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The National Archives first told the Justice Department in early February that records retrieved from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in January contained classified records.
That referral is what launched the criminal investigation into Trump’s handling of the documents, the Justice Department said in an affidavit seeking a search warrant of Trump’s home. The search was carried out Aug. 8.
The Justice Department requested that the White House allow the National Archives to turn over the documents for review, a step required by the Presidential Records Act. The White House granted the request April 11.
The day after FBI agents searched former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, reporters asked the White House whether President Joe Biden had advance information about the search.
"No. The president was not briefed, did not — was not aware of it. No," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded. "No one at the White House was given a heads up. No, that did not happen."
Now, some conservative pundits are suggesting a letter from the National Archives shows Biden not only knew about the raid but his administration was steering the investigation from the beginning.
"BOMBSHELL," read the caption on an Aug. 24 Facebook video posted by Benny Johnson, a conservative commentator and frequent Biden critic. "Documents PROVE White House behind ENTIRE FBI targeting Trump. Biden LIED!?"
Johnson went on in the video to misleadingly claim that the information revealed in the video shows "the White House ordered this raid."
The post, which included a video clip from Fox News, was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
A close look at the document at this claim’s center shows no such thing. There is no evidence the Biden administration initiated the probe nor that Biden "lied" about his foreknowledge of the investigation or the Mar-a-Lago search.
The timeline and legal circumstances leading up to the FBI’s investigation show that although White House attorneys were contacted by the Justice Department in April, as federal law required, the probe into Trump’s handling of documents belonging to the National Archives was underway long before then.
The Presidential Records Act requires that all presidential records be returned to the National Archives upon a president’s departure from office.
Johnson’s video showed conservative journalist John Solomon being interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity on Aug. 22.
Hannity began the segment by saying the Biden administration "lied to the American people about what they knew and when they knew it" about the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential records. Solomon told Hannity that not only did the White House know, but they were "pushing the investigation."
As evidence, Solomon referenced a letter Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall wrote May 10 to Trump representative Evan Corcoran.
Solomon said this letter showed that the FBI launched its criminal investigation into Trump only after the White House gave permission to the National Archives to turn over documents to investigators. That’s inaccurate.
The main purpose of Steidel Wall’s letter to Trump representatives was to reject Trump’s request that the National Archives delay turning over 15 boxes of records to the FBI.
The National Archives had retrieved the records from Mar-a-Lago, which is in Palm Beach, Florida, in mid-January 2022 following discussions with Trump’s representatives throughout 2021. Upon inspection, the National Archives had determined those boxes included over 100 documents with classified markings, comprising 700 pages. It notified the Justice Department about this discovery.
The Justice Department then asked the White House Counsel’s Office to permit the National Archives to turn the documents over to the FBI, according to Wall.
The reason that request had to go through the White House is because of the Presidential Records Act. The law states that any presidential records held by the archivist must "remain in the exclusive legal custody of the president and that any request or order for access to such records must be made to the president, not NARA."
On April 11, the White House Counsel’s office granted that permission, according to Wall’s letter.
It’s clear from public records and statements that the National Archives had referred the case to the Justice Department long before the White House officially approved the department’s request for access to the documents.
On Feb. 18, former archivist David Ferriero said in a letter to Congress that because the boxes of records retrieved in January contained classified documents, it had contacted the Justice Department.
That referral to the Justice Department happened on Feb. 9 and is what started the investigation, according to the redacted search-warrant affidavit released Aug. 26.
The affidavit states that the Justice Department was conducting a criminal investigation into the "improper removal and storage of classified information in unauthorized spaces, as well as the unlawful concealment of government records" as a result of that referral.
The affidavit became public two days after the Facebook post was published.
Biden and Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, have said that neither the president nor the White House were given advance notice of the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. Both have mostly deflected questions about the case since then, citing the ongoing, independent investigation by the Justice Department. Jean-Pierre acknowledged the May letter in an interview on CNN and said that it speaks for itself.
On Aug. 9, the day after the search, Jean-Pierre said the White House learned about the raid from the media.
"The president and the White House learned about this FBI search from public reports," she said. "We learned, just like the American public did yesterday, and we did not have advance notice of this activity."
A reporter asked Biden on Aug. 25 how much advance notice he had of the FBI’s plan to search Mar-a-Lago.
"I didn’t have any advance notice," Biden replied. "None. Zero. Not one single bit."
On Aug. 26, the same day the affidavit requesting the search warrant of Trump’s home was released, Biden was asked if he was concerned that national security could have been compromised at Trump’s home.
"We’ll let the Justice Department determine that," Biden said. "We’ll see what happens."
He spoke a bit more about it that same day with reporters before leaving on Marine One, but said right at the start, "I haven’t seen the report on Mar-a-Lago, so I’m not commenting."
Biden dismissed questions on whether Trump could have declassified all the documents: "I’m not going to comment. I mean, because I don’t know the detail. I don’t even want to know. I’ll let the Justice Department take care of that."
The subject has come up several times in White House briefings by Jean-Pierre, who has mostly steered clear of commenting on the investigation or anything related.
CNN’s Don Lemon brought up the letter in an Aug. 25 interview. Lemon asked Jean-Pierre, "Who in the White House knew about this investigation? Because the president has been adamant that he knew nothing. He got no warning about it."
"The president was not briefed" on the investigation, Jean-Pierre said. "No one at the White House was briefed. We are not briefed on investigation."
She later said, "We do not comment. We do not interfere and we do not get briefed. So, when it comes to the investigation itself, we are just not going to comment."
After the redacted affidavit was released, Jean-Pierre also declined to comment.
A Facebook post claimed that "documents prove White House behind entire FBI targeting of Trump. Biden lied."
The document at the center of this claim does no such thing. It shows that the Justice Department reached out to White House Counsel’s Office to request that the National Archives be granted permission to share documents with the FBI. The Presidential Records Act requires that the request be made to the current president to turn over the National Archives documents to anyone.
The Justice Department was first notified by the National Archives that the documents contained classified materials in February, which is what launched the investigation, according to a search warrant affidavit. The White House Counsel’s Office approved the FBI’s request for access to the documents in April, after the investigation started.
Biden said he had no foreknowledge of the Mar-a-Lago search. This documentation does not dispute that.
We rate this claim False.
Facebook post on Aug. 24, 2022
National Archives, letter from acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall to Evan Corcoran, May 10, 2022
National Archives, letter from archivist David Ferriero to Congress, Feb. 18, 2022
National Archives, "Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978"
United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, "Redacted search warrant affidavit
CNN, transcript of interview between Don Lemon and Karine Jean-Pierre, Aug. 25, 222
White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre," Aug. 29, 2022
White House, "Remarks by President Biden announcing student loan debt relief plan," Aug. 25, 2022
White House, "Remarks by President Biden During Meeting on Reproductive Rights with State and Local Officials," Aug. 26, 2022
White House, "Remarks by President Biden Before Marine One Departure," Aug. 26, 2022
White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre," Aug. 26, 2022
White House, "Press briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre," Aug. 9, 2022
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