How the Trump documents ended up in a bathroom, storage at Mar-a-Lago


Donald Trump is the first former president to face federal charges. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At the front of the White and Gold Ballroom, an opulent, baroque party room inside Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, an elegant stage stands ready for the weddings, fundraisers and dinners that are the bread and butter of the former president’s Palm Beach estate.

But in January 2021, when Trump, the president who refused to admit he would no longer be president, finally faced the reality that the next occupant of the White House was moving in, his staff moved dozens of boxes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW to that ballroom stage at his primary post-presidential residence.

The glamorously incongruous setting proved to be an awkward way station for towers of boxes stuffed with U.S. government documents, some of them containing national security secrets about nuclear weapons and foreign militaries, material that Trump was not allowed to remove from government custody.

Over the ex-president’s first two years out of office, the boxes would be moved all around Mar-a-Lago, stacked high in a storage room, carted to Trump’s private chambers and crammed into a bathroom alongside a shower stall, prosecutors alleged in an indictment filed against Trump on Thursday.

During that time, as archivists, FBI investigators, prosecutors and Trump’s own lawyers tried to figure out exactly what the former president had taken with him, the government now alleges that Trump was showing sensitive documents to people who should not have seen them, and plotting to keep authorities from finding out what he had.

The behavior alleged by federal prosecutors bears striking resemblance to the way the real estate developer-turned-television celebrity-turned-politician has always done business: Throughout his career, Trump presented himself as a brash renegade who could get things done because he boldly did end runs around petty rules and legalistic restrictions.

Trump has always been frank about this, from his infamous statement that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” to his repeated dismissal of reporters who confronted him with allegations about his avoidance of tax payments, his coarse relationships with women or his failure to pay his lawyers or vendors: “Only you people care about that.”

Now, 2 ½ years after Trump’s frenzied departure from the White House, the Justice Department on Friday revealed the first-ever federal indictment of a president of the United States, a 49-page chronicle of allegations that portray the 45th president as the architect of a knowing, underhanded scheme to hide classified documents from the government he had run and to persuade his own attorneys to mislead federal officials.

Even for a self-proclaimed rogue, who rose to the nation’s highest office by boasting that only he, as a rich and powerful man, could break rules and bust norms that he said were holding the country from reaching its full potential, the trouble Trump now faces is virgin terrain: A former president, now his party’s leading candidate to return to the White House, has been indicted by his successor’s Justice Department and faces trial, at risk of a years-long prison sentence, during the heart of his third campaign for the nation’s highest office.

Trump has angrily denied wrongdoing and attacked Jack Smith, the special counsel who led the investigation against him, as a “deranged ‘psycho.’” Through half a century in business, Trump always had an unusual relationship with documents. On one hand, he coveted printed evidence of his fame and fortune, hoarding towering stacks of magazines featuring himself on the cover on a table just down the hall from his Trump Tower office in midtown Manhattan.

On the other, he often hesitated to allow his private actions to be documented in print, directing top aides to make no paper record of certain decisions, three longtime former Trump Organization executives said. For all his years in business and politics, the executives said, Trump maintained a practice of tearing up documents he did not want others to see, ripping them in halves and then in half once more before discarding them in a pail, on the floor or even in the toilet.

“Donald was always fearless,” Barbara Res, an engineer and attorney who was a top executive at the Trump Organization for two decades, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “He absolutely believed he was above the law. He loved cutting corners.”

The road from the last days of the Trump presidency to this first weekend as the nation’s most prominent and powerful criminal defendant began in those chaotic days of the transition between Trump’s frenetic drive to overturn the result of the 2020 election and Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The turnover of the White House to a new occupant, a delicate and complicated ballet in the best of circumstances, now turned into a frantic mess. A week before Biden was to be sworn in as president, even as the House of Representatives was voting to impeach Trump for a second time, a moving van pulled up to the Executive Office Building to unload pallets of flat cardboard boxes.

Trump’s staff stuffed memos, briefing papers, news clippings and all manner of presidential trinkets — paperweights, medallions, a baseball bat — into boxes to be shipped to Mar-a-Lago. All over the building, burn bags, marked with red stripes to indicate that they contained sensitive documents that needed to be incinerated, were being filled, White House staffers told the Post last year.

The usual protocols, set into law in the Presidential Records Act after Watergate and honed through the decades by the National Archives and presidential aides, were largely ignored, staffers said later. Some documents the White House counsel had determined needed to go to the National Archives were instead directed to Mar-a-Lago.

