents of each document. But recent information released by the federal government details how many documents were at Mar-a-Lago and their classification level.
Here’s a timeline of the events concerning Trump documents. (We previously outlined events up to August.) We will update this timeline as news developments warrant.
Donald Trump speaks to crowd before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP)
Jan. 20: Trump leaves the White House. The Presidential Records Act requires that all documents be returned to the National Archives upon his departure.
May 6: National Archives and Records Administration’s chief counsel emails Trump’s representatives, according to New York Times and Washington Post reporting. The Post quoted the email as reading, "It is also our understanding that roughly two dozen boxes of original presidential records were kept in the Residence of the White House over the course of President Trump’s last year in office and have not been transferred to NARA, despite a determination by Pat Cipollone in the final days of the administration that they need to be." Cipollone was Trump’s White House counsel. A heavily redacted affidavit in the Mar-a-Lago search confirmed that the National Archives requested the missing records on or about May 6.
December: After months of requests, Trump lawyers informed the National Archives that 12 boxes were found and ready for retrieval at Mar-a-Lago, according to a Justice Department affidavit released in August 2022.
Aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Aug. 31, 2022. The Justice Department says classified documents were "likely concealed and removed" from the estate. (AP)
Mid-January: The National Archives retrieves 15 boxes of records from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. The records were transported to the National Archives "following discussions with President Trump’s representatives in 2021," the National Archives wrote in a Feb. 7 statement ."As required by the Presidential Records Act, these records should have been transferred to NARA from the White House at the end of the Trump administration in January 2021."
Jan. 31: The National Archives issues a statement saying that some of the presidential records it received from Trump before he left office "had been torn up" by Trump. Citing press reports, the statement said that Trump White House officials "recovered and taped together some of the torn-up records."
Feb. 10: Trump said that the documents transfer was "no big deal" and that the papers were given "easily and without conflict on a very friendly basis."
Feb. 18: National archivist David Ferriero says in a letter to Congress that the agency had been communicating with Trump representatives about the return of documents for most of 2021. National Archives officials determined that those 15 boxes contained some classified information, so they contacted the Justice Department, Ferreiro’s letter said.
April 12: The National Archives notifies Trump that it will "disclose" the documents to the FBI, according to a letter sent to Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran. Trump’s lawyer requests an extension.
April 29: The Justice Department explains to Trump that according to the National Archives, the hundreds of pages of documents include some with "the highest levels of classification, including Special Access Program (SAP) materials." The Justice Department said immediate access to the materials is necessary as part of the criminal investigation.
May 10: Acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall writes a letter to Corcoran denying his request to delay providing the FBI access to the 15 boxes that were retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Wall writes that the National Archives discovered in those boxes "over 100 documents with classified markings, comprising 700 pages."
May 11: Trump accepts a grand jury subpoena seeking documents marked as classified.
May 16-18: FBI agents conduct a preliminary review of the 15 boxes that had been provided to the National Archives. They find classified documents in all but one box. They identify "184 unique documents bearing classification markings including 67 documents marked as confidential, 92 documents marked as secret, and 25 documents marked as top secret," according to information later made public by a court.
The boxes also include documents with classification markings that typically contain national defense information. Several of the documents also contain what appear to be Trump’s handwritten notes.
June 3: Justice Department officials travel to Mar-a-Lago, where they briefly meet with Trump, and retrieve more documents marked classified, according to The New York Times. A Trump lawyer signs a declaration indicating that all the materials marked classified were turned over, the Times and other news outlets reported. Trump’s attorneys later confirmed the news.
At some point after the June 3 visit, investigators learned that there could still be more classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, according to New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporting that cited unnamed sources.
June 22: Trump is served with another subpoena, this time for surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s attorneys later acknowledged receiving the subpoena, writing in a court filing: "At President Trump's direction, service of that subpoena was voluntarily accepted, and responsive video footage was provided to the government."
Pages from a FBI property list of items seized from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate and made public by the Department of Justice, are photographed Sept. 2, 2022. (AP)
Aug. 8: The FBI, with a search warrant in hand, searches Mar-a-Lago, removing another 25 boxes of documents. According to a receipt released by the Justice Department, the documents include "various classified/TS/SCI documents." TS/SCI stands for top-secret/sensitive compartmented information. There are also four sets of documents described as "Miscellaneous Top Secret" and three others listed as "Miscellaneous Secret."
Aug. 11: Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Justice Department had exhausted efforts to retrieve the material in other ways. "The department does not take such a decision lightly," Garland said. "Where possible, it is standard practice to seek less intrusive means as an alternative to a search, and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken."
Aug. 22: Trump’s attorneys ask a court to appoint a special master to review the records the FBI seized. The Justice Department fights this request. This sets off months of legal battling.
Aug. 26: A federal judge releases a heavily redacted affidavit in support of the government’s application for a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago. "The government is conducting a criminal investigation concerning the improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment or removal of government records," the affidavit said. The federal government said it redacted information to protect witnesses, the FBI and details of the Justice Department’s strategy.
Aug. 30: A Justice Department’s motion filed in federal court in response to Trump’s request for a special master said "government records were likely concealed and removed" from a storage room and that "efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation." The motion includes a photo, with redactions, showing that the FBI seized documents that were labeled "top secret," "secret/SCI."
Sept. 2: In response to an order from U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon, the Justice Department releases a detailed list of items seized from Mar-a-Lago.
Sept. 5: Cannon approves Trump’s request for a special master. Both federal prosecutors and Trump’s team are invited to suggest candidates for the special master. Cannon orders the federal government to stop reviewing or using the seized documents until the special master completes work or a subsequent court order is issued.
Sept. 15: Cannon selects Raymond Dearie, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, as the special master.
Sept. 21: A federal appeals court allows the Justice Department to regain access to the seized records. The judges ruled that there was no evidence that Trump declassified the documents, and questioned why he needed the classified documents.
Oct. 4: Trump files an emergency request asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the special master to review the 100 classified documents. An earlier court ruling had removed those documents from the special master’s review.
Oct. 13: The Supreme Court denies Trump’s motion.
Nov. 15: Trump announces he will run for president in 2024.
Nov. 18: Garland appoints Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate the handling of documents found at Mar-a-Lago. Smith is also directed to investigate whether anyone illegally interfered with the transfer of power after the 2020 election.
Dec. 1: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed Cannon’s order allowing a special master. "The law is clear," the judges wrote. "We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant."
The special counsel’s investigations continue.
February: Several news outlets reported in February, based on unnamed sources, about Trump’s legal team handing over additional materials that had been found in December or January at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. ABC News reported Feb. 10 that Trump’s legal team turned over a folder with classification markings to federal agents. One document with classification markings and a laptop belonging to a current Trump aide was also turned over to investigators. CNN reported that the attorneys handed over an empty folder marked "Classified Evening Briefing." CNN also reported that a Trump aide copied some discovered pages onto a thumb drive and the ceded laptop and didn’t realize they were classified. The aide works for Trump’s Save America PAC.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird and Senior Correspondent Jon Greenberg contributed to this article. This article was updated Feb. 13, 2023.
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RELATED: Read the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, what agents took
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Attorney General Merrick Garland, remarks on Aug. 11, 2022
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