Photos taken at the time showed workers carrying white boxes and brown boxes and clear plastic bins out into waiting trucks. “Presidential Library Gifts,” said the label taped to some boxes. Others were marked only with the presidential seal or a single word: “STORAGE.” Some bins contained piles of clothing, some with their labels still affixed.

The parade of boxes emerging from the White House continued right up to Inauguration Day, when the departing president smashed tradition and slipped out of town without attending his successor’s swearing-in, without so much as a greeting to the new guy.

As the new administration settled in, officials at the National Archives began to realize that although many Trump-era documents had been delivered to them, quite a few were missing, including records of prominent points of the norm-busting presidency: the correspondence between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (which Trump had characterized as “love letters”), the note that President Barack Obama had left for Trump as part of the 2017 transition, the National Weather Service map of Hurricane Dorian that Trump had altered with a black Sharpie in an awkward attempt to prove that he had not been wrong about its path.

Trump took the Kim letters because he loved showing them off to visitors, according to Stephanie Grisham, the former Trump White House press secretary who became an outspoken Trump critic after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “He was beyond proud of those Kim Jong Un letters,” she told The Post last year. “He talked about them all the time, showed them to people all the time. He took those letters because he wanted them.”

Although they were supposed to be handed over to the National Archives, Trump took, and prominently displayed at Mar-a-Lago, artwork, a mock-up of a possible redesign of Air Force One, and a miniature model of a slat from the black border wall he had promised to build along the nation’s border with Mexico.

But mostly, he brought with him papers, in dozens of boxes, many containing documents that prosecutors allege were marked classified, even “top secret.” Those documents, according to the indictment, included hundreds of pages that detailed the country’s defense and weapons capabilities, nuclear programs, “potential vulnerabilities” to military attack and “plans for possible retaliation” against such an attack. Exposure of the documents to unauthorized people, the Justice Department says, could risk America’s security, foreign relations and intelligence collection.

Throughout his presidency, just as during his careers as real estate developer, casino magnate, hotelier and reality television star, Trump was a resolutely analog executive. He did not use email, nor work on a computer. He liked to look over documents, then rip them up and dump them in the trash, on the floor, in the toilet. Some, he liked to save, sometimes stuffing them into his suit jacket pocket, to show to people later on, or just to have around. “Can I keep this?” Trump would sometimes ask intelligence officials at the end of a meeting.

“People were nervous enough about his lack of concern for classification matters that the briefers typically said, ‘Well, we need to take it back,’” Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told The Post last year. “He’d usually give it back, but sometimes he wouldn’t.”

Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen recalled, “I have seen Trump tear up papers, not into small, small pieces, but usually twice, so take a piece of paper, rip it once, and then rip it again and then throw it into the garbage pail.”

While Trump was still in office, some aides from the White House Office of Records Management were tasked with collecting bits of paper that the president had torn up and taping them back together so they could be preserved, as required by federal law.

“He would roll his eyes at the rules, so we did, too,” Grisham said. “We weren’t going to get in trouble because he’s the president of the United States.”

But as Trump settled into post-presidential life, the chief lawyer for the National Archives and Records Administration, Gary Stern, implored Trump’s attorneys to help retrieve missing documents. “We know things are very chaotic, as they always are in the course of a one-term transition,” Stern wrote. “But it is absolutely necessary that we obtain and account for all presidential records.”

Even as archivists were trying to determine what needed to be returned from Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s personal aide, Walt Nauta, and others among the 150-person staff at the club moved some boxes of documents to various locations around the estate: In March 2021, to the club’s business center. The next month, to the Lake Room.

And then in May that year to a storage room that the indictment points out was reachable “from multiple outside entrances,” including a door often open to the club’s pool patio, where many members and guests often gathered. At one point last June, more than 80 boxes were stacked in the storage room.

Trump was directing the movement of the boxes, the government alleges. “POTUS specifically asked Walt for those boxes to be in the business center because they are his ‘papers,’” the indictment quotes an unnamed club employee as texting another worker.

The contents of the boxes became apparent when, for example, Nauta found that some boxes had toppled over and spilled out their contents, including a document marked “SECRET/REL TO USA, FVEY,” meaning that the papers were only to be viewed by properly-cleared intelligence officials of the United States and the other members of the Five Eyes alliance: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Nauta took photos of the spilled papers and sent them to another Trump employee, the indictment says. “Oh no oh no,” the employee responded, adding, “I’m sorry potus had my phone,” suggesting Trump may have also seen the images.

Where Trump went, some secret documents often followed, the government alleges. When Trump spent time at his New Jersey golf facility, the Bedminster Club, as he often does during warmer months, he had some of his boxes sent along with him.

There, the indictment alleges, he gave an interview in July 2021 to a ghostwriter and publisher of a forthcoming book by Trump’s last chief of staff, former congressman Mark Meadows. Trump, accompanied by two staffers, showed his guests a document that he said was a plan of attack on Iran, Trump said, by Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Milley had been reported to have told the other chiefs of the military services that he feared Trump might order an ill-advised attack on Iran. Now, Trump wanted his guests to believe that it was Milley himself, not the former president, who had been eager to launch an assault.

“He said that I wanted to attack,” Trump said, according to a transcript of a recording of the meeting, which is included in the indictment. “I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up. Look. This was him … this wasn’t done by me, this was him.”

A moment later, Trump told his interviewers that the material he is showing them “is, like, highly confidential. Secret. This is secret information. Look, look at this.” Trump told his guests that “as president, I could have declassified” the document. “Now I can’t, you know, but this is still a secret.”

“Yeah,” replied a Trump staffer. “Now we have a problem.”

“Isn’t that interesting?” the former president replied.

The indictment notes that neither of the Trump staffers, nor the author or the publisher, had security clearances required to view the documents or learn of their contents. A few weeks later, the government alleges, Trump showed a classified map of an unnamed country to someone from his political action committee, warning him not to come too close to the map because it was secret.

‘Did you find anything?’

For more than six months starting in spring 2021, the National Archives repeatedly demanded that Trump return presidential records he had taken from Washington. Starting in November of that year, according to the indictment, Trump began reviewing the contents of some of his boxes, which Nauta had brought from the Mar-a-Lago storage room to Pine Hall, an entry room at the front of Trump’s apartment at the club.

On Dec. 29, 2021, after National Archives officials had apparently demanded to know how many boxes of material Trump would be returning, a Trump staffer texted the Trump employee who was in touch with the National Archives: “12 is his number.” On Jan. 17, 2022, Nauta and another Trump aide collected 15 boxes from Trump’s residence and had them delivered to the National Archives.

But the indictment alleges that when FBI agents interviewed Nauta four months later, he lied to them, saying in a recorded interview that he had not known about Trump asking to review any boxes and did not know where the boxes had been stored before they ended up in Trump’s apartment. “Are you aware of any boxes being brought to his home, his suite?” an FBI agent asked Nauta. “No,” the aide replied.

Federal archivists found 197 classified documents in those 15 boxes and quickly consulted with the Justice Department. A few weeks later, the FBI launched the investigation that led to Trump’s indictment. What the agents uncovered was, the indictment says, a concerted effort to hide the extent of Trump’s stash from the White House.

On May 11, 2022, a federal grand jury subpoenaed Trump to produce all classified material in his possession. Eleven days later, Nauta entered the Mar-a-Lago storage room and emerged 34 minutes later with one of the boxes of White House material, the indictment says. The next day, May 23, two of Trump’s lawyers met with the former president at the club. The attorneys told Trump they needed to search through his boxes to identify any classified material, which had to be handed over to the feds.

The indictment says that one of the lawyers, identified by people with knowledge of the investigation as Evan Corcoran, “memorialized” the session. Corcoran quoted Trump telling his attorneys, “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t … What happens if we just don’t respond at all or don’t play ball with them?”

Trump went on: “Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here? … Look, isn’t it better if there are no documents?”

At the same meeting, Corcoran’s notes show that Trump claimed one of Hillary Clinton’s lawyers stepped up to take the blame for the disappearance of thousands of her emails, an issue that Trump had turned into a major plank of his rhetoric against Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“He was great,” Trump allegedly said of the Clinton attorney. “He said … that it was him. That he was the one who deleted all of her emails, the 30,000 emails … so she didn’t get in any trouble because he said that he was the one who deleted them.”

Trump repeated that story at least once that day, the indictment says. Trump’s lawyers arranged that day to return to Mar-a-Lago on June 2 to review the remaining boxes. Trump said he wanted to be there that day and would delay his trip north for the summer to be on hand for the inspection.

In the days between those two visits by the lawyers, Nauta removed 64 boxes of documents from the storage room and delivered them to Trump’s residence, at Trump’s command, the indictment says. On Memorial Day, the indictment says, an unnamed Trump family member texted Nauta: “Good afternoon Walt … I saw you put boxes to Potus room.”

Trump and his wife Melania were planning to fly from Florida to New Jersey that week and the family member told Nauta: “We will NOT have a room for them. Plane will be full with luggage.” Nauta replied: “Good afternoon Ma’am,” followed by a smiley face emoji. “I think he wanted to pick from them. I don’t imagine him wanting to take the boxes.”

On June 2, the day Corcoran was to arrive to review the documents, Trump and Nauta spoke by phone for 24 seconds at 9:29 a.m., the indictment says. About three hours later, Nauta and a club employee moved about 30 boxes from Trump’s apartment to the storage room.

That meant that 64 boxes had been moved from storage to Trump’s residence in the days between Corcoran’s two visits but only about 30 boxes made the return trip. “Neither Nauta nor Trump informed Trump Attorney 1 of this information,” the indictment says.

On the afternoon of June 2, Corcoran arrived at the club, met with Trump and was escorted to the storage room by Nauta. In 2 1/2 hours of looking through boxes, the lawyer found another 38 classified documents, which he sealed in a folder. Then he met Trump once more.

“Did you find anything?” Trump allegedly asked. “Is it bad? Good?”

As the ex-president and his lawyer discussed what to do with the newly found classified documents, Trump “made a funny motion, as though — well, okay, why don’t you take them with you to your hotel room and if there’s anything really bad in there, like, you know, pluck it out,” Corcoran’s notes indicate, according to the indictment. “And that was the motion that he made. He didn’t say that.”

That evening, Corcoran contacted the Justice Department and asked to meet with federal officials the next day so he could turn over the classified records. The next day, June 3, another Trump lawyer signed a statement saying that Trump’s staff had conducted “a diligent search” of the boxes that had been taken from the White House and that “any and all” documents demanded by the grand jury subpoena were now being handed over.

But prosecutors say that statement was false, that many of Trump’s boxes had never come back to the storage room, that they were therefore never searched by Corcoran and that many classified documents still had not been returned. That same morning, Nauta and others at the club had loaded several of Trump’s boxes onto the plane that flew the former president and his family north for the summer, the indictment says.

‘Crossing the Rubicon’

Two months later, on Aug. 8, FBI agents raided Mar-a-Lago, armed with a search warrant allowing them to comb the club for classified material. They seized 102 such documents, finding them in the storage room and in Trump’s office at the club.

The documents, described in broad scope by prosecutors, were primarily intelligence papers, reports detailing U.S. and foreign military capabilities, details of a foreign country’s support of terrorist acts against American interests, and descriptions of military actions by other countries.

On Friday afternoon, Smith, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland less than seven months ago to investigate Trump’s retention of classified documents, made a brief, nationally televised statement: “We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”

When Trump’s lawyer James Trusty informed him on Thursday evening that he was being charged with serious crimes, the former president seemed to soak in the news. “He said, ‘This is just a sad day. I can’t believe I have been indicted,’” Trusty told CNN, one day before announcing he had resigned from Trump’s legal team. “He immediately recognizes the historic nature of this. This is crossing the Rubicon,” Trusty said.

Within minutes after Trump announced his own indictment on his social media service, Truth Social — “I’ve done NOTHING wrong, but I have assumed for years that I am a Target of the WEAPONIZED DOJ & FBI” — he posted a video in which he declared himself “an innocent man, an innocent person” and pronounced the charges against him to be evidence of “a nation in decline.”

“They come after me because now we’re leading in the polls by a lot,” Trump said. “Our country is going to hell and they come after Donald Trump.” Trump, already facing state charges in New York on charges of falsifying business records when he paid hush money to a professional stripper who alleged they had a sexual encounter, is to appear in federal court in south Florida on Tuesday.

He faces 37 felony counts of willful retention of national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, withholding a record, corruptly concealing a document, concealing a document in a federal investigation, scheming to conceal and making false statements. Nauta faces six counts of conspiracy and concealing documents. His attorney declined to comment.

The charges against the former president carry maximum penalties ranging from five years to 20 years in prison for each crime.



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